James Wall Scully’s Unpublished Battle of Mill Springs Letters

James Wall Scully was born in Kilkenny in 1837. He emigrated to the United States and in 1856 enlisted in the U.S. Army, beginning an association that would continue until 1900 when he retired with the rank of Brigadier-General. Anthony McCan has carried out in-depth research on the Irishman, and is the author of a paper entitled James Wall Scully- A Kilkenny Soldier in the American Civil War, which appeared in the 2002 volume of The Irish Sword. Anthony has transcribed a number of letters that Scully wrote to his wife during the conflict, and he has kindly agreed to share some of his research with the readers of Irish in the American Civil War. The letters below, previously unpublished, relate to the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, which was fought on 19th January 1862. The engagement saw Union troops under Brigadier-General George Henry Thomas defeat a Confederate force under the command of Major-General George Crittenden. 

James Wall Scully had been serving as a Sergeant in K Battery, U.S. Light Artillery when war broke out in 1861. Stationed in Texas, he and his comrades were relocated to Union held territory in Florida when the Lone Star State seceded. In September 1861 Scully’s five year term of enlistment expired. While in the regulars he had served in the same unit as West Pointer Alvan Gillem, who with the rank of Captain was appointed Chief Quartermaster for the Army of the Ohio. The two men had become friends, and the Irishman decided to accompany Gillem in a civilian capacity, serving as his chief clerk. Gillem was eager to gain command of one of the volunteer regiments, and Scully was almost certainly promised a commission should he achieve this aim. Thus it was that they arrived in Kentucky in November 1861.

In January 1862 Confederate Brigadier-General Felix Zollicoffer (also referred to as ‘Zolly’ in the letters) who commanded Crittenden’s 1st Brigade moved his troops from guarding the Cumberland Gap further into Kentucky, pushing the majority of his men north of the Cumberland River. Thomas in turn moved his Union force to attack the Rebels, waiting for Brigadier-General Albin F. Schoepf’s forces to join him. Crittenden arrived on the scene and ordered Zollicoffer to march through the night and attack the Federals before they could concentrate. Battle was joined on the morning of 19th January, but the slowness of the Confederate march meant they had lost the element of surprise. After some initial success Zollicoffer was killed and the Rebel force was eventually routed. On a point of interest, the ‘Colonel McCook’ who Scully refers to in the letters as a ‘particular friend’ was Colonel Robert Latimer McCook, one of the famed family of ‘Fighting McCooks’. He would be killed later in 1862 in Alabama, having been promoted to Brigadier-General. Scully also includes a quote “Seeking the bubble reputation even at the cannon’s mouth” in his account of the battle. This is from Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’, and means an individual who believes in his cause but who is engaged in an ultimately pointless endeavor.

Battle of Mill Springs

The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, 19th January 1862 (Currier & Ives)

Camp 5 miles from the enemy, Jany. 17th 1862

 My Dear Wife,

We arrived at this place today and will remain around here until the General sees fit to attack “Zolly”. Our pickets are in sight of his. We are confident of Whipping him, as we have more men and better equipped than he. I was this day offered the Captaincy of a company of  the 4th Regiment of Ky. Vols. Gillem advised me to take it, but for once I did not take his advice. I would rather wait for my appointment in the regulars. My health is very good and I can stand the cold much better than expected.

We had an awful march this far over a mud road we were over two weeks coming from Lebanon trying to get the wagons (600) through with unbroken mules. I suppose this wil be the last letter I can send you until after the battle. I hope to be able to send you the account of a glorious victory, old Zolly would retreat now if he had any way of dong so, but with Thomas on one side and Shoepf on the other, and the Cumberland River in his rear he has no alternative but fight or surrender. I think he will fight.

January 18th 1862

We are encamped just 4 miles from Zollicoffer’s works, our pickets are out and had a little skirmish with his last night. There are 6 Brigadiers here tonight, two of them (Shoepf and Carter) are to Bunk with us. I can’t tell when they will make the attack, but everything is ready and we are confident that old Zolly is in a peck of trouble.

 Sunday night, 11 o’clock, Jany. 19th, 1862

Hurah! A great Battle and a Glorious Victory.

 My Beloved Wife,

About 7 o’clock this morning we were roused from our beds by the beating of the “long roll”. Our pickets together with the camp of the 10th Indianas were attacked by the enemy in Full Force. He came out of his fortification with Eight Regiments and surprised us. He thought that we had but 4 regiments and thought he would make a big thing of it, but caught a tarter. The rebels fought like tigers for an hour, during which there was an incessant roar of musketry. The 4th Kentucky, 10th Indiana and 2nd Minnesota Regiments were the first in the fight, as their camps were more convenient to the Battleground, and for 20 minutes it was very doubtfull which side was gaining ground until at length Col. McCook at the head of his Regiment (Germans) charged them with the Bayonette and at the same time Col. Fry of the 4th Kentucky shot Zollicoffer through the heart, killing him instantly, then “Secesh” made a precipitate retreat throwing away everything that would impede their progress. I was in with Capt. Kinsy’s Battery and remained with them during the engagement. Once as I was looking for the General to know where we would take up our position, I had to pass under fire twice. I witnessed the grand charge of the Gallant McCook with his Dutchmen and a more splendid thing I never witnessed. The Colonel was shot in the leg, and as I passed by him, he sang out “Scully, I’m shot in the leg, but I’m good for the day anyhow”, he rode all day without having his wound dressed. He is an Ohioan and a particular friend of mine. I must say, my dear wife, that I often thought of you and the children and that suppose I got killed what would become of you, but Thank God I am well and safe. This evening after dark, the Captain sent me back to the camp, a distance of five miles {I rather think 8} for to lock the safe and to fix the things which in our hurry this morning we had left undone. I found everything all right, and tired as I am after being all day in the saddle, I thought while I had the chance I would write to you this letter. I had to come all the way alone over the battle field and it being partially moonlight I encountered some horrible sights. Piles of dead men Secesh and Union lay strewn all over the road and fields, and their ghastly countenances upturned in the moonlight made me feel a sensation crawl over me, not unlike fear. It was a night I can never forget. How many a brave heart beating with hope left both camps this morning, “Seeking the bubble reputation even at the cannon’s mouth”, but only to fly before noon into the presence of their Maker, but such is war. 

