A Tale of Two Colonels: A Blue & Gray View of Mill Springs

In the aftermath of the Battle of Mill Springs Kentucky in January 1862, two colonels, one from Alabama and one from Minnesota, sat down to write their wives back home to assure them of their safety and to recount what they had just witnessed. For both men, Mill Springs marked the first time that either of them had led men into battle.

Colonel William B. Wood of the 16th Alabama Infantry, a noted attorney from Florence, remarked to his wife Sarah that the “protecting providence of God sheltered me from harm and I came off the field without a scratch.” To Colonel Wood, Mill Springs  was “a most terrific and fierce battle of over three hours which resulted in the defeat and terrible slaughter of our troops.”

His Federal opponent, Colonel Horatio Phillips Van Cleve of the 2nd Minnesota Infantry, a West Point graduate turned civilian engineer from Minneapolis, commented to his wife Charlotte that “the battle of the 19th is a constant theme of conversation with the officers and men of all the regiments that were engaged in it. The rout of the Rebels was complete; they passed through their own entrenchments and spent the night in crossing the Cumberland River, while we lay upon our arms and slept.”

One of those two letters made it home; the other was captured in an unfinished state in the ruins of General Zollicoffer’s camp by men of the 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry the morning after it was written. Both letters are presented here to give a blue and gray view to one of the first significant battles of the Western Theater, the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.

The hand-to-hand nature of the Battle of Mill Springs is evident here as an enraged Federal soldier clubs his musket while a fallen Confederate officer slashes at him with his sword. The foggy battlefield combined with the relative inexperience of the men (and officers) brought the men into closer quarters than was typical of combat later in the war. 

“Among the spoils of Zollicoffer’s camp was the following unfinished letter from Colonel Wood, late commandant at Knoxville. He led his regiment, the 16th Alabama, into battle at Logan’s Crossroads and commenced to write an account of it to his wife. The man who can write such a letter as this under such circumstances must be cool and brave. We are only sorry that he was compelled to bite off the thread of his discourse so suddenly…” Weekly Pioneer & Democrat, St. Paul, Minnesota, February 14, 1862

Colonel William Basil Wood, 16th Alabama

Buck Grove, Kentucky

January 19, 1862

          I wrote to you last night and dated my letter “the night before the battle,” and now after the battle, a most terrific and fierce battle of over three hours, which resulted in the defeat and terrible slaughter of our troops. For two hours the bullets fell all around me and sometimes passed within a few inches of my head, if I may judge from the whistling noise they made; but the protecting providence of God sheltered me from harm and I came off the field without a scratch. Our regiment lost ten or fifteen men and there are others missing who may be yet wandering in the woods, seeking an opportunity to get in.

          The cause of our defeat is not definitely ascertained. Some attribute it to overwhelming numbers, they being two to our one. Others to the fall of General Zollicoffer who was killed early in the action. Both probably were the combined causes. At first, and for nearly two hours, the tide of battle was in our favor; but at this time, no one seemed to have command, and the three regiments (Murray’s Powell’s and mine), all of which had been ordered up to the place where the battle was raging, remained in position ready to enter the woods where the enemy was under cover firing upon us. But no order came, at least to me, and I presume none to the other Colonels as both of them being in advance of us remained in their position for nearly one and a half hours without advancing. We were in an open space with nothing to shelter us except an occasional stump or fallen tree.

Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hudson Russell, Co. H, 16th Alabama
Killed in action December 31, 1862 at the Battle of Stones River

          The General’s aide passed us shortly after we arrived at our position and told me that a charge had been ordered, that the Mississippi regiment would charge the right wing and the Tennesseans the left while at the same time Cummings or Battles would attack the center. The charge was made and for half an hour the conflict was terrific. I then saw the troops come out of the wood in disorder and at a run. Colonel Powell moved his regiment off to my right and rear. My men were about to follow when I ordered them to stand their position and meet the enemy, drive him back, or die in their tracks. At this time, a fire was opened on my left flank and my men returned it.

Captain James Washington Clark Smith, Co. H, 16th Alabama
Badly injured in railroad wreck November 4, 1862 at Cleveland, Tennessee

          The fight was becoming general when someone told me we were firing on our own regiments. I ordered my men to cease firing and ran down to where the enemy opened on us. Finding we were flanked and the enemy within about 60 yards, I ordered our men to deploy and take cover behind a fence 30 yards to our right, which they did in good order, and the fight continued fiercely for 15 or 20 minutes. I then discovered that all the other regiments had left the field but mine. I had only 250 men and we were being pressed in front and on the left flank by thousands. I then ordered the men to take cover behind the point of the hill, which we did, but finding the other troops retreating, my men started to follow. I rallied about half of them and turned the point of the hill, passing through a field, and was marching up on the battle ground when the fight…

A late war flag carried by the 16th Alabama and captured by a private in the 104th Ohio during the vicious fighting at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864. 


Battle of Mill Springs map; the battle assumed several names including the Battle of Somerset, the Battle of Logan's Crossroads, the Battle of Fishing Creek, and Mill Springs. 

