Updated: Nov 24, 2020
If you are like me your interest in the Civil War started with battles. My first book was a gift from my grandparents, Edward Stackpole's They Met at Gettysburg. I must have been eight or nine at the time, and I took the book to school with me and traced the maps and then created my own map battles with troop movements. Of course, I have come a long way in my Civil War interests, but books on battles and campaigns are still my preferred reads. In this post I'll mention a few that I recommend for Kentucky battles in particular.
Starting with the early portion of the war, we have several offerings, many self or locally published books, that really can offer great insight to the smaller encounters that are often overlooked in grand scheme of the war. Kenneth Hafendorfer has written several books on Kentucky battles, and his The Battle of Wild Cat Mountain is one of his better offerings (2003, KH Press, 320 pages). The battle took place in late October 1861, and while his books suffer at times from typos and grammatical errors, this book on Wild Cat is a detailed account of Felix Zollicoffer's first attempt to move into Kentucky and the Union reactions to this movement. The battle itself consists of a brigade per side, and Dr. Hafendorfer provides detailed tactical descriptions of the battle, interlaced with numerous first person accounts and illustrated with modern photos, pictures of some of the men, and numerous maps (a hallmark of all of Hafendorfer's books). Unfortunately many of Hafendorfer's books, being self-published in limited numbers, are becoming more difficult to find, especially since his passing a few years ago.
Marlitta Perkins has written a small tome on "Bull" Nelson's Eastern Kentucky Campaign, that includes the small affair at Ivy Mountain. The Most Brilliant Little Victory (2014, self-published, 176 pages) also offers many first person accounts, along with illustrations and some maps, although I had hoped for a modern map of the battle at Ivy Mountain instead of the hand-drawn period map offered in the book. Perkins makes a few factual errors (for example stating that Leonard Harris of the 2nd led a division at Perryville when in fact he led a brigade) but overall is a worthy addition to your bookshelf if you seek more knowledge on this unknown campaign.
One outstanding title that I need to include is The Battle of Belmont - Grant Strikes South, written by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes (1991, The University of North Carolina Press, 310 pages). While the battle took place in Missouri, the site is interpreted by the Columbus-Belmont state park, and hence falls into a Kentucky battle book, albeit loosely. This wonderfully written book is not only a tactical treatise of the Belmont affair, but also provides insights to Grant's early aggressiveness.
Mill Springs was considered a much needed victory for the North, and there are two books I would recommend for this battle. Dr. Hafendorfer's 2001 Mill Springs - Campaign and Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky is a massive and hyper-detailed account that comes in at nearly 700 pages. Again, numerous maps and first person accounts make this a must have book if you are wanting to have the definitive account. Alas, typos do crop up, and finding the book at a decent price is becoming more difficult (although at the time of this writing the Mill Springs battlefield had copies for a reasonable sum).
The second title for Mill Springs is Stuart Sanders' The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky that was published by The History Press in 2013. Sanders' book is extremely well written, and if you just want one title for Mill Springs that isn't 700 pages, this is it. He does an excellent job in keeping the details from becoming confusing, although the book suffers from one small map. Sanders is a fine historian and story teller and any of his titles are worthy reads.
In Part III we will discuss a few of the the Heartland Campaign book offerings.