Compiled by Geoffrey R. Walden
"An awful lot of lies circulate nowadays about the Civil War, and it is so long ago there is hardly anybody to contradict them." (Col. G. Moxley Sorrell, C.S.A., in B. I. Wiley, ed., "Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer," Jackson, TN, 1958, p. 106)
Few aspects of the battle of Mill Springs are as surrounded by controversy as the death of Gen. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer, CSA. Ignoring the embellishments and the whys-and-wherefores, what seems clear is that Zollicoffer mistook Union troops for his own units (quite understandable in the confusion of that dark misty morning), and he approached the Union lines by mistake. He wished to order them to cease firing on their own men, since he thought they were all Confederates. Whatever the cause, it is evident that Zollicoffer did not recognize the Union officer to whom he spoke as an enemy; neither did this officer recognize Zollicoffer as a Confederate. Or possibly, Zollicoffer did recognize the enemy and realized his mistake, and attempted to bluff his way out. Only as they parted, and one of Zollicoffer’s staff rode out of the woods to warn his commander (meanwhile firing at the Federals), did both parties realize the truth. In the ensuing exchange of fire, Zollicoffer was shot dead from his horse.
The death of Gen. Zollicoffer was a favorite subject for artists, but most renditions were somewhat fanciful. Probably the most accurate was this engraving by Walton Taber, based on a sketch by A. E. Mathews, 31st Ohio Infantry. Taber's version fits the details in most of the eyewitness accounts. (Shown at top of page.)
There the controversy begins … Who, exactly, killed Zollicoffer? He was one of the first Confederate generals to fall in battle (even today you can read sources that say he was the first, but this is not true), and there was some posturing by several different sources to claim "credit" for his death. It is clear that the Union officer to whom he spoke, Col. Speed S. Fry of the 4th Kentucky Infantry, fired at Zollicoffer after his aide opened fire, but it is also clear that several Union soldiers who were nearby also fired at Zollicoffer and his aide. In their hasty movement to the battle area there had been some mixing of the Federal units, and men from Fry’s own 4th Kentucky Infantry, as well as the 1st Kentucky Cavalry and 10th Indiana Infantry were all at the scene. Fry himself made no special claim that his shot killed Zollicoffer, but he was given "credit" by most period accounts.
Controversy also surrounds the treatment of Zollicoffer’s body after his death. He fell in or near the Mill Springs Road, between the lines (but closer to the Federals). At some point his body was moved out of the road, to the vicinity of an oak tree nearby. After the Confederate retreat the body was recognized by Federal soldiers, and numerous period accounts attest that they immediately took souvenirs from the body: pieces of clothing, buttons, even locks of hair. This treatment was vehemently denied by some Northern newspaper accounts, but there can be no doubt that it happened. However, as soon as Federal officers arrived on the scene, the body was protected, and was later cleaned, embalmed, and treated with honor. Zollicoffer’s corpse was eventually allowed to pass through the lines for burial in Nashville.
The following accounts are given here to present the best and most varied period views. One must exercise caution in reading these; always bear in mind the biases of the writers, and consider their purpose for writing. The period newspaper accounts must receive special scrutiny, as these often contained absolutely outlandish details, even to the point of claiming that Zollicoffer "cut the head of the Lincoln Colonel from his shoulders" (Bowling Green Courier, quoted in the Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 11 February 1862), or that Fry and Zollicoffer were personal friends, and even purporting to report Zollicoffer’s last words (ibid., 27 January 1862). Very little in these reports can be taken as fact without ample corroborating evidence.
There is even an obscure and difficult source claiming that a local civilian killed Zollicoffer with his squirrel rifle, after he had accidentally wandered into the midst of the battle! Such claims as these stray very far indeed from the path laid out by the eyewitnesses themselves, and provide ample proof of a favorite post-war saying of Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, CSA: "An awful lot of lies circulate nowadays about the Civil War, and it is so long ago there is hardly anybody to contradict them."
