Articles & Stories

The grave of Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer (1812-1862) in a cemetery at Nashville, Tennessee, taken in 1994. He was the first Confederate general killed in the West. (Photo courtesy of Joey Oller, 2119 Middle Creek Road, Elizabethtown, KY 42701.)

How General Zollicoffer Died At Fishing Creek
Eye-Witnesses Describe The Battle, Who Killed Him

Editor's Note: This story presents an interesting account of the Battle of Fishing Creek, commonly known as the Battle of Mill Springs or Battle of Somerset, although the actual engagement never occurred at either location. While several previously-published accounts can be found on the subject, the author and his friends collectively give an eyewitness account of the battle and the death of Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer. This story has been edited for length and content, although the author's context has not been altered.

By John Worth Simpson - Ca. 1929

Late in November 1861 the Confederates came into Southern Kentucky with an army under the command of Captain Bledsoe and Captain Saunders. This army had nine regiments of infantry, three battalions of cavalry, and two independent cavalry companies. The Army was camped on the south side of the Cumberland River at Mill Springs in Wayne County. The 12th Kentucky (Union) Infantry, commanded by Colonel W. A. Hoskins, was camped 12 miles above Mill Springs on the north side of the river, opposite Stigall's Ferry.

Confederate cavalrymen rode up to the ferry almost every day and exchanged picket fire with the Federals across the river. A week to ten days after this picket fighting began, a considerable body of cavalry and infantry arrived on the scene. I was but a 14-year-old boy then and, with a neighborhood friend, was watching the troops pass by my home.
Around noon a tall, fine-looking officer, with his escort, passed by. I told my friend that the man looked rather old to be in the Army, and I had no idea who the officer was. A soldier later told my parents, David C. and Nancy Simpson, that he was Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer himself.

The Army returned that evening with General Zollicoffer at its head. He was the only Confederate general I ever saw, and I still think he was the finest man ever to command troops in our section of Kentucky.

In a few days, a steamboat arrived from Nashville, Tennessee, and General Zollicoffer crossed the river with his men and 12 pieces of artillery. They made camp at Beech Grove, fortifying both sides of the river there. The two armies were now only 19 miles apart, with Fishing Creek lying between them.

At nightfall on the evening of January 18, 1862, the Confederate army was given orders to equip itself with three days of rations. By midnight 4,000 soldiers and a battery of six guns broke camp and headed for the Federals' position at Logan's Cross Roads.

As the Confederates approached a large branch, about eight miles from Beech Grove, Union pickets opened fire on them. A lieutenant in Company E of the 15th Mississippi, with about 30 soldiers, advanced on the Union position. Being on higher ground, Federal bullets overshot the approaching Rebels. As the Confederates returned fire, two Union troops were wounded, one of them mortally, dying later in the evening from his wounds.

General Zollicoffer positioned the 15th Mississippi on the west side of the road, with the 19th Tennessee at its rear; and the 20th Tennessee on the eastern side, with the 25th Tennessee at its rear. General Carroll also placed his men on the eastern side of the road, holding the 16th Alabama in reserve.

Union pickets fell back over the top of the hill and met three companies of the First Kentucky Cavalry, who dismounted and began firing on the advancing Confederate squad. The Federal troops then fell back to near a field, crossed over to the eastern side of the road, and kept to the woods, as they continued to fire on the 15th Mississippi.

The 15th kept up its pursuit of Union troops, guiding to the right and through the woods into a cornfield just east of the road. The 10th Indiana (USA) was able to drive the 19th Tennessee (CSA) back to a position just north of a sag in the woods, where they fought for a short time.

The 15th Mississippi and 20th Tennessee formed a line and advanced into a deep ravine near the field. The 25th Tennessee, which had been trailing the 19th Tennessee, advanced to near the 19th's position, stopping at a large limestone rock at the road. The line of the 15th Mississippi was only about 100 yards away. The 25th then filled the gap between the rock and the 15th Mississippi.

The Death Of General Zollicoffer

At this juncture of the battle, General Zollicoffer rode up to the 25th Tennessee's portion of the line at the rock to assess the situation. Colonel Stanton of the 25th, not knowing that the 15th Mississippi had already crossed over to the eastern side of the road, reported to General Zollicoffer that the 19th Tennessee was firing on its own men.

Zollicoffer, knowing that the 15th Mississippi had begun its advance ahead of the 19th Tennessee, rode west to the 19th's line and ordered its commanding officer to cease fire immediately. The commander of the 19th took issue with Zollicoffer's order, saying he thought the general was mistaken. Zollicoffer; with Major Ewing and Lieutenant Bailie Peyton, Jr., from Company A of the 20th Tennessee; rode back to the roadway to see for himself.

