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In a forlorn Kentucky valley, greenhorn Colonel James A. Garfield aggressively tracked his enemy.

Not every commander was able to prove his worth in glorious charges during battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg or Stones River. Many officers cut their teeth in tiny backwater clashes in places like south- eastern Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau, a region one native described as “a baffling profusion of hills and mountains with ridges and spurs running off them at close intervals. The entire region was matted with an immense primeval forest, so dark and dense as to amount to almost a jungle.”

Into that dark, primeval mass at the head of a small Union force went James Abram Garfield, an energetic 30-year-old college professor armed with strong antislavery sentiments, and hopeful that military success would spur a political career begun when he was elected to the Ohio legislature in 1859. When the war broke out, he campaigned for the colonelcy of the 7th Ohio Infantry but lost out to another man. Undaunted, he helped raise and command the 42nd Ohio Infantry.

Toward the end of 1861, Garfield and his regiment were sent to Kentucky, where Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Union Department of the Ohio, needed a force to send into the Cumberland Plateau. Buell put Garfield in command of the newly created 18th Brigade and gave him orders to “operate against rebel forces threatening, and indeed actually committing depredations in Kentucky, through the valley of the Big Sandy.”

Garfield planned to catch the Confederate forces in an elaborate pincer movement. After waiting for lagging supply trains, Colonel Jonathan Cranor of the 40th Ohio Infantry was to march for the Confederate stronghold of Prestonsburg by way of Mount Sterling and McCormick’s Gap. Meanwhile, Garfield would head for the Ohio River and travel to Catlettsburg by boat, then join his old regiment— the 42nd Ohio—and march to Louisa, 28 miles up the Big Sandy River. There, he would join the rest of his command, the 1st Independent Squadron of Ohio Cavalry and 500 poorly equipped soldiers of the 14th Kentucky Infantry, and move against Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall’s Confederates.

Marshall was on the move from his base in southwestern Virginia, albeit slowly, with about 3,000 men and four pieces of artillery. Garfield set out from Louisa on Christmas Eve with about 1,500 men to march south along the banks of the Big Sandy toward the town of Paintsville, where he expected to encounter Marshall.

The harsh realities of a winter campaign and the hostile countryside quickly proved a rude awakening for Garfield and the men from the Ohio prairies. Private Francis H. Mason of the 42nd Ohio, for one, was surprised “that within so short a distance of home there was any such wilderness as this. How little we…knew or imagined of the primeval barbarism that lay before us in Eastern Kentucky.” Garfield took his wagons off the muddy roads and loaded his supplies onto flatboats that were poled up the swollen river while his men slogged along the riverbanks. “Wading streams of floating ice, climbing rocky steeps and struggling through the half frozen mud, made the march extremely tiresome,” Private Owen Johnston Hopkins of the 42nd Ohio wrote in his diary. “Many of the men fell exhausted and straggled back to camp.”

New Year’s Day 1862 found Garfield and his men 40 miles up the river, about eight miles from the mouth of George’s Creek. Private Hopkins called the Union position, known as Camp Pardee, “very disagreeable,” but at least Garfield’s men could take comfort that they had provisions for 10 days.

Marshall’s ragged soldiers, in comparison, were forced to haul their artillery pieces by hand—it took three days to drag them 16 miles—and attempt to live off the already barren land. The only provisions they carried were dried beef and parched corn.

Few of Marshall’s men had blankets, and fewer still had shoes. None had overcoats. Those lucky enough to have guns carried shotguns or squirrel rifles, while some carried pikes. A Southern sympathizer watching Marshall’s ragged column go by called them “ragged greasy and dirty…more like bipeds of pandemonium than beings of this earth.” Less than 2,000 men were available at the New Year’s muster roll.

Marshall at first was confident he could recruit new men to fill his depleted ranks, but that illusion, like so many supply wagons, quickly sank into the thick Kentucky mud. In a dispatch Marshall revealed his low opinion of the people he had come to save: “The people hereabouts are perfectly terrified or apparently apathetic. I imagine most of them are Unionists, but so ignorant they do not understand the question at issue.”

Marshall then conceded the offensive and had his men dig in and wait for the Union attack. The two forces were now about 18 miles apart. Scouts and spies from both sides began reporting inflated estimates of the enemy. Garfield believed there were about 2,500 Confederates “increased by irregular bands of local rebels” behind formidable breastworks at Paintsville.

