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Old Time Kentucky: Zollie Tree was longtime marker for case of mistaken identity turned deadly


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

A state historical marker commemorates the mighty Zollie Tree, which stood for as long as three centuries.

The towering white oak was named for Rebel General Felix K. Zollicoffer who perished near the tree in the Civil War battle of Mill Springs in Pulaski County.

From 1902 until a high wind blew it down in 1995, Dorothea Burton and her descendants annually decorated the tree with a memorial wreath in honor of the general whose body was left at the tree.

The ancient oak was alive when the olive-green, gold-lettered metal tablet went up. It tells about Burton and the family tradition she started.

image shows Fry shooting Zollicoffer (Photo from Mill Springs Battlefield Association website)

The Mill Springs Battlefield is a park owned by the Mill Springs Battlefield Association Inc. The non-profit group maintains the site near Nancy. The park includes a visitor’s center.

Zollicoffer’s death was a bizarre case of mistaken identity, the details of which are still disputed.

But a cold rain was falling on Jan. 19, 1862, when Yankee and Rebel armies collided at Mill Springs in southeastern Kentucky. Fog and battle smoke made it even harder to see.

Zollicoffer, a Tennessean, spied what he thought were Confederates shooting at other Confederates. He spurred his horse over to the soldiers and barked a cease-fire order at their commander.

It was a fatal mistake. Zollicoffer didn’t know he’d blundered on the Fourth Kentucky Infantry, Union, commanded by Col. Speed S. Fry.

Evidently, the Yankee Kentuckians didn’t recognize him as an enemy brigadier. He was wearing a civilian raincoat over his uniform.

It is also possible that when Zollicoffer reached the Fourth Kentucky, he realized his error and was trying to bluff his way out of a potentially deadly dilemma.

At any rate, one of Zollicoffer’s aides rode up, recognized the soldiers as Union and acted accordingly. He yelled a warning at the general and opened fire at the Fourth Kentucky.

He evidently missed, but the Yankees didn’t. The aide and the general tumbled out of their saddles, fatally shot. Supposedly, Fry pulled his pistol and dispatched Zollicoffer.

The aide who emerged from the fog was named Fogg.

Some of the Confederates tried to retrieve Zollicoffer’s body, but relinquished it at the Zollie Tree when they came under intense Union fire and retreated.

After they won the battle, the Union side returned the remains of Zollicoffer and the aide to the Confederates. Zollicoffer was buried in Nashville, where he lived, but not before some Yankees helped themselves to souvenirs from the slain general.

They claimed brass uniform buttons and snippets of his hair and raincoat before an officer posted an armed guard on the corpse to thwart souvenir seekers.

Besides the luckless general and his aide, more than 120 other Confederates died in the battle. Most of them were interred in mass graves that are preserved in the park.

Pulaski County was staunchly pro-Union. But 40-years after the battle, 10-year-old Dorothea strewed flowers on the Rebel graves. She wove blooms into an evergreen wreath and entwined it around the Zollie Tree, which was said to be between 250 and 300 years old when the storm destroyed it.

Burton returned to decorate the tree and the graves until 1947, when arthritis stayed her from her self-appointed rounds. Her family kept up the custom until the oak’s demise.

A seedling descended from the Zollie Tree was planted as its successor in 1996.

More information about the southeastern Kentucky battlefield, which is a National Historic Landmark, is available from the Mill Springs Battlefield Association’s website.

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, and, with Dieter Ullrich, Unconditional Unionist: The Hazardous Life of Lucian Anderson, Kentucky Congressman. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


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