ECW welcomes guest author Stuart W. Sanders
When the Battle of Mill Springs was fought near Somerset, Kentucky, on January 19, 1862, the Union troops routed the attacking Confederate army. Although the rebels outnumbered the federals, the southern assault was stifled by their use of flintlock muskets that failed to fire during a steady rain.
In late 1861, the Confederates established a camp on the northern side of the Cumberland River at Beech Grove, Kentucky. Brigadier General George Crittenden arrived to take command and was astounded that the soldiers’ backs had been placed against the river. Therefore, when Union troops led by Brigadier General George H. Thomas approached, Crittenden left his earthworks to strike Thomas’s army.
After marching northward for ten miles, the rebels encountered pickets from the 1st Kentucky Union Cavalry. As musketry sputtered in the rain and fog, the cavalrymen fell back to the 10th Indiana Infantry. The 19th Tennessee and 15th Mississippi infantry regiments struck the Hoosiers and Kentuckians near a fence line. After nearly an hour, the 4th Kentucky Union Infantry reinforced the federal left along the fence and fought the Mississippians and the 20th Tennessee. Later, more Confederate regiments entered the fight, but the federal line held firm.
While the Mississippians were armed with rifled muskets, most of the rebel regiments used outdated weaponry. One Union soldier said that the Confederates were equipped with “squirrel rifles, shot guns, smooth bore flint lock muskets, Mississippi rifles, and old flint lock horse pistols.” These arms impeded the Confederate attack because many of the flintlocks failed to fire in the rain.
Crittenden recognized this deficiency. “A heavy rain occurred during the progress of the engagement,” he wrote, “and in consequence a great many of the flint-lock muskets in the hands of my men became almost unserviceable.” Despite the guns’ ineffectiveness, the rebels’ smoothbore muskets—which fired buck and ball rounds consisting of a round musket ball and several smaller pieces of buckshot—could be dangerous. One Union soldier remarked that “I do not see How any of us Escaped their Bullets For they Fell like Hail around us.”
The rain, however, took its toll. Some southern soldiers estimated that not one in three flintlocks fired, while others contended that one-tenth were useless. “Mine went off once in the action,” James Cooper of the 20th Tennessee Infantry complained, “and although I wiped the ‘pan’ and primed a dozen times it would do so no more.”
Frustration about the weapons’ ineffectiveness was evident. A member of the 19th Tennessee “saw two or three of the boys break their guns over the fence, after several attempts to fire them.” In the 20th Tennessee, some of the troops smashed their worthless muskets on trees. Confederate Brigadier General William Carroll reported that “During the engagement I saw numbers of the men walking deliberately away from the field of action for no other reason than their guns were wholly useless.” Therefore, the faulty weapons negated a portion of the Confederates’ effective fighting force.
Instead of giving in to frustration, some soldiers employed aggressive tactics. Bailie Peyton, a young officer in the 20th Tennessee, reputedly told his colonel that “we can not use our flint-locks but can use our bayonets—if you order a charge.” The colonel ordered the attack, which killed several members of the regiment, including Bailie Peyton.
The federal troops, who were mostly armed with Enfield rifles, mounted a stubborn defense. When Thomas arrived on the field with reinforcements, the Union commander ordered multiple regiments to charge the Confederate line. The rebels broke and retreated to their camp, scattering discarded weapons along the route. One correspondent wrote that the Confederates “strewed the ground” with equipment, which included “mostly flint-locks.”
A southern surgeon admitted that the rebels had been whipped. “He ascribes the defeat to the badness of their arms compared with ours,” a Unionist correspondent wrote. “They had mostly flint-lock muskets that would not go off half the time, the day being rainy.” Although many of the weapons did not fire, the Confederates had made a dogged attack. A federal soldier wrote that the “trees were flecked with bullets, underbrush cut away as with a scythe. Dead and wounded lay along the fence, on the one side the Blue on the other the Gray; enemy dead were everywhere scattered across the open field.”
The discrepancy in casualties illustrates the differences in weaponry and the advantages of the federals’ defensive position. At Mill Springs, nearly 5,500 Confederates attacked 4,000 Union soldiers. It was reported that the Union army lost 39 killed and 207 wounded. The southerners suffered 125 killed, 308 wounded, and 95 missing.
When Crittenden’s army reached their camp, the Confederate commander ordered his men to escape across the Cumberland River. Most of the rebel troops rode across on the steamboat Noble Ellis, which towed two smaller barges. Others tried to swim the swollen river and drowned in the attempt. The next morning, Union troops reached the empty earthworks and were shocked to discover abandoned cannons, horses, tents, blankets, cots, food, and other supplies. This included hundreds of small arms. Thomas reported that he captured “from 500 to 1,000 muskets, mostly flint-locks, but in good order.”
Union troops sent many of those flintlocks home as souvenirs. A member of the 2nd Minnesota Infantry, for example, took “an old-fashioned flint-lock carbine” from the field. Several weeks after the battle, the Cincinnati Daily Press reported that “A number of muskets captured at [Mill Springs] from the rebel troops . . . were brought to this city this morning . . . They are old flint-lock arrangements, and look as though they would do more damage to the party shooting than the party shot at.”
Although the federals’ Enfield rifles outmatched the Confederate weaponry at Mill Springs, it was the rain that ultimately doomed the rebel attack. Had the weather been clear, the Union army would have sustained greater casualties. According to the regimental historian of the 20th Tennessee, if the weather had “been fair, or had we been armed with percussion [cap] guns, the result of that battle would have been far different. It rained nearly all the time and our ‘Flint Locks’ would not fire. Our men lost much time in drawing loads from their guns, the powder having gotten wet in the rain. Many of them never fired a dozen shots.”
Thanks to the rebels’ antiquated arms, the federal victory at Mill Springs was, according to one Union soldier, “the first blow which breaks the back of this rebellion.”
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including “The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.” His latest book, “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” examines interpersonal violence, southern honor culture, and vigilantism through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat. Find him on Twitter @StuartWSanders.
Benson Bobrick, Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009 (“trees flecked with bullets” quoted).
James L. Cooper, “Service With the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment,” Confederate Veteran Magazine 33 (January 1925): 15.
“Covington News,” Cincinnati Daily Press (February 4, 1862).
“Major Henry G. Davidson,” American Phrenological Journal (March 1865): 92.
Wesley Elmore letter, December 4, 1861, Wesley Elmore Letters, SC1801, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.
“From Kentucky,” Detroit Free Press (February 2, 1862).
“From Kentucky,” Detroit Free Press (February 11, 1862).
W. J. McMurray, History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment Volunteer infantry, CSA. Nashville: 1904.
Stuart W. Sanders, The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. Charleston: The History Press, 2013.
“The Late Battle in Kentucky,” Philadelphia Inquirer (January 30, 1862).
U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901 (Mill Springs reports from volume 7).
W. J. Worsham, The Old Nineteenth Tennessee Regiment, CSA. Knoxville: Paragon Printing Co., 1902.