Even though Garfield was out- numbered, he devised a plan to destroy Marshall. He directed the 40th Ohio to proceed toward Prestonsburg by way of Hazel Green. That would bring Colonel Cranor to a point about 10 miles south of Paintsville. Once there, Cranor was to “hold himself in readiness to attack the enemy’s position or cut off his retreat.” Garfield assumed that he could dislodge Marshall from Paintsville and force him to retreat southward into his trap.

Garfield’s advance scouts reported their first encounter with about 100 Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Hill, less than three miles from Paintsville. Private Mason, a member of the advance guard, recorded that his first dead Rebel “was the commonest kind of backwoods bushwhacker, clad in the course, dirty gray of the mountaineer.”

By January 4, Garfield had reached the mouth of Muddy Branch Creek, about a mile north of Paintsville, and had to figure out how to dislodge an entrenched enemy that outnumbered him 3 to 2. He also knew that the Confederates had an additional 400 cavalrymen at a camp on Jenny’s Creek. Garfield’s officers wanted to wait for the 40th Ohio to rejoin them.

But the impatient former teacher opted for deception. There were three roads leading into Paintsville, each strongly defended by pickets. One road ran along the river’s west bank. Another circuitous route came into town along Paint Creek. A central, more direct route crossed a series of easily defensible hills. Marshall’s main body of troops was entrenched behind the central route with a regiment of infantry and an artillery battery held in reserve, ready to reinforce whichever route was attacked.

Still unwilling to wait for the 40th Ohio, but reinforced by a squadron of 300 cavalrymen under Lt. Col. William Bolles, Garfield audaciously divided his force in the face of a superior enemy. On the morning of January 5, he sent a detachment of infantry and cavalry up the river road to drive in the Confederate pickets, making it seem as though the attack would come from that direction. Two hours later, a similar force with the same orders advanced on the right. Finally, a third detachment made a strong demonstration on the central road.

The ruse worked. Clearly befuddled, Marshall first sent his reserves to the river road, but soon countermanded that order and sent them hurrying to Paint Creek on the far right. When his pickets on the central road reported a strong Union force approaching, Marshall believed a superior force was driving toward him on three fronts. To make him even more nervous, Marshall learned that Colonel Cranor’s force was in a position to flank him and cut off his line of retreat. Using his cavalry to disguise his movements, Marshall packed his baggage wagons, burned supplies that he couldn’t carry and could ill afford to lose, and quietly slipped away up the Big Sandy Valley.

The Union soldiers advanced cautiously into the deserted streets of Paintsville on the morning of January 7, hardly daring to believe that they had gained their objective without firing a shot. Garfield immediately compromised his strength again, sending men on a scout toward Jenny’s Creek, 13 miles to the east. After building a pontoon bridge across the rushing waters of Paint Creek, Garfield and his men entered the abandoned Confederate earthworks on the evening of January 8.

Garfield barely had time to savor his first military triumph when a messenger arrived from Colonel Bolles, reporting that the advance guard of the Union cavalry had found the Confederate horsemen. With 400 handpicked men he had ferried across the Big Sandy, Garfield set out for Jenny’s Creek. He hoped to get behind the Confederates by morning and trap them between his force and Bolles’ troopers.

Garfield led by example, plunging waist deep into the freezing waters of Jenny’s Creek to direct construction of one of the two bridges his men had to build that night in order to continue their march. When the troopers reached the designated rendezvous about midnight, however, they learned that Bolles had attacked without them, driving and dispersing the Confederates for about five miles before they melted into the hills, and ruining Garfield’s plan for destroying the force.

There was nothing to do but turn around and march back to Paintsville. When the weary men of the 42nd Ohio neared their camp about 9 a.m. on January 9, their own nervous pickets, mistaking them for the enemy, sent them running for cover with a volley of musket fire. Ironically, the regiment’s baptism of fire had come from fellow Ohioans.

Two pieces of good news, however, were waiting for Garfield when he rode into Paintsville. The wandering 40th Ohio had finally arrived, having marched nearly 100 miles. In addition, about 450 troopers from the 1st Kentucky Cavalry (Union) and about 400 infantry of the 22nd Kentucky had arrived from Maysville.