The trio emerged from the woods some 60 or 70 yards north of their previous position at the limestone rock. They turned left and began following a fence, which ran parallel with the road, about 20 feet away on its eastern side. Behind this fence the Union soldiers of the 2nd Minnesota lay close to the ground.

Colonel S. S. Fry, commander of the Fourth Kentucky Federal Infantry, rode out into the road about 60 yards north of Zollicoffer's position. Zollicoffer, not knowing who Fry was, yelled, "Cease fire. You're firing on our own men."

Colonel Fry responded, "I think you're mistaken. Who are you?"

Zollicoffer replied, "You're firing on the Mississippians."

Colonel Fry later stated that he had mistaken Zollicoffer as being the adjutant of the 10th Indiana, until mention of the words "firing on the Mississippians" and "our own men."

Realizing his error, Colonel Fry immediately fired at General Zollicoffer with his pistol. At about the same time, a Confederate soldier shot Fry's horse out from under him, killing the horse.

Two scouts from Company H, First Kentucky Federal Cavalry, were positioned in the woods east of the roadway, much closer to Zollicoffer than Fry. The colonel ordered the two scouts to "shoot that man."

One of the scouts, Ike Chrisman, took deliberate aim, as if about to shoot a squirrel from a tree. Zollicoffer and his two companions wheeled their horses around and were about to gallop away in the rain, when Chrisman fired his rifle. Both scouts later stated that they "saw water fly from the breast of the general's white oil slicker."

The general's horse bolted 10 to 12 feet, before Zollicoffer struck the ground. The horse didn't stop until it entered the camp at Beech Grove, some nine miles away. The horse had a bullet hole through one of its ears, probably from the shot fired by Colonel Fry.

A memorial honoring the fallen Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Fishing Creek, on the Pulaski/Wayne County line, also known as the Battle of Mill Springs or Battle of Somerset. The monument marks the spot where General Felix Zollicoffer and his comrades fell on January 19, 1862. Photo taken ca. 1992.
Meanwhile, the men of the Second Minnesota, who were hidden behind the north fence, opened fire and killed Lieutenant Peyton. They also shot Zollicoffer through one of his thighs and the calf of one of his legs. Major Ewing was struck in the heel.

After the engagement, the Federals advanced to the bodies of General Zollicoffer and Lt. Peyton and carried them off the road to the east. Some of the enlisted troops stripped Zollicoffer's oil slicker from his body and, discovering that they had killed a Confederate general, began cutting away his clothing and cut some hair from the left side of his head. When the Union officers arrived, however, they put a stop to it, and General Zollicoffer was removed to an army tent at Logan's Cross Roads.

The Defeated Confederates Head For Home

About 200 Confederate calvarymen and infantrymen, many of them wounded, left the road about five miles from Beech Grove and headed through the woods to the mouth of Fishing Creek. There, a canoe was used to ferry the soldiers across the river, from about noon til sundown. Several of the more severely wounded men spent the night at the residence of J. S. Weaver, about five miles from Mill Springs. The next morning, these men were hauled to Monticello.

The Federals engaged in an artillery battle with Confederates that evening at Beech Grove. They had placed a gun near the river above the camp and attempted to sink a steamboat, which had been tied to the southern bank of the river at Mill Springs. After several shots were fired, the gun was found to be out of range. A larger gun replaced the original, but the shots missed again, flying over the boat.

As darkness set in, the Federals decided to wait until morning to finish the job. During the night, determined Rebels left everything behind, except for small arms and cavalry horses, and crossed the river at Mill Springs. There, they burned the steamboat themselves and left the area immediately for Dixie.

That was the saddest day, for we soon received a report that Colonel Hoskins (USA) was so angered by the affair that he intended to raid our little settlement and kill any Southern citizens he found. Several neighbors came to our house to get advice from my father on whether they should leave their homes and go south with the Army. He advised against it, and all decided to remain and take their chances.

My little sister and I had taken the measles. I remember my little sister saying she wished she could die with measles to keep the Yankees from killing her. My mother saw to it that we had a good dinner, so it wouldn't be said that we died hungry.

The 12th Kentucky arrived in a few days and set up camp within a mile and a half of our house. With the exception of a few "chicken eaters," who belonged to the regiment, the 12th treated our citizens very well.

