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The Battle of Middle Creek

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

There is something about the early war events in Kentucky that tend to always perk my interest. I guess its the newness of everything for nearly everyone, and the new Kentucky regiments that struggled in their own state. The winter encampments like Camp Calhoun and Camp Nevin, provided decent, yet disease ridden, locations to recruit, supply, and drill these new Kentucky soldiers alongside other Union regiments. The stories of these places is always fascinating, and maybe I'll do something one those one day. In the eastern part of the state, events seemed to move a little quicker. Some, but not all, of the Kentucky regiments were short of their recruitment goals, under supplied, and ill trained. 

When Confederate General, and Kentuckian, Humphrey Marshall invaded the state from Virginia, action among the Union army necessitated the mobilization of all regiments available. This included several Kentucky regiments. Among Marshall’s small ragged force was the 5th Kentucky Infantry (not to be confused with the 9th Kentucky that was also the 5th), 29th Virginia, and 54th Virginia Infantry Regiments. These Confederate Kentuckians in the east were also in pitiful condition.  James Garfield, placed in command of the 18th Brigade consisting of the 14th and 22nd Kentucky Infantry regiments, 40th and 42nd Ohio Infantry regiments, along with cavalry detachments from the 1st Kentucky, 1st Ohio, and 2nd West Virginia, moved down the Big Sandy River to counter this threat. When the two forced collided, the result was the Battle of Middle Creek, a fight that seems insignificant compared to the more famous engagements of the day. No matter the size, the Battle was one that helped solidify Union control of Kentucky.

James Garfield

Headquarters Eighteenth Brigade, Camp Buell, Paintsville, January 14, 1862.

Dear Sir : At the date of my last report (January 8) I was preparing to pursue the enemy. The transportation of my stores from George’s Creek had been a work of so great difficulty that I had not enough provisions here to give my whole command three days’ rations before starting. One small boat had come up from below, but I found it had only enough provisions here for three days’ rations of hard bread for 1,500 men. Having issued that amount, I sent 450 of Colonel Wolford’s and Major McLaughlin’s cavalry, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Letcher, to advance up Jennie’s Creek, and harass the enemy’s rear if still retreating. At the same time I took 1,100 of the best men from the Fortieth and Forty-second Ohio and the Fourteenth and Twenty-second Kentucky (three companies of Colonel Lindsey’s regiment, the Twenty-second Kentucky, had arrived the evening before), and at noon started up the Big Sandy towards Prestonburg. After advancing 10 miles the enemy’s pickets fired on our advance and retreated.

At 8 o’clock we reached the mouth of Abbott’s Creek, 1 mile below Prestonburg. I then found that the enemy was encamped on the creek 3 miles above, and had been supplying himself with meal at a steam-mill in the vicinity. I sent back an order to Paintsville to move forward all our available force, having learned that another boat load of stores had arrived. I then encamped on the crest of a wooded hill, where we slept on our arms in the rain till 4 o’clock in the morning, when I moved up Abbott’s Creek 1 mile and crossed over to the mouth of Middle Creek, which empties into the Big Sandy opposite Prestonburg. Supposing the enemy to be encamped on Abbott’s Creek, it was my intention to advance up Middle Creek and cut off his retreat, while the cavalry should attack his rear. I advanced slowly, throwing out flankers and feeling my way cautiously among the hills. At 8 o’clock in the morning we reached the mouth of Middle Creek, where my advance began a brisk skirmishing with the enemy’s cavalry, which continued till we had advanced 2 1/2 miles up the stream to within 1,000 yards of the forks of the creek, which I had learned the enemy were then occupying.

I drew up my force on the sloping point of a semicircular hill, and at 12 o’clock sent forward 20 mounted men to make a dash across the plain. This drew the enemy’s fire, and in part disclosed his position. The Fifty-fourth Virginia Regiment (Colonel Trigg) was posted behind the farther point of the same ridge which I occupied. I immediately sent forward two Kentucky companies to pass along this crest of the ridge, and one company Forty-second Ohio, under command of Capt. F. A. Williams, together with one under Captain Jones, Fortieth Ohio, to cross the creek, which was nearly waist-deep, and occupy a spur of the high rocky ridge in front and to the left of my position.

