Zollicoffer remembered for duel, Civil War fate

Published 10:19 am Tuesday, March 8, 2022

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The next time you’re in Nashville, visit the City Cemetery. There you will find the graves of no less than four Civil War generals — one of whom is Felix Zollicoffer.
Zollicoffer was born in Columbia, Tenn., and was trained to be a newspaperman. At various times in the 1830s and 1840s, he worked for newspapers in Paris (Tennessee), Columbia, Knoxville, and Nashville, where he was the editor of the Republican Banner from 1843 until 1845.
Nashville, during this era, still exhibited many of the qualities of the “wild west”; newspaper editors and politicians still settled disputes Andrew Jackson’s way. In 1852, Zollicoffer still used the Banner to voice his opinions. That year, he got into a duel with John Marling, editor of the rival Union.
I used to think the Zollicoffer-Marling argument had to do with the location of a planned bridge across the Cumberland River. But Allen Forkum, editor of the Nashville Retrospect newspaper, has dispelled that myth. “The bridge had been completed two years before they started fighting, so that wasn’t the reason,” Forkum said.
“In the 1852 presidential election, Marling was in favor of Franklin Pierce and Zollicoffer was in favor of Winfield Scott. The editorials that one paper wrote against the other were very personal and ugly. Then Marling called Zollicoffer a liar, and that was that.”
On August 20, 1852, the two men exchanged insults and bullets in front of the Union office at the corner of Cherry and Cedar (today the corner of Fourth and MLK Jr. Blvd.). Zollicoffer ended up with a bullet wound in the hand, while Marling was shot in the face. Both men survived, however, and apparently exchanged civil words years later.
Zollicoffer’s career later shifted to public service and the Whig party; he served a term as the Tennessee Comptroller and three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Unlike many political leaders of that era, Zollicoffer was not in favor of war in the late 1850s, supporting John Bell as a compromise candidate for president. But after Tennessee seceded, Governor Isham Harris appointed Zollicoffer to the rank of brigadier general. The former newspaper editor soon found himself head of a Confederate army in East Tennessee, where loyal unionists abounded (a tough assignment for a man who had limited military experience in the Seminole War of 1836).
After a few months, Major General George Crittenden took command of the East Tennessee Confederate army. Zollicoffer remained in the field, head of a small army which Crittenden ordered to march west and then north, toward Somerset, Ky., where they knew a U.S. Army force under General George Thomas was headed.
On January 19, 1862, Zollicoffer’s 4,000 troops met this force in present-day Nancy, Ky. The battle was a disaster from the start for the poorly deployed Confederate troops. “It was foggy and rainy and there was so much smoke that you could hardly see 20 paces in front of you,” Douglas Queen, park ranger of the Mill Springs Battlefield, told me.
In the confusion of battle General Zollicoffer did something that earned him a permanent spot in books about strange Civil War anecdotes. Although accounts of the battle vary, Zollicoffer apparently rode up to a group of Union soldiers without realizing who they were, who shot and killed the Confederate General at point-blank range.
The Battle of Mill Springs was a skirmish compared to the bigger military engagements that occurred later in the Civil War. But in January 1862, Zollicoffer’s death was no amusing matter. “Zollicoffer, one of our best and bravest men, has been slain upon the field,” the Memphis Daily Appeal reported.
Nashville’s newspapers mourned his passing; the general was universally declared to be a hero, one of the first high-ranking Confederate deaths of the war. After his body was returned home, thousands came to view it while it lay in state in the Capitol building. His funeral and procession was one of the most memorable in Nashville history.

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