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Middle Creek - Suggested Books & Visitor's Guide

On January 10th, 1862 in what would be the first of a series of battles that would secure most of Kentucky for the Union took place. While the actions at Mill Springs and Forts Henry/Donelson were larger in scope and had far greater coverage in the press, the first of this trilogy of battles occurred in eastern Kentucky at a place called Middle Creek and was important in securing eastern Kentucky for the Union. What follows is a bit of a guide to learning about and visiting Middle Creek.


One has to want to commit to visiting this battlefield. While today we have the conveniences of horseless carriages and paved highways, it is still an effort to get to the battlefield's off the beaten path location. In 1862 the task was far worse - rough roads, swollen rivers, and a lack of forage made moving even a small force a monumental effort. Today we can use a combination of two and four lane highways to the battlefield and have plenty of places for sustenance along the way.


Some background - James A. Garfield, destined to become the twentieth President of the United States, led the Eighteenth Brigade of the Army of the Ohio. Garfield's command consisted of his own Forty-Second Ohio Infantry, the Fortieth Ohio Infantry, and the Fourteenth and Twenty-Second Kentucky Infantry, along with a battalion of the First Kentucky Cavalry and a smattering of other Federal cavalry. However, the number of units is misleading as many that were represented on the battlefield were only detachments or were much reduced in strength due to illness. Garfield will mention that only 900 of his men were actually engaged in the fight.


Opposing Garfield were Confederate forces under command of Humphrey Marshall and consisted of the Fifth Kentucky Infantry Regiment, a separate battalion of Kentucky mounted infantry, the Twenty-Ninth and Fifty-Fourth Virginia Infantry Regiments, and a battery of Virginia artillery (a combined strength of approximately 1,900). To me Marshall is one of the "tragic" personalities of the war - a graduate of the United Stats Military Academy and a pre-war politician who had a difficult time getting out of his own way; he had at times opportunities to influence the war in Eastern Kentucky had he shown greater resolve. At Middle Creek the Confederates on the field outnumbered the Federals, and Marshall had a defensive position on some impressive high ground. Yet Marshall squandered his opportunity to defeat Garfield. His report in the Official Records is filled with spin, giving the reader the impression the southern forces won:


CAMP AT MARTIN'S MILL, ON BEAVER CREEK,

Floyd County, Kentucky, January 14, 1862.


....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 Holladay'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. 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.....


Respectfully,

H. MARSHALL,

Brigadier-General.


Contrary to Marshall's view of the Middle Creek affair, it was a Union victory as the Confederates left the field, retreating to nearly Pound Gap, and were for some time after the battle not a threat to the region. Garfield did pull his forces back to Prestonsburg, then Paintsville, but dispatched some forces to shadow the retreating Confederates.


Publications

There are a few books that one can find that cover the run up to and the battle of Middle Creek. The most recent title is Garfield Versus Marshall: The Civil War Battles and Skirmishes in the Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia (self published, 2015). The title itself is misleading as the book covers the entire war in eastern Kentucky (Garfield's participation in the theater was only during the Middle Creek portion). It is poorly written with repetitive phrases, incorrect ranks, and at times even incorrect names (Leonidas Pope - what a hoot!). The formatting of the book is also a distraction with its overly large font, wide margins, and narrow columns. However, it is the most recent coverage and so the most readily available. It is also decently footnoted, although the bibliography does not include all the works cited in the footnotes.


A much better effort is John David Preston's The Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky (self published, 1984, with an expanded second edition released in 2008 by Gateway Press). Much like Garfield Versus Marshall, this book covers the entire war in the region. It is by far the most professionally written and formatted book. It is available HERE.


An older and much shorter publication is Richard J. Reid's The Fight for Middle Creek (self published, 1992, 46 pages). Along with Kenneth Hafendorfer, Reid was one of the pioneers of Kentucky Civil War history in the 1980s and 90s with his booklet offerings on a variety of subjects (I still refer to his The Army That Buell Built on occasion). His Middle Creek publication is a straight forward accounting, and if one was to buy just one title for just Middle Creek, this would probably be it. However, it is definitely an older self-published effort, with its type-writer font and photos nearly too dark to discern details. At times the language is a bit too forced and flowery, and the annoying habit of adding in West Point graduating class years for some of the commanders can distract. It can be found on secondary markets.


Just some of the interpretation at Middle Creek

Visiting Middle Creek Today


The Union Trail

As mentioned previously, one has to want to get to Middle Creek to visit the battlefield. The area is much like it was in 1862, with few farms and few open expanses of level terrain. It is all of two hours east of Lexington, Kentucky with a combination of interstate, parkway, and two lane driving. This area is the northern edge of Hatfield-McCoy country and an hour from Matewan, so one can imagine the hilly but idyllic terrain. There is a small battlefield park at Middle Creek, which encompasses the low ground but not the heights on which most of the action took place. The park is disingenuously named the "Middle Creek National Battlefield" but do not be fooled - it has no connection to the National Park Service and when I questioned that moniker with the folks at Middle Creek I received such a tripe answer that I dropped any additional conversation. The park itself has ample parking, plenty of decent interpretation, and two short trails. Middle Creek is also just ten minutes from the Ivy Mountain battlefield roadside stop.


The small city/large town of Prestonsburg is located just a few minutes from the Middle Creek battlefield. It offers a few chain motels (the Comfort Suites was a pleasant stay), chain and local restaurants, and a rails-to-trails walking trail for exercise (have some BBQ at Pig in A Poke then walk it off along the trail). Prestonsburg is located along U. S. 23, a four lane highway that runs north to the Ohio River and south to Pikesville and then to Pound Gap, an important crossing between Virginia and Kentucky. Another lodging and dining option and just fifteen minutes from the battlefield is the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park,


All in all one might spend an hour or two at Middle Creek, so by all means the battlefield itself should not be the sole destination. But coupled with other sites in the area, it is a worthy stop if you happen to be in the region.


For more on the battle, check this blog post on the Kentucky Civil War Author site.

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