In a few minutes the enemy opened a fire from one 6 and one 12 pounder. A shell from the battery fell in the midst of my skirmishers on the right, but did not explode. Soon after the detachment on the left engaged the enemy, who was concealed in large force behind the ridge. I sent forward a re-enforcement of two companies to the right, under Major Burke, of the Fourteenth Kentucky, and 90 men, under Major Pardee, of the Forty-second Ohio, to support Captain Williams. The enemy withdrew his Fifty-fourth Virginia across the creek, and sent strong re-enforcements to the hills on the left. About 2 o’clock I ordered Colonel Cranor, with 150 men from the Fortieth and Forty-second Ohio and Twenty-second Kentucky, to re-enforce Major Pardee.

Meantime the enemy had occupied the main ridge to a point nearly opposite the right of my position, and opened a heavy fire on my reserve, which was returned with good effect. In order more effectually to prevent his attempt to outflank me I sent Lieutenant-Colonel Monroe, of the Twenty-second Kentucky, with 120 of his own and the Fourteenth Regiment, to cross the creek a short distance below the point I occupied, and drive back the enemy from his position. This he did in gallant style, killing 15 or 20. Inch by inch the enemy, with more than three times our number, were driven up the steep ridge nearest the creek by Colonel Cranor and Major Pardee.

At 4 o’clock the re-enforcement under Lieutenant Colonel Sheldon, of the Forty-second Ohio, came in sight, which enabled me to send forward the remainder of my reserve, under Lieutenant-Colonel Brown, to pass around to the right and endeavor to capture the enemy’s guns, which he had been using against us for three hours, but without effect. During the fight he had fired 30 rounds from his guns, but they were badly served, as only one of his shells exploded, and none of his shot, not even his canister, took effect. At 4:30 he ordered a retreat. My men drove him down the slopes of the hills, and at 5 o’clock he had been driven from every point. Many of my men had fired 30 rounds. It was growing dark, and I deemed it unsafe to pursue him, lest my men on the different hills should fire on each other in the darkness. The firing had scarcely ceased when a brilliant light streamed up from the valley to which the enemy had retreated. He was burning his stores and fleeing in great disorder. Twenty-five of his.dead were left on the field, and 60 more were found next day thrown into a gorge in the hills. He has acknowledged 125 killed and a still larger number wounded. A field officer and 2 captains were found among the dead. Our loss was 1 killed and 20 wounded, 2 of whom have since died. We took 25 prisoners, among whom was a rebel captain. Not more than 900 of my force were actually engaged, and the enemy had not less than 3,500 men.

Special mention would be invidious when almost every officer and man did his duty. A majority of them fought for five hours without cessation. The cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel Letcher, did not reach me until the next morning, when I started them in pursuit. They followed 6 miles and took a few prisoners, but, their provisions being exhausted, they returned. A few howitzers would have added greatly to our success.

On the 11th I crossed the river and occupied Prestonburg. The place was almost deserted. I took several horses, 18 boxes quartermaster’s stores, and 25 flint-lock muskets. I found the whole community in the vicinity of Prestonburg had been stripped of everything like supplies for an army. I could not find enough forage for my horses for over one day, and so sent them back to Paintsville. I had ordered the first boat that arrived at Paintsville to push on up to Prestonburg, but I found it would be impossible to bring up our tents and supplies until more provisions could be brought up the river. I therefore moved down to this place on the 12th and 13th, bringing my sick and foot sore men on boats. I am hurrying our supplies up to this point. The marches over these exceedingly bad roads and the night exposures have been borne with great cheerfulness by my men, but they are greatly in need of rest and good care.

