Felix Zollicoffer and the "Zollie Tree"
by Richard B. Lewis

One of the early martyrs of the Confederacy was Felix Kirk Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer's military career was short and relatively obscure - and one wonders if he would earn more than a passing glance from historians were it not for his bizarre surname (and if that was not enough, his wife's middle name was Pocahontas).

Felix Zollicoffer was a pre-war newspaperman in Nashville, a man whose fiery editorials spoke loudly on behalf of the Tennessee Whig party. Having the write stuff, as it were, he became politically influential and won a seat in Congress.

As a loyal Whig, Zollicoffer was naturally opposed to secession. As such, he was a member of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference. Nevertheless, when Tennessee seceded from the Union, Zollicoffer followed his native state.

Zollicoffer possessed but a smidgen of military experience. He served briefly against the Seminoles in Florida and had also been Tennessee's adjutant-general. Nonetheless, soon after secession he was offered command of Tennessee state troops by Gov. Isham Harris, proving that experience with the pen was considered as important as that with the sword. Zollicoffer declined the post, but on July 9th, 1861, he accepted a commission as brigadier-general in the Confederate army.

Zollicoffer appeared soldierly, certainly an important qualification for command in the war's early days. He was tall and erect in stature and sported a flowing pompadour and neatly-trimmed goatee. At the time of his commission, Zollicoffer was fifty years old, and the men he would command soon came to call him "Pap."

The new brigadier was put to work right away. Given a command of about 4,000 troops, Zollicoffer was ordered by the Confederate war department to occupy Knoxville in late July. He had been there little more than a month when he was directed to hold Cumberland Gap following the Union army's probe into Kentucky.

Despite his limited military experience, Zollicoffer showed surprising aptitude and initiative. Moving from Knoxville through Cumberland Gap in mid-September, Zollicoffer struck both military and political targets. His troops seized pro-Union presses and arrested northern sympathizers while destroying two military camps, plundering a valuable salt works and scattering feeble resistance before them. Moving into the Kentucky heartland as part of the front Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston sought to establish, Zollicoffer's juggernaut was finally checked at the battle of Wildcat Mountain on October 21st. After sharp fighting, Zollicoffer withdrew to the earthworks at Cumberland Gap.

Zollicoffer's stab into Kentucky gravely concerned the Union high command. Another new brigadier, George H. Thomas, was assigned the task of seeking out, engaging and defeating Zollicoffer. While his counterpart lurked in the Kentucky wilderness, Thomas set about preparing his command and waiting for his foe to make the first move.

Zollicoffer obliged by advancing eastward from Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road, marching 250 miles to the south bank of the Cumberland River and the village of Mill Springs, arriving there on November 29th. There he found a superb defensive position at which to encamp his troops and was ordered to stay there by his immediate superior, Gen. George Crittenden, and by Johnston.

To this point, Zollicoffer had shown sound military judgment and had handled his force with the skill of a veteran officer. But at Mill Springs he made a decision seemingly designed to remind future historians that he was, after all, a journalist and not a soldier. Ignoring orders as well as logic, Zollicoffer crossed his troops to the precipitous north bank of the Cumberland. There at a loop in the river he established winter camp with his back to the Cumberland. This pocket of land became known as "Zollicoffer's Den."

George Crittenden was the hard-drinking son of a prominent Kentucky politician. Like Zollicoffer, his position in the Confederate army was due to political influence. Unlike his subordinate, Crittenden knew a bad position when he saw one. When he went to check on Zollicoffer in early January, he found to his horror that the Tennesseean had placed his force in a vulnerable spot. Worse, the Cumberland River was raging due to a long period of steady rains.

Fortunately for the Confederates, those same rains were plaguing George Thomas who had commenced movement with his force on December 31st. Marching south from Lexington, Thomas's men slogged along roads of knee-deep mud, moving along as if pulling plows. George Thomas was not yet the "Rock of Chickamauga."

At this point in his development as a soldier he was called "Old Slow-Trot." In two and a half weeks, Thomas managed to cover but forty miles. On January 17th, Thomas reached the hamlet of Logan's Crossroads, some eight miles north of "Zollicoffer's Den", and made camp. On the following day Thomas was joined by a brigade under Gen. Albin Schoepf (who had defeated Zollicoffer at Wildcat Mountain), bringing the Union troop total to 4,000.

Crittenden and Thomas were each aware of the others' presence and each decided that the best strategy was to attack. Crittenden had found that Zollicoffer's position was poorly fortified. However, contemporary accounts suggest that Crittenden himself was more than adequately fortified, having downed sufficient quantities of Kentucky bourbon whiskey. It was in this state of inebriation in the pre-dawn hours of January 19th that Crittenden moved his troops out of camp and up the Mill Springs Road toward Thomas' position at Logan's Crossroads. The rain was falling in the darkness and Felix Zollicoffer, at the head of his infantry, was wearing a white canvas raincoat.