The second piece of news was that a detachment of Garfield’s troops had picked up Marshall’s trail and skirmished with his rear guard. Garfield quickly determined not to let Marshall slip away a second time without a fight. “I was unwilling he should get away without a trial of our strength,” he later wrote his wife, Lucretia. Somehow he managed to find about 1,100 soldiers fit to march and had them stuff their haversacks with three days’ rations. By noon on January 9, they were on the river road toward Prestonsburg. Garfield decided to try his pincer movement again. The cavalry would harass the Confederates’ line of retreat while Garfield’s infantrymen quick-marched on a circuitous route to get ahead of Marshall.

The advancing Union soldiers advanced at a crawl through sleet. Felled trees blocked the muddy road, and snipers took potshots at them from behind trees and boulders before disappearing into the surrounding hills.

The skirmishing steadily increased as Garfield’s force approached a high hill overlooking the mouth of Abbott’s Creek at about 9 p.m. He knew this meant the main body of Marshall’s force was nearby and that the coming day would bring battle. Still believing he faced a superior force, Garfield sent a courier back to Paintsville with instructions for Colonel L.A. Sheldon to bring up the rest of his troops. Only then did he finally allow his men some rest. They wrapped themselves in their greatcoats and slept on their arms, without campfires, in driving rain.

January 9 was also a busy day for Marshall. His men, camped about three miles farther up Abbott’s Creek, had staged a minor mutiny early that day. All the company commanders of the 54th Virginia signed a petition requesting that Marshall let them go home because “the men now doing duty— doing it without a murmur—have been necessarily subjected to hardships, exposure, and the deprivation of regular and adequate supplies of food, which are everyday exhausting their energies and breaking down their health.” In the end, nobody went anywhere, but the revolt convinced Marshall that he could not go forward without more troops, and he decided to stand and fight. Marshall chose his defensive position, sent his supply train south on the road running along the Left Fork of Middle Creek and deployed his men for battle.

He placed his artillery in the gorge where the Left Fork joined Middle Creek. On the ridge to the south that ran parallel to the twisting valley of Middle Creek, he placed the 29th Virginia and the 5th Kentucky, plus most of what remained of his cavalry, dismounted. The slope of the ridge was thick with trees, and boulders near the top provided excellent defensive cover.

Garfield’s intelligence, pro- vided by local pro-Union scouts, had been generally reliable throughout the campaign. But on the morning of January 10, it wasn’t. Garfield moved his men from Abbott’s to Middle Creek around 8 a.m., assuming that he would come upon Marshall’s rear and block his line of retreat. “We moved slowly up Middle Creek,” he later wrote his wife, “feeling our way by sending scouts on both sides of the creek.” But as Garfield rounded a hill and came upon the valley of Middle Creek, “two or three hundred of their cavalry dashed out toward us.” Garfield formed his men into a hollow square and sent the Rebel troopers retreating with a stiff volley.

About 10 a.m. Garfield occupied the high ground north of Middle Creek known as Graveyard Point and set up his command post in a log church. To draw out the main Confederate force, he ordered his personal escort to ride out and try to draw Rebel fire. Soldiers in Marshall’s 1st Kentucky Cavalry promptly obliged with a poorly aimed volley. While his escort galloped back, Garfield tried psychological warfare: “Meantime, for the sake of bravado and audacity, I ordered a battalion drill and we formed squares and wheeled from column into line, while the long line of our rear was trailing around the hill into the plain. I was willing the rebel officers should see the drill and should see the troops file on—but I didn’t want them to look till the whole line was in sight.”

About 12:30 p.m., almost immediately after the parade ground stunt concluded, two companies of the 14th Kentucky attacked the enemy at the other end of Garfield’s own ridgeline, and three companies from the 40th and 42nd Ohio set off to engage the Confederates on the other side of the freezing waters of Middle Creek.

A heavy volley from the 5th Kentucky drove the Ohioans back. Garfield then sent Major Don A. Pardee and two more companies from the 42nd Ohio and one from the 14th Kentucky across the creek toward the men of the 29th Virginia. Private Hopkins of the 42nd Ohio remembered that Middle Creek was “swollen by recent rains and breast deep….”

