THE BATTLE OF MILL CLIFF
(December 1, 1862)
David Chaltas and Richard Glenn Brown
A safe haven could not be found from the bloody conflict as the ravages of the War Between the States spread over the land like a flame before the wind. Every family was touched by the holocaust. And nowhere was that conflict more prominent than within the hollows and rugged mountains of Appalachia. Every family was in some manner affected by the war.
Though small in size, the Battle of Mill Cliff was typical of the ones fought in this area. There would be intense fighting one day and moving to a haven of safety the next. Eastern Kentucky was deeply divided in its loyalty to both sides, neither army had far to go to find a friendly hamlet of safety as the wages of war devoured the land.
One of these minute hamlets was a large overhanging rock known locally as the Rebel Rock. There are two local stories pertaining to how this huge majestic rock obtained its name. The most romantic story has a rebel soldier falling to his death from the rock while fleeing Union soldiers. The most logical story relates to the rock being used as a camp and also its use as an observation post by the rebel army when in the area. The Rebel Rock is located just north of Highway 119 and east of Route 2010, midway between Cumberland and Harlan of Harlan County, Kentucky. Route 2010 roughly follows the old Laden Trail that crossed through Shell Gap of Pine Mountain, a tall, steep mountain range. The Poor Fork of the Cumberland River flows nearby.
Approximately one month after the Battle of Leatherwood, Colonel Ben Caudill with an attachment of four companies of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles C.S.A. (later renamed the 13th Kentucky Cavalry), marched through the area. One of the reasons was retribution for the attack upon his men at Brashearsville Salt Works (Leatherwood, Kentucky) and the wounding of his brother during that battle. On November 30, 1862, Colonel Caudill and his men arrived at Rebel Rock. Here they dismounted and made camp for the evening. Colonel Caudill hoped to catch the union outfit in the area by surprise at the small town of Cumberland the next morning. This union outfit was known as the Harlan County Battalion. They were composed of many neighbors and relatives of the men that served in the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles. Pickets were deployed about the camp as well as on top of Rebel Rock. It was a cold camp that night as the rebel forces did not want to alert the union men of their presence.
Just before daylight of the morning of December 1, 1862 (according to the Harlan Battalion records it was listed as a nonexistent date of November 31!), the camp came to life, was quickly disassembled and the men were ordered to mount. With the clinking of harness and saddles, the column of men slowly began their eastward journey toward Cumberland that was about 12 miles away. Just outside the town, Colonel Caudill ordered his men to prepare for the attack. With a rebel yell the men swooped into town at a full gallop only to find little resistance. A small squad of union men was guarding the town. Exchanging a few obligatory rounds, the union soldiers soon faded away into the hills surrounding the town. Colonel Caudill was informed that the main union force had withdrawn to the union camp on the Poor Fork. Colonel Caudill allowed his men to rest and eat from the union supplies found in the small town of Cumberland before marching toward the Harlan Battalion.
Unknown to Colonel Caudill and the Confederate’s under his charge, their movements had been observed by someone that rode to warn the union camp. Major Benjamin Blankenship, commanding officer of the Harlan Battalion, was concerned with the news, as he had sent some of his men out foraging and others out on patrol. To gain time to regroup and assemble a strong defensive force, he ordered Captain Ambrose Powell with Company B and Captain Joshua Perkins with Company C to advance toward the rebel forces and arrest their progress. This was a force of approximately 86 men. The two captains decided to confront the rebels at Mill Cliff along the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River. This cliff was about two miles west of Rebel Rock. At this location, the cliff and the Poor Fork came close together narrowing the old Harlan road. Also, a long spur running down off Black Mountain helped create a natural defensive barrier. This was a perfect location for the strategy to be employed by the men of Company B and C. The rebel forces would be bunched up without room to maneuver in an appropriate offense. The two companies of union soldiers lined the spur and waited on the coming battle.
Later that evening, Colonel Caudill ordered his men to mount and started for the union camp. The front guard of his forces was fired upon when they came into shooting distance of the union forces. The main body of the 10th then engaged the union defenders, beginning an intense battle that lasted at least twenty minutes. Colonel Caudill soon realized he could not storm the well-defended fortifications without the loss of several of his men. He had already lost one man and several had been wounded. He ordered some of his men to charge down the road on their mounts to outflank the Yankees but the firing was too intense. The evening sun was beginning to set as the bark of the Enfield rifles of both sides began to settle down into sporadic volleys. Colonel Caudill realized he could not reach the union camp before dark now even if he successfully stormed the Yankee position. He also knew he had lost any hopes of surprise, knowing all too well the futility of attacking a force that had time to prepare for an attack. His men took some comfort in the retreat as they had accomplished some of their mission. They had confiscated a great number of the union supplies at Cumberland. The two union companies had more than accomplished their mission. Not only had they arrested the progress of the rebel forces, they had stopped them. Colonel Caudill had his men pulled back to regroup. They then marched back to the safety of Rebel Rock and camped at that location for the night. The following morning, December 2, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles (13th Kentucky Cavalry) began their march back to Virginia. The union defenders at Mill Cliff returned to their main camp with what plunder they discovered upon the vacated battlefield.
The 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles had at least one soldier that was mortally wounded and several injured due to gunshot wounds. The Harlan Battalion had also suffered some wounded. Ironically both sides believed they had done their duty to their country and both claimed victory of sorts for the same battle. The contest continued for another two years and beyond the surrender of the Confederate army resulting in feuds and political disputes that still resound within the mountains of Appalachia.
A Sifter Full of Bullets, the Life of John S. Sparkman; Sparkman, Faron, 4th Edition, copyright 1997, page 40
Harlan County Battalion-Roster-Daily Reports; Harlan Footprints, Volume 1 from Footprints P & R; pages 1-5
Civil War Pension Records
Colonel Ben Caudill SCV Camp #1629