The dearth of actual Confederate first-hand accounts is interesting (in contrast to the many such Federal accounts), but can be explained by the terrain and vegetation. Except where cleared for fields, the battle area was heavily wooded. Even in the winter, these woods can mask vision beyond a few yards. Also, Zollicoffer and his staff rode up out of low ground, through such woods, toward higher ground. It is likely that few Confederates other than the staff officers actually witnessed Zollicoffer's death or body, and two of the staff witnesses were reportedly killed during the exchange of fire. News of the general's death can only have reached the main Confederate lines as a vague but terribly true rumor. Later published Southern versions of the event were likely pieced together from several sources. Thus, some Southern writings hold that Zollicoffer never realized Fry and the Federals around him were enemies, while others maintain that he knew his mistake, and was trying to brazen his way to escape.
These accounts are arranged in four general sections: period accounts written shortly after the battle; other accounts by participants in the battle, but written later ; Col. Speed S. Fry's own accounts (an important section); and other accounts, not necessarily by battle participants, but considered worthy of inclusion by containing details not found elsewhere. There is admittedly a great deal of information presented here. For those not wishing to peruse this entire compilation, the following accounts are probably the most important and/or enlightening:
- Letter from Chaplain Lemuel Drake, 31st Ohio Infantry, January 21, 1862
- Letter from the 10th Indiana Infantry, February 7, 1862
- Narrative of Humphrey Hyde, 1st Kentucky Cavalry
- Narrative of Chaplain William Honnell, 1st Kentucky Cavalry
- Col. Fry's own accounts
- Narrative by William Preston Johnston (claims Zollicoffer was near-sighted, and thus did not recognize Fry)
Account of Chap. Lemuel Drake, 31st Ohio Infantry, in a letter dated "Camp near Somerset, Jan. 21st 1862" This is an important early letter, written just two days after the battle. This letter is perhaps the earliest instance of the detailed story of Zollicoffer's death … his chance meeting with Fry … neither recognizing the other as the enemy … their ensuing conversation … the shot from the Confederates that wounded Fry's horse, and his subsequent firing on Zollicoffer, supported by his men. All of these details have become a part of the history of the battle, perhaps stated here, in this letter, for the very first time. Drake was emphatic that Fry's shot mortally wounded Zollicoffer, showing that the credit for killing Zollicoffer was given to Fry from the beginning. (courtesy Jo An Sheely)Gen. Zollicoffer was killed in the early part of the battle by Col. Fry in the following manner: The morning was wet & a little foggy and it so happened that Gen. Zollicoffer and Col. Fry got close together. In fact, their horses were so near to each other that the riders could have shaken hands, if they had been so disposed. Neither of them was acquainted with or knew the other. Zollicoffer said to Col. Fry, "We must try and not let our men be cut up more than can possibly be helped." Col. Fry, supposing that Zollicoffer was one of our own men, remarked, "certainly, we must prevent it as much as possible." They then separated, and when Zollicoffer had got some distance from Fry, some one from the enemy's ranks fired at Fry and shot his horse. Fry then saw that Zollicoffer was a Rebel, and fired at him with his pistol, shooting him through the heart. Zollicoffer dropped the reins of his bridle, threw up both hands, clasped his breast, looked around, and at that instant a private soldier shot him in the side, and he immediately fell dead from his horse ...
Lt. Col. Moscow Carter, 20th Tennessee Infantry, diary entry dated January 19, 1862. Lt. Col. Carter had been captured during the battle, and was a prisoner when this diary entry was made.Gen Zollicoffer was killed, said to be by Col. Fry.
Lt. Oliver Eckels, Co. D, 31st Ohio Infantry, in a letter dated January 19, 1862; Perry County Weekly, New Lexington, Ohio, January 29, 1862. (transcribed by Jo An Sheely; used with permission)
Gen. Zollicoffer was certainly killed in the action. he fell pierced with a ball through his left brest. They got his sword and watch & many other articles.