When the 15th Mississippi left the battlefield, J. L. Clowney, a soldier from Company F, who had been tending to the mortally-wounded Captain Bankhead, left the captain and followed his regiment to the top of the hill just south of the ravine. There he found one of his comrades, Jesse Armstrong, from Company K, lying on the ground with two wounds.

As the Yankee bullets were falling all around them, Clowney helped Armstrong to his feet and escorted him to lower ground. Just as they crossed over a hill, two Confederates came up leading a wounded horse ridden by a wounded soldier named Page. They were turned over to Clowney's care, who proceeded with them toward Fishing Creek, arriving just after daylight.

By the end of the day, they were in sight of the Beech Grove outpost. Clowney left the two wounded men and went to a nearby house, where he hoped to discover whether the camp was occupied by Yankees or Confederates. The owner of the house told him Yankees were in the camp.

Returning to his wounded comrades, Clowney found them asleep. He woke them up and advised that, under the present circumstances, they should consider surrendering to the Yankees; so they could be treated for their wounds, and he could make his escape.
Both comrades vowed they would rather die than surrender, so the trio continued up the river until reaching another house.

Clowney asked if they could sleep before the man's fire that night, but the man wouldn't let them stay in his house. However, he did allow them to sleep outside in his pen. The next morning, at daylight, he awoke the three men and asked them to move on.

They continued up the river, until about noon, when Clowney stopped to build a raft. Climbing aboard to test it, the raft sank up to his neck in the cold water. Abandoning the raft idea, they continued upriver until about sundown, when they ran into my uncle, William Logan "Billie" Simpson; the son of James and Sarah Carson Simpson. He lived about four miles above Mill Springs. Uncle Billie ferried the men across the river in his canoe, placed the severely-wounded Armstrong up on his horse, and took the men to his house.

While Clowney and Page were eating supper, Tommy Simpson, my first cousin and Uncle Billie's only son, removed Armstrong's bloody clothes, dressed his wounds in clean linen, and put him to bed. Later, Clowney entered the room and informed Armstrong that he and Page were going on without him; that he was in good hands with Uncle Billie's family, and he was too feeble to continue traveling.

There was a Union house guard living on Uncle Billie's farm, who had been watching Armstrong's progress closely, waiting for the appropriate moment to take him prisoner. However, Tommy suspected trouble and advised Armstrong to be "very low" whenever the guard was around.

John Mercer, a friend and neighbor of Uncle Billie's family, had promised to take Armstrong south, as soon as Jesse was able to travel. One night, about midnight, Tommy saddled his best horse and took Jesse to Mr. Mercer's house, and Mercer and Armstrong were soon on their way to Dixie.

After Jesse arrived home safely, he was discharged from the Army. He recuperated in due time and married the girl he had left behind. One hour after their wedding, General Bedford Forrest passed through the town with his army, and despite all that Armstrong had been through, Jesse mounted his horse and joined up with Forrest for the remainder of the war.

Years after Jesse's death from a stroke in 1895, his son, John, sent me a poem his father had written about the Battle of Fishing Creek. In the poem, he'd mentioned the names "George" and "Simpson." The man named "Simpson" was actually Simpson Mecklin, who had been killed during the war, and the "George" he spoke of was George Simpson, the chief musician of the 15th Mississippi Regiment band.

George had been severely wounded and was left by his comrades on the battlefield, thinking he was dead. He was discovered by the Federals and taken to Somerset that evening, where he was allowed to mend in an Army hospital until spring. While in the hospital, a ward told George that the Federals intended to send him and other prisoners up north to one of their Union prisons the next day. However, George and a comrade escaped during the night.

George walked from Stigall's Ferry to Knoxville, Tennessee, and caught a train for the rest of the way home. Sadly, just a few days later, George was riding his horse when he suddenly ruptured his Army wounds. He died two days later.

An ex-Federal soldier, who had fought at Fishing Creek, wrote me a letter stating that General Fry, after the death of General Zollicoffer; had sent Zollicoffer's horse, bridle, saddle, and sword to his widow in Nashville, Tennessee. The facts were, he wrote, the Federals never captured Zollicoffer's runaway horse, and therefore never had possession of his bridle, saddle, or sword.

When Zollicoffer crossed the river at Mill Springs and went into camp at Beech Grove, he actually boarded with a widow woman by the last name of Taylor. The night after he was killed, the Confederates retrieved his horse and personal effects from Mrs. Taylor, everything except his writing table and a clothes brush, which was kept in the table's drawer.