I cannot close this communication without making honorable mention of Lieut. J. D. Stubbs, quartermaster of the Forty-second Ohio, and senior quartermaster of the brigade. He has pushed forward the transportation of our stores with an energy and determination which have enabled him to overcome very many and great obstacles, and his efforts have contributed greatly to the success of the expedition and the health and comfort of my command.

In a subsequent report I will communicate some facts relative to my command and also in regard to the situation of the country through which the enemy has been operating.

Very truly, your obedient servant, J. A. GARFIELD, Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

Headquarters Eighteenth Brigade,

Camp Buell, Paintsville, Ky., January 17, 1862.

Dear Sir : In my last report to you reasons were given why I did not move forward to Prestonburg with my whole force.

In this I desire to submit some further facts relative to the condition of my command and the situation of the country in which the enemy has been operating. The Fortieth and Forty-second Ohio Regiments are in good condition, considering the hard service they have rendered. The Fourteenth Kentucky is composed of excellent material, but is in a wretched state of discipline. Very few of its members have been drilled in the school of the soldier, much less that of the company and battalion. It can be considered but little better than a well-disposed, Union-loving mob, which, if its scattered fragments can be gathered up, may be converted into a very serviceable regiment.

The Twenty-second Kentucky I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing together. Three companies (200 men) joined me just in time to aid in the fight at Middle Creek. The remnant, about the same number, I have left at Louisa to guard our stores. I shall hope to get them here soon. From what I have seen I am encouraged to hope they are in a tolerably good state of discipline.

The six companies (300) of the First Kentucky Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Letcher, have been very hard-worked, and have a sick list of 207 men, as reported to me by their surgeon. A large number referred to refused to come into the mountains, and many that started deserted by the road.

Colonel Letcher is an admirable gentleman, but a more demoralized, discouraged body of men I have never seen. Major McLaughlin’s squadron of cavalry are in a better state of discipline, and a few weeks of drill will make them quite serviceable. I shall do what I can to better the condition of the brigade as opportunity offers. I venture to suggest that the removal of Colonel Letcher’s detachment of cavalry and the supplying of its place by another in better condition would be very serviceable both to Colonel Wolford’s command and to this brigade.

From the best information I can obtain the upper part of the Sandy Valley is almost deserted. The expedition of General Nelson, followed by Marshall’s, has swept away almost everything on which an army could subsist. Indeed, the late reinforcements which joined Marshall’s army came from the Gap by way of the Kentucky River, because they could find neither food nor forage between Piketon and Prestonburg. On the day following the fight I sent my cavalry back to this place, because I could not find forage for even a single day.

The enemy retreated after the battle to the Forks of Beaver Creek, 20 miles southwest of Prestonburg, and seems to be making his way towards the valley of the Kentucky River. Our prisoners say he intends to winter at Whitesburg or join the rebel forces towards the Cumberland Gap. The uncertainty of transportation by the river and the impossibility of finding subsistence for my force at Prestonburg or Piketon seem to me to indicate this as the most eligible place for winter quarters.

For the last five days no boats have been able to come up the river in consequence of the exceeding high waters, while they have been kept from coming up a much longer time since I arrived in the valley in consequence of low water.

I respectfully solicit instructions in regard to my future movements.

Very truly, your obedient servant, J. A. GARFIELD, Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

Headquarters Eighteenth Brigade, Paintsville, Ky., January 16, 1862.

Citizens of the Sandy Valley: I have come among you to restore the honor of the Union, and to bring back the old banner which you all once loved, but which by the machinations of evil men and by mutual misunderstandings has been dishonored among you. To those who are in arms against the Federal Government I offer only the alternative of battle or unconditional surrender. But to those who have taken no part in this war, who are in no way aiding or abetting the enemies of the Union—even to those who hold sentiments averse to the Union, but yet give no aid and comfort to its enemies—I offer the full protection of the Government, both in their persons and property.

