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
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
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
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
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)