After Mrs. Taylor died, her property and possessions were sold. The writing table was purchased by a man named Nicholas. A few years later, Mr. Nicholas' house burned and with it was lost General Zollicoffer's writing table. One of my neighbors, T. C. Rankin, who lived on an adjoining farm, bought the clothes brush.

In 1911, while visiting with my old friend Rankin, he asked if I would like to see a clothes brush that belonged to General Zollicoffer, at the time of his death. After he handed it to me for inspection, I told Rankin I'd like to buy the brush from him and send it to Zollicoffer's daughter, who was living in Nashville, Tennessee.

With those expressed good intentions, Mr. Rankin gave me the brush as a gift. I brought the brush home with me and wrote a letter to S. A. Cunningham, who was (then) editor of The Confederate Veteran. I told him about the clothes brush and asked his assistance in locating Zollicoffer's daughter in Nashville. If she would like to own the brush, I would mail it to her.

In a few days, I received a reply from Cunningham, stating that he had located Mrs. Band (Zollicoffer's daughter), but she had expressed no interest in owning anything of the kind.

Two years later, Mr. Rankin was visiting with me, and I told him what had happened. I then offered to give the brush back to him, but since I was such an admirer of Zollicoffer, he said I could just keep the brush.

I kept the brush until much later, when I was corresponding with Lloyd J. Binford, the president of the Columbian Life Insurance Company. He was the son of Colonel J. R. Binford, the last colonel of the 15th Mississippi Regiment. I presented the brush to Lloyd, and he promised to have it put on display in the home of Jefferson Davis.

In 1911 Rev. T. J. Mercer, who was a member of Company J, 12th Kentucky Regiment, was visiting with me when we struck up a conversation regarding who actually fired the shot that killed General Zollicoffer. He said it was Ike Chrisman.

After the Army left the battlefield, Mercer was commanding a squad of litter bearers, who collected the bodies of the Confederate dead and wounded and brought them up on the road near the spot where Zollicoffer was killed. While collecting the bodies, he came upon that of a fine-looking Confederate soldier lying on his back with a smile on his face. The stubby end of a cigar was lying on his chest.

After collecting the bodies, he mounted his horse and rode back to Logan's Cross Roads. There, he entered the tent where General Zollicoffer was laid out, removed the blanket, and examined the body. He said the ball that killed Zollicoffer had entered his right breast. Turning his body over, he observed that the bullet had passed completely through, diagonally, exiting through his left shoulder. There was also a wound in one of Zollicoffer's thighs, and another in the calf of one of his legs.

J. F. Edwards, another of my neighbors, served in the same company as Ike Chrisman. While he didn't actually see Chrisman fire the fatal shot, he said Chrisman himself claimed to have done so, from the day of the battle until the unit mustered out of service.
Major A. J. Keene, who mustered out with the First Kentucky Regiment, passed away in Somerset in 1927. About one year before his death, in May 1926, I had a conversation with him about Zollicoffer's death, and he said that Sergeant Ike Chrisman had fired the fatal shot. He said that poor Ike Chrisman had since lost his mind and died in an insane asylum.

I told Keene that he was mistaken about Chrisman's death; that he was still alive, having been shot in the back of the head, but recovering. In the early part of 1870 Chrisman did have mental problems. He claimed that Zollicoffer's ghost was following him everywhere he went, would climb up on him and tell Ike that he had murdered him, and that Ike had killed him without first asking him to surrender.

After Chrisman was admitted to the asylum, doctors found that his skull was pressing against his brain. After correcting the problem with surgery, Chrisman recovered, came back home, then moved away to Kansas. Ike Chrisman's nephew told me later that Ike was still living in Kansas drawing a big pension.

Soon after Chrisman had been admitted to the asylum, a Confederate officer, who had been in the Battle of Fishing Creek, wrote a letter to Major Ewing, then living in Nashville, asking his opinion on who killed General Zollicoffer. Major Ewing replied that Zollicoffer was killed by an enemy scout stationed in the woods on the eastern side of the road.

Others, who allegedly conversed with Colonel Fry about the subject, told me that Fry wasn't sure if his pistol shot was the one that killed Zollicoffer or not. Others had fired at him, too, and he hoped that his shot was not the one that killed him.

John Worth Simpson, who was born November 6, 1847, and died May 26, 1930, was the son of David C. and Nancy Gover Simpson. His paternal grandparents were James and Sarah Carson Simpson.

John W. Simpson lived at Bronston, Pulaski County, Kentucky, just across the Cumberland River from Burnside. Story submitted by Duke Turpen, 1805 Highway 235, Nancy, KY 42544-8553.

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