Let those who have been seduced away from the love of their country to follow after and aid the destroyers of our peace lay down their arms return to their homes, bear true allegiance to the Federal Government, and they shall also enjoy like protection. The Army of the Union wages no war of plunder, but comes to bring back the prosperity of peace. Let all peace-loving citizens who have fled from their homes return and resume again the pursuits of peace and industry. If citizens have suffered from any outrages by the soldiers under my command I invite them to make known their complaints to me, and their wrongs shall be redressed and the offenders punished. I expect the friends of the Union in this valley to banish from among them all private feuds, and let a liberal-minded love of country direct their conduct towards those who have been so sadly estranged and misguided. Hoping that these days of turbulence may soon be ended and the better days of the Republic soon return, I am, very respectfully,

J. A. GARFIELD, Colonel, Commanding Brigade.


Humphrey Marshall

Camp at Martin’s Mill, on Beaver Creek, Floyd County, Kentucky, January 14, 1862.

General: When I reported last the enemy was gathering in considerable force to my front and upon my left flank, near Paintsville, in Johnson County. The force in my front advanced to the mouth of Sycamore Creek, 5 miles from my position at Paintsville, and remained in camp there several days. This force was about 4,000 strong. It was stated in the Cincinnati Enquirer or December 28 to consist of five full regiments of infantry, 200 cavalry, and two batteries of field artillery, the whole under Colonel Garfield, of Ohio, acting as chief of brigade.

It was my purpose to wait the attack of this force at Hagar’s farm, near Paintsville, but I intercepted a letter from Colonel Garfield, addressed to Colonel Cranor, commanding the Fortieth Ohio Volunteers, by which I learn that the latter, with a cavalry force of 400 to 500, was advancing from West Liberty upon Prestonburg. My scouts having reported their count of this force at 1,300 at Salyersvilie, 16 miles upon my left, I presumed that the object of the enemy was to mass large forces in my rear while he attacked with superior force in my front.

My determination was at once formed to mask my front with my cavalry battalion, so as to prevent communication between the country people and the enemy, and by a lateral movement to the Prestonburg road, leading to Salyersville, to intercept and fight Colonel Cranor before his arrival at the post he was expected to occupy. I found the roads nearly impassable. With great labor my battery was moved 6 miles, but some of my wagons could not move 4 miles. It was the second day before I passed from the State road leading from Salyersville to Prestonburg.

On January 9 I had sent a detachment to the mill. 1 mile below Prestonburg, near to which I was compelled to draw (to make bread for my men), and the enemy drove them away during the night.

On the morning of the 10th I learned from my pickets that the enemy was passing in force from Abbott’s Creek to Middle Creek, and were apparently pursuing me, the Fortieth Ohio having effected a junction with the rest by passing down Paint Creek. I was on my way to this place, because it is the nearest point to my camp of January 8 at which I could get meal to make bread. I permitted my transportation train to move along the road I was traveling, and I halted and formed my command for battle.

The enemy came in sight about 10 a. m. and we engaged about 12 m. He was very slow in making his advance and general dispositions. I send inclosed a sketch of the ground upon which the battle took place, from which you will see that my battery was at first placed in the gorge of the mouth of the Left Fork of Middle Creek. Williams’ regiment, Moore’s regiment, and part of the mounted battalion, fighting on foot, occupied the spurs and heights upon my right; Trigg’s regiment occupied the height covering the battery; Witcher’s and Holliday’s companies in reserve in rear of the battery; Thomas’ and Clay’s companies, dismounted and armed with Belgian rifles, thrown forward on the opposite side of Middle Creek to the heights commanding the plain of main Middle Creek, and resisted any advance of skirmishers from the opposite heights.

The enemy, having come through a defile to the left of main Middle Creek, first deployed a large force on the heights to his right, then advanced a regiment to the middle of the plain, covered by cavalry, and rested his left and his reserves at the base of the hills, which were manned by my right. Our lines thus rested at an acute angle to each other. He first advanced his cavalry and center, but three discharges of artillery put the cavalry to flight, and if they did anything more during the day it was done on foot. We plainly heard the command to "Force the cavalry forward,” but the cavalry did not make its appearance again. The enemy charged up the points above the mouth of Spurlock’s Branch three times, but were repulsed with great loss.