At about sunrise, the Confederates encountered Thomas' pickets. The first fire alerted the Union soldiers in their camps and the fighting soon became general as units rushed up to join in the fracas. Zollicoffer had his men close at hand and formed them for a general assault along the line. Slogging across the saturated ground, the Confederate advance pushed Union troops for over a mile before running into solid resistance just short of the crossroads. The battle became a sanguinary slugging match as the lines pushed and recoiled. Visibility was exceedingly poor as battle smoke mixed with rain and fog, and confusion ran high among the combatants. Perhaps no one in those chaotic early morning hours was more confused than the nearsighted Felix Zollicoffer. As his men and the enemy blazed away at each other, Zollicoffer suddenly decided the opposing Union line was in fact men of his own command. Ordering his soldiers to cease firing, Zollicoffer galloped ahead to the Union position. Reigning to a halt under the leafless branches of a large white oak, Zollicoffer gestured to the blue-clad soldiers around him, called to a nearby officer, "These are our men!," and ordered him to cease fire.

That officer was Col. Speed Fry of the Union 4th Kentucky regiment. Not imagining that the mounted officer before him was, of all people, Zollicoffer, Fry pivoted to execute the cease-fire order. At that moment, a second rider came charging into Union lines. This was Zollicoffer's aide, Lt. H.M.R. Fogg, who realized Zollicoffer's error and had come to save his general.

Halting alongside Zollicoffer, Fogg exclaimed, "General! It's the enemy!," an unfortunate choice of words to say the least. Fry at once turned and fired his pistol and the 4th Kentucky unleashed a volley that emptied both Confederate saddles. Felix Zollicoffer fell dead in the Mill Springs road and Fogg dropped from his horse mortally wounded. Federal soldiers dragged Zollicoffer's body out of the road and propped it up against the oak at roadside where it remained for the rest of the battle.

Zollicoffer's death and the resulting demoralization of his troops turned the battle in favor of the Union. After several hours of hard fighting, the Confederates were swept from the field. Crittenden managed to get the remnant of his force across the swollen Cumberland and retreated all the way to Nashville, abandoning all his artillery and trains. The body of Zollicoffer naturally became an item of great curiosity for the victorious Union soldiers. Souvenir-seekers clipped buttons from the general's coat and locks of his hair. Legend has it the scavenging continued until the body was clad only in underwear. Gen. Thomas posted a guard to prevent further looting and eventually returned Zollicoffer's body to the family in Nashville. The Confederates left some 125 dead on the field and the Union soldiers interred them in a mass grave a few yards from the place where their general had fallen.

Thus ended the mercurial military career of Felix Zollicoffer, a man known today as much for his unusual name as for his exploits. And then there was the tree. The large white oak under which Zollicoffer fell was at least 100 years old at the time of the battle. In the postwar years the tree became a natural landmark on the battlefield and ultimately became known as the "Zollie Tree."

Although the "Zollie Tree" became something of a local gathering spot, it wasn't until the early 1900's that it received it's lasting notoriety. A young girl named Dorotha Burton noticed that on Memorial Day, the graves of the Union soldiers in the nearby national cemetery received decorations while the Confederate mass grave near the Zollie Tree remained largely ignored. Resolving to honor the fallen Southerners, Dorotha placed an evergreen wreath intertwined with flowers around the tree's trunk on Memorial Day, 1902. She continued to decorate the "Zollie Tree" every year for the next 45 years when chronic arthritis prevented her from doing so. That year, 1947, Dorotha's family placed the annual wreath around the tree and has continued the tradition every year since.

For many years the "Zollie Tree" gracefully endured storms of rain, ice, wind and lightning. The huge tree measured some 15 feet in circumference at the base, stood nearly 90 feet high and became the focal point of Zollicoffer Park, as several acres of the battlefield around it became designated. It was remarked that the tree seldom lost branches in windstorms when others around it would.

On the fateful night of June 9th, 1995, in the midst of a severe storm, lightning struck the "Zollie Tree." It snapped about 8 feet up the trunk and fell across a stone wall which bordered the road. Ironically, no other tree in the park was seriously damaged. When daylight revealed the demise of the "Zollie Tree," news spread quickly and soon people were on the site with axes and chainsaws - some cleaning up and some lopping off pieces of the tree as souvenirs.

Members of the Mill Springs Battlefield Association, a group dedicated to preserving and protecting the battlefield, moved quickly to prevent further removal of the valuable wood. The remainder of stump was taken down to ground level and the large pieces of the tree were taken away. Today, as part of their fundraising, the MSBA sells attractive pen desk sets and wall plaques made of wood from the "Zollie Tree."

In a way, the "Zollie Tree" lives on. A fifty year old offspring currently spreads its branches at the Louisville Zoo. Some farsighted person also started a recent group of seedlings from the acorns of the "Zollie Tree." Though most of these were killed in an ice storm, two remain in Zollicoffer Park, one of which was planted within the stump of the "Zollie Tree." That stump, by the way, continues to wear a garland wreath every Memorial Day.

The Mill Springs Battlefield Association is active in acquiring unprotected portions of the battlefield and in protecting and interpreting what is now preserved. For information on their activities and how you can participate, write: Mill Springs Battlefield Association P.O. Box 814 Somerset, KY 42502 (606) 679-1859 millsprings@som-uky.campus.mci.net .

 

 



 

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