Letter from a soldier of the 10th Indiana Infantry, January 21, 1862, in the Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 29 January 1862.
Several claim the honor of having killed the distinguished secessionist, but it is generally conceded that Col. Fry of the 4th Kentucky put an end to his career of mischief by shooting him through the heart with his revolver.
Sgt. Samuel McIlvaine, 10th Indiana Infantry, in a letter dated "Gen. Zollicoffer’s Camp," January 21, 1862.
Col. Fry of the 4th Kentucky met him [Zollicoffer] face to face, knew him and shot him through the breast.
Lt. Green Clay, aide to Gen. Schoepf, in a letter dated "Nicholasville, Wednesday 22" [Jan.], in "Postscript to the Battle of Mill Springs," The Filson Club Historical Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, April 1956, pp. 103-114.
Zollicoffer was killed in the first engagement by Col. Fry of 4th Ky.
Pvt. James Baker, Standart's Btty. B, 1st Ohio Lt. Artillery, in a letter dated "Summerset, Jan. 23"
The day of the fight I saw the body of Zolicoffer laying by the side of the rode in the mud. Col. Fry of the fourth Kentucky Reg. shot him with a revolver.
Calvin Greenwood, 2nd Tennessee Infantry USA, in a letter from Beech Grove, January 21, 1862, quoted in an undated newspaper clipping by O'Leary Meece, Somerset Commonwealth Journal, in the files of the Mill Springs Battlefield Assn. (Obviously, some of Greenwood's account was drawn from what he had read in newspapers.)
The most important event of the day was the death of Confederate General Zollicoffer. Colonel Fry charged up a hill with the 4th Kentucky upon a mounted group of officers of the 15th Mississippi. General Zollicoffer, evidently mistaking Colonel Fry for an officer of his own staff, rode up to him with an aid and said: "We must not fire on our own men," and nodding his head to the left said, "Those are our men." Colonel Fry replied "Of course not" and he started to move back towards his regiment. Turning, he saw another mounted man emerging from the trees who fired and wounded Fry's horse. Fry at once fired upon the man as did several members of the 4th Kentucky. The shots were fatal. General Zollicoffer and Lt. Peyton both fell. A pistol shot and two musket balls ended the life of Zollicoffer. The Confederate General was wearing a white rain coat over his uniform and, it is said, had his beard shaved off the previous evening in order to be less conspicuous.
Pvt. Thomas Potter, Standart's Btty. B, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, in a letter dated "Somerset, Ky., January 24, 1862"
i suppose you have heard of our late battle in which the noted rebel General Zolicoffer was shot through the heart and left on the field. ... i was within rods of Zolicoffer when he fell and cut three buttons off from his coat.
"The Union Victory at Somerset, Kentucky", Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 6, No. 267, February 8, 1862, p. 82.
General Zollicoffer was killed by Colonel Fry, of Kentucky, and his body found in a wagon.
Memphis Daily Avalanche, January 28, 1862, p. 2, quoting the Knoxville Register, January 25, 1862.
They met the enemy lying in ambush, just at the dawning of the day, when Gen. Zollicoffer who was in the front gave the order for an attack. Col. Staunton cried out "for God's sake fire -- they are our friends." The Shoepfites hallowing lustily for Jeff. Davis. Simultaneously the enemy fired, shooting Gen. Zollicoffer in the heart and killing him instantly. He spoke but twice -- his last words were, "Go on, go oon, my brave boys! I am killed!"
Memphis Daily Avalanche, January 30, 1862, p. 2, quoting the Knoxville Register, January 27, 1862.
Gen. Zollicoffer riding forward towards the enemy, was shot and fell mortally wounded, throwing the regiment immediately around him into some confusion, which, as is always the case with imperfectly drilled troops, was difficult to suppress. The gallant Zollicoffer, in the very hour of death, did not forget his duty to his command, and was heard to utter as he fell from his horse, "I was mistaken; they are the enemy; charge them."