In the evening I shifted our smooth-bore 6-pounder, so as to bring it to the summit of the dip in the hill occupied by Trigg’s regiment, and obtained a fair flank fire at the enemy, while occupying a piney point in front of Moore’s regiment. This soon attracted a hot fire upon the gun, but no further damage than the shooting of one of the artillery horses through the head.

After an action which lasted about four hours the enemy withdrew his force, it then being night, and retired down Middle Creek, on the route to Prestonburg, whence, the next day, he retraced his steps to Paintsville. I submit herewith Colonel Moore’s report, and will send others as soon as the officers make them out. They have been called for, but are not yet prepared. I send Dr. Duke’s report of casualties. I think our loss will amount to 11 killed and 15 wounded; not more. The loss of the enemy was very severe. I understand he will report 1 killed and 10 or 12 wounded ; his usual practice. We suppose his loss to be over 250 killed and about 300 wounded. These are the estimates of the neighbors. We saw his dead borne in numbers from the field, and the embarkation of his wounded was attested by several, who place these estimates upon the number. The field itself bears unerring testimony to his severe loss.

I can only say to you, general, that my troops acted firmly and enthusiastically during the whole fight; and, though the enemy numbered some 5,000 to our 1,500, they were certainly well whipped. If I had had bread for my men (some of whom had had nothing to eat for thirty hours) I should have renewed the action after night; but an enemy greater than the Lincolnites (starvation) summoned me to reach a point where we might obtain food for man and horse.

I pursued next day my march to this place, distant from the scene of action some 16 miles, which I accomplished in three days. My scouts informed me the enemy was at the same time returning to the points on the Sandy whence he came to disperse the "rebel force” I have the honor to command.

This is the first mill where I could get bread. I halted here and pitched my camp, perfectly satisfied that unless the enemy shall be strongly re-enforced he will not seek to renew our acquaintance.

In closing this account of my condition here I must let you know that this service cannot be advantageous to the Confederacy as it is now established. My force should be much greater or it should be withdrawn from this frontier altogether. Referring to the

, you will perceive that the Sandy River traverses from Piketon to its mouth about 100 miles, all of which is navigable by small steamers at high stages of water, and is navigable to Louisa at nearly all stages of water, and nearly at all seasons of the year. Emptying into the Ohio directly in front of the rich valley of the Scioto, and with a direct connection with the Ohio River navigation, the line of the Sandy as a military line demands a corps de armee, simply because you must have a force sufficient to hold the point of its confluence with the Ohio, or your adversary can use the water transportation for his troops and land them in a few miles of your position fresh and ready for action. So he can in a night re-enforce them until he has a number sufficient to assure his success. I have found this objection to the line, and it has therefore been one of my purposes to draw away from the Sandy River and to compel him to use transportation by land and to march his troops over the same kind of roads I travel. This has a tendency to bring us upon a platform of equality.

But, sir, this country will not furnish subsistence for even the troops I now have; therefore we must advance or we must retire. The snow is now upon the ground and the roads nearly impassable. Indeed, the roads are made through very narrow valleys—the water-courses— and frequently these water-courses are so swollen as not to be fordable, yet they cannot be avoided without traversing high and steep mountains, now covered with ice and inaccessible for horses.

My troops now subsist by going to the fields, shucking the corn, shelling it, taking it to the mill, grinding the meal, and then taking it to camp. This has been the only way they could be fed. The people of the country will do nothing. They will not assist to gather the corn nor to shell it, nor will they let us have the use of their horses, or anything that is theirs—nothing, either for love or money. They will not enter the army on either side, and seem to be actually terror-stricken. I have tried to shame them into a sense of what was due to themselves and their families, but it is of no use.

The one regiment now commanded by Colonel Williams has been raised in the mountain country, but the limit seems to have been reached, and the fact is those who have not yet taken part, who are poor, will not leave their families to starve in order to fight anybody's battles on any side.

