Start: 1861-10-23 End: 1861-11-09
The Big Sandy Expedition was an early campaign of the American Civil War in Kentucky that began in mid-September 1861 when Union Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson received orders to organize a new brigade at Maysville, Kentucky and conduct an expedition into the Big Sandy Valley region of Eastern Kentucky and stop the build-up of Confederate forces under Col. John S. Williams. This was done in three phases. From September 21 to October 20, 1861, Nelson assembled a brigade of 5,500 Union volunteers from Ohio and Kentucky. On October 23, the southern prong secured Hazel Green and the northern prong West Liberty. The two prongs were consolidated at Salyersville (Licking Station) and they began the final phase on October 31. This led to the Battle of Ivy Mountain on November 8 and the withdrawal of Confederate forces from Pikeville (Piketon) on November 9, 1861.
During the first week of September 1861, all pretense of neutrality in Kentucky ended when Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk ordered Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow advance Confederate troops up to Hickman, Kentucky. On September 18, Kentucky legislature approved the introduction of Federal troops from outside the state, the pro-Confederate legislators staying away. The next day, Simon Bolivar Buckner, former commander of the Kentucky State Guard, established a Confederate headquarters at Bowling Green, Kentucky, while troops under Felix K. Zollicoffer seized Barbourville. Shortly afterwards, Zollicoffer arrived at Cumberland Ford with approximately 3,200 men, consisting of four infantry regiments, a field battery of six guns, and four cavalry companies. This posed an imminent threat to Union control of central Kentucky, at a time when increasing numbers of Confederates in the Big Sandy Valley of eastern Kentucky appeared about to enter the Bluegrass region through McCormack’s Gap (Frenchburg). In response, Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas ordered troops from Camp Dick Robinson to southeast Kentucky to halt any movement toward Big Hill, Richmond and Lexington. Former Vice President of the United States John C. Breckenridge and his ally, Col. Humphrey Marshall, added to Thomas’ concerns with a call for “Peace Men” and “States’ Rights Men” to assemble in Lexington for drill. However, both Breckenridge and Marshall instead rode to Mt. Sterling to join the Confederate forces in western Virginia, where Marshall took command of the Army of Eastern Kentucky posted at Piketon (Pikeville).
Several days later, “Bull” Nelson publicly announced he had established his headquarters at Camp Kenton near Washington, Kentucky and would arm and equip volunteers “to end treason” in Kentucky. The Philadelphia Press wrote that the Big Sandy expedition would prevent the Confederates from taking control of the mouth of the Big Sandy River, where it entered the Ohio River. This would protect the rear and right flank of Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans in western Virginia, allowing Nelson to reinforce Wildcat Mountain and to push Zollicoffer back to Knoxville.
Nelson made Olympia[n] Springs (Mud Lick Springs) in Bath County the staging area. He named it Camp Gill on honor of Harrison Gill, owner of the renowned spa eight miles south of Owingsville and twenty miles east of Mount Sterling. The Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road (Rt. 460) ran through McCormick’s Gap (Frenchburg), the gateway to the Bluegrass Region from Prestonsburg. On September 29, 1861, Maj. John Smith Hurt occupied the vital mountain pass with three militia companies. Col. Lewis Braxton Grigsby added his 300 men to Hurt’s 200 on October 8. Col. James Perry Fyffe had the 59th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment march to Camp Kenton, and Col. Leonard A. Harris arrived in Olympian Springs with the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Col. Jesse S. Norton came forward from Nicholasville with the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and during the next two weeks, Nelson’s forces grew to about 5,500 men, 3,700 from Ohio and 1,800 from Kentucky.
At a farm near Prestonsburg, Confederate captains Andrew Jackson May and John Ficklin assisted “Cerro Gordo” John S. Williams with the organization the 5th Kentucky Infantry. The 1,010-man unit was badly clothed some called the hard-nosed group the “Ragamuffin Regiment.” The nine companies of infantry and five mounted companies had two pieces of artillery and they carried an assortment of personal weapons that were ill suited for warfare.
West Liberty and Hazel Green
On Monday, October 21, 1861, troops that Nelson had assembled Camp Dick Robinson became engaged in a protracted fight with Zollicoffer’s Confederates along the Wilderness Road at Wildcat Mountain. The next morning Nelson was unaware of this when he ordered 1,600 men under Col. Leonard Harris to advance 35 miles (56 km) to West Liberty with two artillery pieces. At dawn Wednesday, Nelson was in front of Hazel Green with about 3,500 men and artillery. Thirty-eight of the 200 Confederates surrendered after a brief fight. Twelve miles (19 km) north at West Liberty 500-700 Confederates suffered a loss of 21 dead, 40 wounded, and 34 captured. The Federal loss was two wounded. While Nelson waited for his wagon trains to catch up, he consolidated his forces at Licking Station (Salyersville). The operation resumed on October 31 and on reaching Prestonsburg they found the supposed “Gibraltar of Eastern Kentucky” abandoned.