In December 1861, Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer stationed his army of about 5,000 men at the community of Mill Springs (in Wayne County on the Cumberland River) and at an area called Beech Grove. They “dug in” and created fortified encampments, expecting to spend a good part of the winter there.
However, their January 19, 1862 defeat in a battle with Union troops under Generals George Thomas and Albin Schoempf resulted in a hasty retreat. The men could only take what they could carry. They left fully furnished winter huts, scores of horses, mules and wagons, and army gear for the amazed Union troops to find the next morning.
Several seasons of archaeological survey and excavation have been conducted at the National Register site of the Battle of Mill Springs, sponsored by the Mill Springs Battlefield Association.
Archaeological investigations at the site have mapped fortifications to reveal details of their construction, such as ditches and parapets. Metal detecting at Beech Grove resulted in mapping and recovering hundreds of Civil War artifacts.
Several artifact concentrations represented large encampment areas composed of hundreds of winter huts, and possibly outlying “pickets” or lookouts. Cellars dug into the earth were found at the encampment areas. Soldiers probably built them underneath their huts for warmth and storage.
Artifacts recovered consisted of typical military items, such as Minie balls, other ammunition, and buckles from backpacks. A surprising quantity of typical domestic artifacts were recovered as well, such as broken china and bottle glass, buttons and razors. The presence of window glass suggested that some of the soldiers' huts may have had windows.
The soldiers at Beech Grove had such a good food supply, they described their life in camp as ‘living fat.” In fact, the range of nonmilitary-related artifacts from the site looked much like those usually recovered from a farmstead.
Among the domestic artifacts investigators recovered were decorated ceramics and a metal mat that would have been around a photograph. Sadly, the photograph, likely of a loved one, did not survive being in the ground for almost 150 years.
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