I am told by the commissaries that this country will be exhausted of all supplies in two or three weeks at furthest. What am I then to do? If I had a force sufficient to probe the country and press to the foot of the hills in spite of opposition, the problem would be at once solved. I think that if such force cannot be supplied it would be better to retire this force from the line of the Sandy, and either place the command in winter quarters in some part of the Confederacy where they can be supplied with sufficient food or transfer it to some other theater of the war. I cannot war against nature. She demands food for men, and if it can only be had by subjecting the men to great exposure and toil, the service cannot be profitable to the Government. There would be some compensation for the wastage of our own force if the enemy were subjected to the same exposure, but men on foot cannot walk as fast as steamers can shift their position.

I regret to say that these facts are apparent to everybody here, and they have produced a decided effect upon the Virginia troops in this column, as you will see by a memorial to me I inclose for your consideration. I have merely replied to this memorial that I did not feel authorized by my orders to go into winter quarters in Virginia, nor did I deem it politic to retire from this section of Kentucky so long as there is a hope of obtaining a force sufficient to advance into the country.

I would add the suggestion, that if the Fifty-fourth Virginia, which is a capital regiment, is to be indulged in the wish expressed through its officers, the First Kentucky, commanded by Colonel Taylor, might be sent to its own State, to supply the place of that which retires.

I was inspired with hope that the business of recruiting would go on rapidly from the manifestations made for a few days; but the activity of the enemy seems to have established a surveillance over the interior more strict than ever. I have recruiting parties out in the adjoining counties, but I now receive no new levies from the interior. Unless I can force my way in, they will not be able or willing to come out. I made some suggestions on this head to the President. If they can be indulged, I am of the opinion most important consequences will flow from their immediate adoption, and I shall be enabled by that means to accomplish great good; but if they are not adopted, then I must observe that the wastage of energy and life in this column will not be compensated by any result the force at present under my charge can effect.

I write freely because I feel sincerely. I am willing to expose my own life to any hazard or to undergo any hardship for the cause. My observations you must regard as the views of one who calculates the general good which will probably flow from the application of a given force. I am most anxious to redeem Kentucky from the thraldom which now paralyzes her energy and seems to have chilled her courage. I think her own sons should perform the task; but, as she is now one of the Confederate States, her interests become matters of general concern and her laches must be supplied by vigilance from other quarters.

I desire to be informed of the views of the Government as speedily as possible, for I am in a country where I am compelled to subsist upon means which the people in the neighborhood will certainly require for their own support.

I do not think it sound policy to abandon the State or to break up this column if you can possibly re-enforce it, but you are aware, as well as I am, that 1,500 men cannot penetrate far before they must be overpowered and compelled to retreat. I came here to commence with 5,000 men. I have never had 1,800 present and fit for duty. My men are now diseased with measles and mumps, and yet have no hospital accommodations; exposed to snow and wet weather, yet have no overcoats and but few blankets. They do not murmur, but I know they feel the sacrifices they make, and I feel for them.

I hope that at the Department of War, amid engagements that press, my wants will not be forgotten, and that you, general, will have a determination formed at once, which shall result either in giving me an effective force for winter operations, according to the plan submitted by me to President Davis, or that you will settle the minds of my Virginia friends who are with me, by letting them go into winter quarters and giving me Kentuckians in their place, or let them know it cannot be done. Please telegraph me to Abingdon on receipt of this.

Respectfully, H. MARSHALL, Brigadier- General.

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Darryl Smith
Darryl Smith

Excellent post! I am with you on those early engagements in eastern Kentucky. A few books one might consider: The Fight for Middle Creek by Richard J. Reid (1992), The Most Brilliant Little Victory by Marlitta H. Perkins (2014), and that one we've talked about, Garfield vs. Marshall by Eddie G. Nickels (2015). I need to grab that last one. There is also David Preston's book on the Big Sandy River.

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