The Buckeyes soon came within range of Marshall’s artillery. But of the 30 rounds fired, only one exploded; the rest were duds. A month of hauling the guns and caissons through muck and mire had paid no dividends for Marshall. The Ohio men began to claw toward the Confederate position. With no room for conventional tactical maneuvers, soldiers advanced on their own initiative. Periodically the Confederates would jump out from behind trees and boulders and push the advancing Union troops back down the hill. Garfield would then reinforce his attacking columns and send them back up the hill.

The minuet of advance and retreat continued for about four hours, with Union troops each time advancing a bit farther. “Had the casualties been proportionate to the amount of powder burned, the Union force at least would have been annihilated,” Mason later recalled with some irony. “But the rebels fired unaccountably wild. They were fighting down a steep hill, and, as is usual with raw troops in such a position, they overshot their mark and their bullets…merely barked and scarred the trees.”

Garfield’s letter to his wife painted a dramatic picture of his plight: “My reserve was now reduced to a mere handful, and the agony of the moment was terrible. The whole hill was enclosed in such a volume of smoke as rolls from the mouth of a volcano. Thousands of gun flashes leaped like lightning from the clouds. Every minute the fight grew hotter. In my agony of anxiety I prayed to God for the reinforcements to appear.”

Lieutenant Colonel Sheldon and 700 men of the 22nd Kentucky arrived from Paintsville around 4 p.m., just as Garfield was committing the last of his reserves and considering leading a last desperate charge himself. Garfield then sent Colonel George W. Monroe and a detachment of the 22nd Kentucky up the ridge opposite Graveyard Point. Monroe finally ordered a bayonet charge that carried the day.

With daylight fading, Garfield chose not to follow up his temporary advantage, fearing his men would fire on each other in the dark. Instead he decided to pull back and consolidate his forces on Graveyard Point. The Union soldiers fully expected to finish the job the next morning.

But shortly after dark Mason and his comrades saw a brilliant light fill the sky behind the hill. The next morning they found that Marshall had burned his wagons and baggage and slipped away during the night.

Both sides tried to claim victory, and both sides vastly inflated the number of casualties they caused. If the after-action reports recorded in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion were to be taken seriously, Middle Creek would have run red with blood for days. Marshall reported “the loss of the enemy was very severe….We suppose his loss to be over 250 killed and 300 wounded….” Garfield also exaggerated the size of his opponent’s force and the severity of the fight: “Twenty-five of his dead were left on the field, and 60 more were found next day thrown into a gorge in the hills….” Modern chroniclers count three Union soldiers killed and 18 wounded. Confederate losses are put at 12 killed and 15 wounded.

Garfield didn’t have sufficient supplies to pursue the retreating Confederates, and he knew the surrounding countryside had already been picked bare. He brought his army back to Paintsville, where it could be supplied by water. The Union commander then displayed the political savvy that would serve him well in Congress and in his campaign for the presidency by issuing a proclamation to his troops: “Soldiers of the Eighteenth Brigade, I am proud of you. You have marched in the face of a foe double your numbers….With no experience but the consciousness of your own manhood, you have driven him from his stronghold, leaving scores of his bloody dead unburied. I greet you as brave men. Our common country will not forget you.”

Garfield gained a brigadier general’s star and the adulation of the press. A New York Times front-page headline boasted, “Humphrey Marshall, the rotund rebel of Kentucky, has come to grief.” The Cincinnati Daily Gazette proclaimed, “The braggart Humphrey Marshall and his murderous minions have ingloriously fled before the intrepid command of Colonel Garfield.”

With an eye to his political future, Garfield hitched his wagon to Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ military fortunes. He was Rosecrans’ chief of staff when the Army of the Cumberland almost came to grief at Chickamauga in September 1863. When General Ulysses S. Grant relieved Rosecrans of command, Garfield resigned his commission and returned to Congress, where he later became one of the leading Republican foes during Grant’s troubled presidency. Garfield reached his goal of the White House but occupied it for only four months before succumbing to an assassin’s bullet.

Francis Mason may have expressed the feelings of many of the men who fought on the Cumberland Plateau: “The Forty-Second regiment was engaged in many bloodier and more renowned battles during its three years of service, but it may be fairly questioned whether the Regiment ever performed a day’s duty of more timely and permanent value to the country.”


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.