Anonymous letter from the "Tenth Regiment Indiana Foot Volunteers," dated February 7, 1862, in "Harper's Weekly," Vol. 6, No. 271, March 8, 1862, pp. 150-151.
You have seen it reported in the papers that Colonel Fry and Zollicoffer had some conversation, and that Fry shot Z. This is a great hoax. Zollicoffer was shot three times; the ball that killed him was from an Enfield rifle, and entered his heart. The shot was fired by Corporal James Swan, of Company H [10th Indiana Infantry], who is a dead shot ...
Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 11 February 1862, quoting the Bowling Green Courier.
Gen. Zollicoffer advanced to within a short distance of an Ohio regiment, which had taken a position at a point unknown to him, and which he supposed to be one of his own regiments. The first intimation he had of his dangerous position was received when it was too late. "There’s old Zollicoffer," cried out several of the regiment in front of him. "Kill him!" and in an instant their pieces were leveled at his person. At that moment Henry M. Fogg, aide to Gen. Zollicoffer, drew his own revolver, and fired, killing the person who had first recognized Gen. Z. With the most perfect coolness, Gen. Z. approached to the head of the enemy, and, drawing his sabre cut the head of the Lincoln Colonel from his shoulders. As soon as this was done, twenty bullets pierced the body of our gallant leader, and Gen. Zollicoffer fell from his horse a mangled corpse.
Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 24 January 1862.
The rebel General had but one wound, the fatal one in his breast, and his features, after he had been washed, were calm and life-like. Zollicoffer's entire uniform was taken off his body in small pieces for trophies. ... In the heat of the melee he shot at Col. Fry twice, and wounded his horse, when the Col. drew his pistol and mortally wounded the rebel leader.
Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 25 January 1862.
Zollicoffer was shot through the heart, at the head of his staff, by Col. Fry of the 4th Kentucky.
It appears Zollicoffer lost his way in the bushes, and suddenly emerged before Col. Fry, who was accompanied by some staff officers. The two parties mistook each other for friends, and approached within a few yards of each other, when, finding their mutual mistake, both halted and prepared for a hand to hand conflict. One of General Zollicoffer’s aids shot at Colonel Fry, but only brought his horse down.
The federal Col. immediately drew his revolver and brought Zollicoffer from his horse at the first fire.
Capt. John W. Free, Co. A, 31st Ohio Infantry, in a letter dated "Camp near Somerset, Ky., January 26, 1862"; Perry County Weekly, New Lexington, Ohio, February 5, 1862 (transcribed by Jo An Sheely; used by permission)
I visited the tent where Zollicoffer's dead body lay. The soldiers divided his garments among them as trophies, and even plucked his hair from his head, until orders were imperatively given not to do so any more. But his pants and the fine buckskin shirt, is no doubt scatered all over the different States of the North as some 4 or 5 different states were here represented.
Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 28 January 1862.
Several trophies have been received by our citizens from their soldier friends in the 10th regiment. Lieut. Johnson has sent to his brother, several small articles found in Zollicoffer's camp; ... Lieut. Johnson also sent some bits of paper stained with the blood of the dead Zollicoffer. Other parties in this city have received fragments of the rebel general's uniform, &c., &c.
W.R. Ellis, of Indiana, in a letter dated Jan. 27, 1862, in the Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 1 February 1862.
The body of old Zolly, after being stripped of every vestige of clothing, and almost every hair of his head, has been taken to Nashville via Louisville.
Letter from a "young artillery officer," dated Murfreesboro, Tenn., Feb. 20th, 1862, in "An English Combatant, Battle-Fields of the South," New York, 1864, pp. 127-128 (I am indebted to Dave Hunter for sending me a copy of this very obscure source).