Monday Morning Jany. 20th.  7 o’clock

Dearest,

I fell asleep last night while writing but will try and finish this morning while my breakfast is getting ready. The cannonading has just commenced in the enemy intrenchments so I must hurry up as I want to be out there with the artillery. I will have this sent to the post office at Somersett if I can today and if not I will send the account of this days proceedings also. I know there will be a great many exaggerations about this battle but you may rely on this as being the true account of it as I put in nothing but what I witnessed myself. General Thomas will be highly applauded for the splendid way in which he managed this Battle. For the seven or eight miles we pursued and advanced on the enemy, the line was kept up as uniform as I ever saw a drill. There was the right and left flank and centre all through without a waver, and every regiment and its battery in its proper place, that one would imagine he was at a grand review instead of a terrific battle. All through, the General was as “Cool as a Cucumber”. Capt. Gillem was “man of all work” in the fight. He was sometimes directing the movements of some of the regiments, at another time getting up ammunition and seeing to his train; at another directing the fire of the Batteries, but his chief attention (next to his duties as Q.M.) was directed towards the two Tennessee Regiments, who of course he was most interested in. He brought them up twice leading them himself. We are reinforced this morning by four regiments of Shoepfs brigade from Somersett.

Dearest, I will now close for the present by sending my love to all of you, and several thousand kisses to yourself and the children.

Scully  

Somersett, Ky. Sunday night, Jany. 27th

My own dear Wife,

 … I am sure this battle will settle my commission for me. I have a beautiful horse and saddle which I think I will bring home to you. We captured over a thousand, and the General gave me one. I did not get the pants yet, but as the stage stopped running here on account of the road being so bad, I expect they are at Danville. I have sent for them. I am almost naked since the battle. I put my blouse around a wounded rebel and got my pants torn into shreds in the woods. I am wearing one of Col. Battles of the 15th (Rebel) Tennessee Regiment. which one of the men found in his tent.

 February, 5th 1862

 …I have a splendid saddle (Officers) and two horses, one of them a beauty, he belonged to Lieut. Owens of the rebel Cavalry (Alabama), and cost $600 when bought. I know it from the prisoners. I saved the life of the Lieut.-Colonel we took prisoner (Carter). The Tennesseans were just about shooting him when I rode up and told the first man that would attempt to point his piece at the prisoner that I would shoot him. The General commended me highly for it. I suppose you read all about the battle in the papers, but they can’t give you half an idea of the greatness of it. No person except those that saw it could conceive the amount of property of every description that we captured. I could have got hundreds of dollars worth, but I would not degrade myself by robbing private trunks as all the Vol. officers from Colonels down had done. The only Trophies I have are my horse, saddle, a homemade Bowie knife that would disgrace a Comanche to use it and a Muster Roll of a Tennessee company also a double-barrelled shotgun. I don’t know if ever I can get them home though. I got the pants and like them very much.

 I am your loving Scully.

Further Reading

McCan, Anthony 2002. ‘James Wall Scully- A Kilkenny Soldier in the American Civil War’ in Ferguson, Kenneth (ed.) The Irish Sword: The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. 23, No.91, Summer 2002, pp. 141- 154

Civil War Trust Mill Springs Page

Mill Springs Battlefield Association

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Categories: Battle of Mill Springs, Guest Post, Irish Colonels, Kentucky, Kilkenny, Tennessee

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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7 Comments on “James Wall Scully’s Unpublished Battle of Mill Springs Letters”

  1. richensa
    June 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Stunning! Very interesting what he wrote about “post battle processes” (last lettre)..

    • June 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

      Hi Richenzza,

      You are quite right about the post battle processes- with our conflict archaeology hats on!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. December 18, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Brilliant post, thanks for posting! I�m looking forward to reading more!

  3. Sue Scully Wallace
    November 26, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    I am facinated by James Wall Scully’s letters as I am his great grand daughter. My father was James Wall Scully 111 and I have all of my great grandfather’s swords. If anyone is interested in contacting me my e-mail is rustonla @hotmail.com Sue Scully Wallace

    • December 3, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Sue,

      Many thanks for the comment! What an amazing connection to have to James! Would you be willing to send in a photo of the sword? I would love to have a look st it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. James Wall Scully’s Unpublished Battle of Shiloh Letters | Irish in the American Civil War - September 20, 2011

    [...] Wall Scully’s Unpublished Battle of Shiloh Letters A recent post provided by Anthony McCan highlighted some previously unpublished letters from Kilkenny native [...]

  2. James Wall Scully’s Unpublished Letters: Field of Shiloh, April 1862 | Irish in the American Civil War - February 29, 2012

    [...] unpublished letters relating to Kilkenny native James Wall Scully. The first dealt with the Battle of Mill Springs while the second gave account of his experiences at Shiloh. Anthony McCan who has conducted the [...]

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