“Mrs. Van Cleve has permitted the press, in view of the public interest, to publish the following extracts from a private letter received from Col. Van Cleve.” ~ Weekly Pioneer & Democrat, St. Paul, Minnesota, February 7, 1862


Colonel Horatio Phillips Van Cleve, 2nd Minnesota

Camp Hamilton, Kentucky

January 22, 1862

          Of course, the battle of the 19th is a constant theme of conversation with the officers and men of all the regiments that were engaged in it. You will see much said in the papers by extracts from the letters of soldiers, each giving his version of the affair. All agree in one thing, and that is that the 2nd Minnesota and 9th Ohio, the two regiments of Colonel Robert McCook’s brigade that have been together since we left Lebanon and that were side by side on the field, did their duty on that day.

Colonel Horatio P. Van Cleve
2nd Minnesota

          On the morning that we marched out, we formed a line of battle about a half mile from the spot where the 10th Indiana and 4th Kentucky were engaged with the Rebels. The 9th Ohio was on the right somewhat in the timber while the 2nd Minnesota was in an open field. While waiting for orders to move forward, two balls from the enemy’s artillery came whistling over us. One of our batteries in front of our regiment answered by throwing a few shots, as I thought, at some risk of hurting our friends.

          When the order was given, we moved forward steadily and confidently. We soon entered the timber where for a long time we had heard the incessant rattle of musketry. As we came into the road, we met some of our friends leisurely and slowly retreating, and some cavalry that had dismounted and were standing in a hollow, holding their horses. We were within a few rods of the enemy and the horsemen advised me to dismount, but I declined, however, and rode one. In a few moments, the right wing of our regiment closed with the enemy and opened upon them. Owing to the manner in which we approached them, the left wing had to wing around, that is, to wheel somewhat to the right before they could get into action. The battle was now between the 2nd Minnesota and the Rebels who certainly fought nobly, for they stood a most terrific fire from our regiment for a full 20 minutes.

          In a former letter I told you that a fence separated us from the enemy for a time. We were so close on them that one of the men had his beard and whiskers singed by the fire of one of their muskets; another was wounded in the hand by one of their bayonets while loading his gun. Another had to push one of their muskets aside while aiming through the fence, while another caught hold of one of their muskets and jerked it through the fence. Two men stood and fired at each other with their muskets crossing, and both fell dead. It is wonderful that with so many balls flying that so few of us were hurt.

Private Curtis L. Cutting, Co. B, 2nd Minnesota
Killed in action September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga

          In the meantime, they bore off towards our right with the intention to flank us, and here they were unexpectedly met by the 9th Ohio who, taking them by the flank, soon put them to flight. From this time, the Rebels made no decided stand. Their rout was complete. Our brigade moved forward and other regiments soon came to our support. General George H. Thomas having given us, the 2nd Minnesota and 9th Ohio, the advance, we all marched in line of battle through the thicket and the timber and over the open fields. We were compelled to halt frequently to reconnoiter, and also to rest the men who sometimes became faint and exhausted, for the traveling was hard and they had not eaten anything during the day. In the course of our march, our regiment got to the right of the 9th Ohio and kept it until we entered the enemy’s entrenchments the next day.

          About 4 p.m., we came upon fields and about a quarter of a mile before us was the hill that commanded the enemy’s entrenchments. On it, men and horsemen were seen; a regiment or two was posted there [including the Colonel Wood’s 16th Alabama] as we supposed to contest our further advance. Our brigade was now halted and formed in a perfect line. Soon the order to advance was given and those who saw it say it was a magnificent sight. When we reached the summit of the hill, the enemy had fled. A battery was now brought up that threw shot and shell into the entrenchments until dark. The rout of the Rebels was complete; they passed through their own entrenchments and spent the night in crossing the Cumberland while we lay upon our arms and slept.

Captain William Markham
Co. B, 2nd Minnesota

          General Zollicoffer was killed in the early morning and his army totally disbanded. I call it Zollicoffer’s army for it had been long known as his, but for a short time Crittenden had assumed command. Four of our regiments shared in the battle but by night, seven were on the field along with three batteries of artillery. The number killed and wounded in variously estimated; the number of prisoners is not known. Their army was completely routed and we did not care about taking prisoners; better let them go home and tell their neighbors how we fight.

          General Thomas was directly in the rear of our regiment during the battle and watched every movement; we gave him a good opinion of Minnesota. We had 12 killed and 33 wounded; our officers and men behaved nobly and our regiment has earned a name of which Minnesota may feel proud. Not an officer was injured excepting Captain William Markham who was hit by a buckshot on the side of his knee that may lame him as it could not be extracted. Sergeant Stout, who had been recommended for second lieutenant, was badly wounded. Colonel McCook was wounded in the leg and was on it so much afterwards that it may cripple him for some time. His horse was killed under him; he is a brave soldier. General Thomas has earned a good name.


A special set of national colors was presented to the 2nd Minnesota by the "loyal ladies of Louisville" in the aftermath of Mill Springs, with the battle honor prominently displayed. 


Letter from Colonel William B. Wood, 16th Alabama, “A Leaf from Zollicoffer’s Camp,” Weekly Pioneer and Democrat (Minnesota), February 14, 1862, pg. 8

Letter from Colonel Horatio P. Van Cleve, 2nd Minnesota, Weekly Pioneer and Democrat (Minnesota), February 7, 1862, pg. 1


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