Zollicoffer's brigade pushed ahead, and drove the Federals some distance through the woods, and were endeavoring to force their way to the summit of a hill which fully commanded the whole field. The Federals fought desperately for this position, but scarcely any thing could withstand the dashing onset of our troops. Misinformed as to their true position and number, Zollicoffer was rapidly advancing up-hill, but unexpectedly rode up to an Indiana regiment, mistaking it for one of his own. Not being able to retreat, he determined to sell his life dearly, so rode forward with his staff, and began pistolling right and left at the officers, but soon fell, mortally wounded, and with him most of his staff.
"The Death of General Zollicoffer," Lafayette, IN, Daily Journal, 27 January 1862.
Last evening we had a conversation with a reliable gentleman who arrived directly from Somerset, by way of Lexington, and from him we gather the following particulars of Gen. Zollicoffer, the leader of the rebel forces at Mill Springs, Kentucky, on Sunday last. Our informant obtained the particulars from Col. Fry, of the 4th Kentucky regiment, who killed Zollicoffer. Col. Fry was laying in ambush with a squad of his regiment, when Zollicoffer approached at the head of a detachment of his troops, which detachment was marching rapidly in advance of the main Confederate forces. When the General with his advance had arrived in twenty feet of the ambush where Fry and his men were concealed, the Col. sprang forward and drew his navy revolver and presented it at the rebel General. We may add here, parenthetically, that Col. Fry who hails from Lexington, and Gen. Zollicoffer were for many years personal friends, and in their youthful days, associates in the same school.
Upon discovering Col. Fry across his path, he threw up both hands and exclaimed, "Hold, Fry; you would not shoot your old friend would you!" Then placing his right hand on his pistol and pointing back with his hand toward his command exclaimed: "Look! there are all your friends;" which remark was evidently intended to draw Fry's attention away from him, while he would improve the occasion of shooting Fry dead in his tracks. But the brave Col. did not heed the remark, but said, "I will attend to you first," and pulling the trigger, Zollicoffer fell with a ball pierced through his breast. His last words were, "I am killed, all’s well," and with a groan expired.
Letter in the Indianapolis Daily Journal, 6 February 1862, by Pvt. Mastin Dashiell, 3rd Indiana Cavalry.
The late battle of Mill Springs gave some of Graham's squadron an opportunity to look slightly into "Dixie," and to there behold some of its deluded soldiers, who profess to be fighting for their rights. The bodies of Gen. Zollicoffer and Peyton reached this point, per Railroad, on the 30th, encased in splendid coffins, labeled and directed to the care of Gen. McCook, for the same to forward under an escort of flag of truce to some place. Early on the morning of the 31st two ambulances, with four horses attached to each, moved from headquarters with the mortal remains of Zollicoffer and Peyton. The procession was headed by Gens. Johnson and Negley, of this division of the army, with a host of Colonels and Orderlies of the two staffs, and one of Frank Leslie's artists. Then followed the ambulances, and in the rear twenty-five of Graham's Cavalry, your humble servant one of the number. We crossed Green River in safety on the pontoon bridge, took the Glasgow road as far as Horse Cave, a small village, situated on the Railroad, which has lost most of its houses by the lighted torch of the infuriated "secesh," who have to let go and give back as our army increases or advances. This place is noted for the great cave here, from which it derives its name. We had no opportunity to examine the cave only as we passed by near its mouth-we could see far into it. From this point we turned to our left, and took the Louisville and Nashville pike-a good road-but every place where timber has stood upon its borders it has been felled across it to obstruct our march. ...
At 3 o'clock the white flag appeared in sight from the south, in its front General Hindman, Col Hawthorn, with a host of Majors and Orderlies, followed close in their rear by fifty Texas Rangers, all mounted. Their officers dismounted and advanced, as did ours, of the same rank, and moved together to the hotel for consultation, &c. ...
The charges that had been committed to our hands were delivered to the Confederate officers, and we parted with the rangers by inviting them to our quarters at any time most convenient to them. The same compliment was tendered to us.