On 10 January 1862, Union forces, under Colonel James Garfield, sought to drive out the Confederates, under General Humphrey Marshall, who were recruiting in the vicinity of Paintsville, Kentucky. Garfield was an new Colonel of Ohio volunteers who was to make his name at the Battle of Big Sandy, also known as the Battle of Middle Creek. This fame would eventually propel him to the White House. Marshall, on the other hand, came into the battle with an outstanding reputation from the Mexican War where he led the First Kentucky Cavalry. He was to leave the Battle of Middle Creek with a big question mark over his head.

Battle of the Big Sandy

As Garfield approached from the north, Marshall fell back to Prestonburg along the Middle Creek to take up defensive positions, even though his rebels were not well provisioned. The Confederate cavalry that was to provide a rear screen were surprised by the Federal cavalry as they were breaking camp. The initial rout by the Union forces turned into a bloody pursuit as the recovering Confederates ambushed the pursuing Union cavalry. Garfield pushed on, however, and caught up with the mass of Marshall’s force to the west of Prestonburg. Marshall had taken a strong position and had set a trap along Middle Creek to catch Garfield’s forces as they advanced into a hammer and anvil position. Garfield, who was unsure of Marshall’s positions, sent a small cavalry force into the open area to see where Marshall’s forces were. Marshall fell for the ruse and released the trap too early. Garfield now knew where Marshall had deployed and set to advancing slowly and methodically on the ill-equipped and hungry Confederates. The Battle of Big Sandy was truly one of those Civil War battles where brother fought brother and neighbor fought neighbor. Kentucky units on both sides of the war met in the boggy ground around the creek, sometimes in hand to hand fighting. As the pressure on the Confederates grew into the early evening, Marshall felt he had no choice, but to retire as he feared widespread desertion from his hungry troops.

The overall effect of the Battle of Big Sandy was not decisively in favor of the Union, but the future President James Garfield had made his name in showing that the area could be held by the Union. The fact that eastern Kentucky was now off-limits to the Confederates meant that the Union forces could begin their push into Tennessee with a secure eastern flank.

Battle of the Big Sandy Motorcycle Ride

Check out the scenery on two of Kentucky’s great parkways, the Combs Mountain Parkway and the Hal Rogers Parkway (formerly the Daniel Boone Parkway). Be unique. Be someone who has actually been to the Kentucky Appalachia, rather than a smug jokester about it.

Photo Credit: By American Battlefield Protection Program (National Park Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons