“Richmond, KY: A Wasted Victory” – Periodical: Journal of the Council on America’s Military Past – 1990

Posted on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

The Confederate attack on August 30, 1862

During the summer of 1862, Confederate Generals Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg developed a plan to invade Kentucky. During the first weeks of August, Kirby Smith and his small army crossed the border and moved northward into the Bluegrass state. After a few minor skirmishes the Confederates had marched more than 100 miles and approached the town of Richmond, 20 miles south of Lexington. Here, a force of Union soldiers awaited the Confederates. The ensuing battle was to virtually destroy the Federal force.

Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith was 37 in August 1862. He was tall, his hair dark and full with little gray showing. Smith was aggressive and confident in his abilities. He had great faith in his officers and their soldiers. Smith’s force was divided into two divisions; one under Brig. Gen. Thomas Churchill and the other under Brig. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Each division was composed of two brigades. Churchill’s command was made up of a Texan brigade under Col. T. H. McCray and an Arkansas brigade under Col. Evander McNair. Cleburne’s division was composed of a Tennessee brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Preston Smith, and a combined Tennessee-Arkansas brigade led by Col. Benjamin Hill. In all, Kirby smith has with him about 5,000 troops.

General Cleburne and his two brigades led Kirby Smith’s push into Kentucky. On August 29, 1862, after descending into the Bluegrass region, Cleburne heard reports of nearby Union troops. Smith’s cavalry under the command of Col. J. S. Scott, composed of Louisiana and Tennessean horsemen were sent out to check the reports.

Scott’s cavalry learned of the existence of Union forces around the town of Richmond—a small community in the gently rolling hills of Madison County. The Federal forces were organized into two large brigades. The First Brigade was commanded by General Mahlon Manson, who was 42 and a veteran of the Mexican War. Manson had four newly organized, and virtually untrained Indiana regiments, as well as a battalion of abolitionist Tennessee soldiers. The Second Brigade was led by Brig. Gen. Charles Cruft, a recently promoted officer. Cruft had two Indiana regiments, and Ohio regiment, and one from Kentucky. Only Cruft’s Kentuckians had been together long enough to have taken battalion-sized drill. All together, the Federal force included about 6,500 soldiers, and ten artillery pieces.

Kirby Smith was pleased that the Federals wanted to fight. He feared that the small amount of opposition he had faced so far was due to a Union decision to fall back to the natural defenses about Lexington, along the high bluffs of the Kentucky River. Smith was optimistic that a victory at Richmond, followed by a close pursuit, would prevent the Union troops from establishing a strong defense around Lexington.

The Confederates had marched, “…110 miles through a mountain region over almost impossible roads, through a country destitute of supplies of all kinds…[the soldiers]…were ragged, barefooted, almost starved from marching day and night, [and] exhausted from lack of water…” The only real opposition they had seen so far had been from mountain bush-wackers who, “…true to their mode of fighting, fought from safe distances high up in the mountains…” But these men had been of little consequence in delaying the Rebel advancement.

Smith had used rapid marching and surprise to push deep into Kentucky. His success was also due to a Federal decision by its high command which had instructed the commanders to avoid fighting Smith’s forces. The Union officers had been told, “…If an enemy is in force, get your troops together and do not risk a battle…unless you are sure of success.”

August 29, 1862

On August 29, 1862, outside of Richmond, KY, Generals Manson and Cruft, and their brigades waited. However, their soldiers needed training. With the exception of the 18th Kentucky, “…most of them had been less than a fortnight away from their homes…one regiment had no field officers yet appointed…all were but a collection of citizens hastily assembled, armed, and thrown together without the least knowledge of military rules or discipline…”

In the evening, once Manson learned of the advancing Confederates, he sent a courier to Lexington to find his division commander, Maj. Gen. William Nelson, advising Nelson of the Confederate approach, and requested instructions. General Nelson was a huge man, standing nearly six and a half feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds. His troops called him the ‘Bull’, aware of his size and temper. Nelson was a veteran of the Mexican War, and understood how unprepared his troops were, tried to slow the situation down and give his men time to train. Nelson wrote Manson, advising him to retreat toward Lancaster, KY., rather than fight. But Nelson’s reply was to arrive too late Manson was forced to make his own decision. Since he believed Smith had less than 5,000 men he chose to attack, rather than wait the Confederate assault.

August 30, 1862 – Mount Zion Church (Rogersville, KY)

The first contact was to occur when the Confederates encountered Federal troops about a mile north of the small town of Rogersville, Ky., some six miles south of Richmond. This position was near the nicely built brick, Mound Zion Church. The country was formed of gently rolling hills, covered with ripening fields of corn and hay, often bordered by fences overgrown by vines and bushes. They obstructions were to hinder observation and led to many unnecessary deaths.

August 30th “…dawned bright, warm, and beautiful…” Cleburne’s troops, and Manson’s brigade were up and moving by 4:00 AM. The Union pickets moved out in front of the Union line by about 600 yards. Once Manson’s skirmishers came in contact with the gray forces, just be sunrise, he realized he needed supported and ordered Cruft to bring his brigade forward.

Though Cleburne had fewer than 3,000 men, he sent Hill’s brigade (about 1,300 troops) forward. The Tennessee and Arkansas Confederate slowly pushed the Union pickets backward. Hill’s brigade then formed a line behind a crest of a low ridge to the right of the Richmond-Big Hill Turnpike, about 500 yards away from the main Federal line. Preston Smith’s brigade of nearly 1,600 soldiers came up and formed within striking distance.

Captain James P. Douglas’ Texas battery was brought up and placed near the center of the Confederate line. Both the artillery and infantry opened fire. Sharpshooter companies were sent to occupy positions to left and right of the Gray main battle line. These companies soon occupied a small hill on the Confederate left and a screen of woods on their right.

A second Confederate battery, under Captain Martin was brought up and unlimbered. Martin’s Florida guns were ordered forward to take position on the rising ground by a brick house to the Confederate left, but their orders were misunderstood and the battery advanced quite near the Union lines. Federal sharpshooters quickly shot Martin and many of his crew, forcing the battery to withdraw.

A courier from Kirby Smith directed Cleburne not to become involved in a general engagement until Churchill’s division arrived. Cleburne ordered his artillery to slow their fire, and his infantry to seek what shelter they could find, and to only fire on command. The two lines faced each other for about two hours without movement on either side, firing only occasionally. But the inexperienced Union soldiers were excited and soon expended most of their ammunition, many having been sent out with only one cartridge tin per soldier. Most of the 55th Indiana fired all of their 40 rounds and soon were forced to wait for resupply. Nearly all of the artillery also had to suspend firing until more ammunition could be brought forward.

Once the Union soldiers were resupplied General Manson pushed his left flank forward to strike at Cleburne’s right. The raw soldiers of the 16th and the 71st Indiana advanced cautiously, driving the Confederate pickets. These two Indiana regiments, along with seven companies of the 69th Indiana, which had moved up in support, pursued the retreating Confederates.

Cleburne met this advance by sending the 154th Senior Tennessee regiment from Preston Smith’s brigade. The 154th, commanded by Col. Ed Fitzgerald, was placed to the right of Hill’s brigade. This force of about 350 soldiers, found it could not contain the strength of the three large Union regiments. It was necessary to reinforce the 154th Tennessee’s flank. The 13th-15th (combined) Arkansas regiment, commanded by Col. Lucius Polk was pulled from its position and sent to the right of the 154th.

Manson’s troops continued to press against the Confederates, moving forward slowly. During this push, Lt. Col. Topping (71st Indiana) was killed. However, this loss did not slow the Union advance. Cleburne was forced to bring the rest of Smith’s brigade forward.

Kirby Smith arrived on the battlefield at 7:30 a.m., along with the two brigades of Churchill’s division. These soldiers had just completed a forced march of 13 miles. Churchill sent McCray’s Brigade to the left of Cleburne, to strike the Union right with the hope of taking the pressure off Hill’s and Preston’s retreating troops.

Manson did not see, or ignored this flanking movement. He continued to press his attack against the Confederate right. Then, the first elements of Cruft’s Brigade arrived, completing a rapid five-mile march. The 18th Kentucky marched out onto the battlefield with its brass band playing ‘Yankee Doodle’. They were followed by the 95th Ohio regiment, which moved in step to its fife and drum cadence. Manson positioned the 95th and two sections of artillery next to the 69th Indiana. The buckeyes immediately charged 400 yards forward and took the area vacated by Martin’s battery. They took this position suffering stiff losses, and then quickly realized how exposed this position was. Moments later, the 95th retreated; their pointless assault costing 160 casualties. The 95th took more losses as they fell backwards, and the frightened men spilled into the 69th Indiana, disrupting their position, and causing confusion.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the battle front the Confederate defenses had stiffened and the well-placed Gray troops put such a heavy fire into the advancing Yanks that the Union attack stalled. In time, Smith’s men were able to push the Federals slowly backwards until both sides had returned to their original positions. During this time, however, Col. Pol was badly wounded.

Also at this time Cleburne was hit, a minie bullet entering, “…the aperture of the mouth while his mouth was open…without touching his lips, and passed out of the left cheek, carrying away in its course five lower teeth, without touching or injuring the bone…” With Cleburne unable to speak, Col. Preston Smith was given command of the division and Col. A. H. Vaughan, Jr. assumed command of Smith’s division.

McCray’s four small regiments passed through a cornfield and into a wooded ravine, while the brigade of Col. McNair was held in reserve. McCray’s 1,500 Texans and Arkansans came out of the woods directly against the right wing of the Union line. The Yank defenders were the 95th Ohio and the 69th Indiana, the two green regiments still in disarray following the 95th’s ill-advised movements. McCray’s Confederates surged from their cover and assailed the Union flank. The surprised Federal formations disintegrated and fled in disorder. The next Union regiment to take on the onslaught was the 18th Kentucky, under the command of Col. W. A. Warner. The 18th stood their ground, fighting fiercely and suffered heavy casualties.

By 10:30 a.m. the 18th had taken about as much punishment as these inexperienced troops could withstand. They retreated, carrying with them two regiments of Cruft’s Brigade, the 12th Indiana and the 66th Indiana, two units which had just arrived on the scene. The entire mob of men ran north, and “…at this juncture the whole thing was fast becoming shameful…” The 48th Tennessee reported capturing 165 prisoners and considerable amounts of equipment. One Tennessean wrote, “…the Federals relieved themselves of their blankets and extra luggage, left them in a heap to one side [of the road]…it fell to us…”

Union Cavalry under Col. Medcalfe attempted to stave off the collapse. They were supported by the unbloodied 12th and 66th Indiana, which formed to the east of the turnpike. Groups of routed soldiers gathered around these formations and reformed. A defensive line was created behind a screen of Medcalfe’s cavalry, and supported by one brass cannon from the Michigan battery, the resolute Yanks prepared to fight some more. The Confederates did not press, so the Federals slowly backed northwards until they reached the peaceful, and well-kept grounds of the palatial White’s Farm. Here they reformed and sorted themselves out and organized themselves for their next defense.

White’s Farm

Cruft’s Brigade reorganized and positioned itself on a hill on the west side of the road. These soldiers were now exhausted and very short on drinking water. Cruft sent two regiments to a position behind a stone wall overlooking a cornfield, and sent his other two regiments into the woods flanking the cornfield. Manson’s tired troops were sent east of the road, and the men moved in behind fences. However, at this time, Manson received orders not to attack or defend, but rather, to retreat.

Cleburne’s Division, now under Preston Smith moved to assail the new Union line. He struck their center. McCray’s Brigade moved to strike the Federal right. Unfortunately McCray’s Brigade reached position and began an attack before Smith’s men were ready, Smith having been slow to get his brigades into position. Some of his men had taken time to go through the Union packs and wagons abandoned on the first battlefield. One regiment of Arkansas troops had thrown down their ancient flintlocks and gone about the field collecting the hardly used Federal Enfields and Springfields, so only a thin skirmish line of Smith’s men were in position to attack. These men were quickly driven to ground by massed volleys from the reorganized 95th Ohio and the 66th Indiana.

Most of Smith’s men still remained on the field from which the Union had made their first stand. Not only were they scavenging equipment but they were also being forced to wait for their ordnance train so as to restore their supplies of ammunition. Here, they also were able to replenish their scanty supply of water. The Confederates were, “…exhausted from [the] previous hard marching, loss of sleep, and scant fare were compelled to desist from the pursuit…”

Union troops had taken position behind heavily overgrown fence lines. Officers kept their men hidden for as long as possible, hoping the Confederates would blunder into them. McCray’s men advanced to within 400 yards of the Union lines before suffering from Manson’s artillery fire. But the Gray lines charged closer. When the Confederates were hardly 50 yards away, the Union soldiers emerged from their shelter and poured volley after volley into them.

McCray’s troops were hurt by this concentrated fire. Other Union companies which were, “…concealed by a cornfield and a skirt of timber…” also directed their fire upon this exposed brigade. The Confederates were forced to take refuge in a ditch behind a fence. McCray quickly ordered Captain John Humphreys’ Arkansas battery’s two guns to shell the Yank positions.

The Federals opposite McCray then advanced from their position and charged. McCray’s veterans fired when the Union force was about 30 yards away. The volley stunned the inexperienced Federals, halting their momentum, and then the Confederates charged. Colonel Warner (18th Kentucky) was shot through the chest. The green Federals gave ground and slowly fell back, retreating nearly a mile, but all the while, firing from, “…behind trees, haystacks, corn pens, and a fence…” The fighting lasted for an hour before the Yanks’ will collapsed and they fled. McCray’s men captured 600 rifles and 300,000 Enfield rifle cartridges.

Most of the Union positions were taken easily as the Federals retreated. A well-protected Blue battalion, however, stayed and poured heavy fire into the 154th Senior Tennessee regiment, forcing the soldiers to take cover behind a rail fence. Their commander, Col. Ed Fitzgerald was shot from his horse and killed. The unit remained pinned down, leaderless, until Lt. Col. Mageveney shouted, “…[M]ount the fence, lads; mount the fence and at ‘m; charge!…” With this, the 154th clambered over the rails, fired their weapons, and charged. They drove the last of the Union troops from the field.

Other Confederates; those from Churchill’s other brigade, commanded by McNair, rushed past the 154th in pursuit. They were able to capture one Federal Parrot rifle. However, by 3 p.m., the exhausted Rebs halted, having no more energy to pursue.

Richmond, Indiana

Nelson arrived at Richmond at 2 p.m. He was cheered by the remaining 2,200 soldiers. He had reached Lancaster at 9:30 a.m. and had heard the gunfire, grabbed a fresh horse and rushed along back roads to avoid possible Confederate patrols, to reach Richmond. He ordered a stand outside of Richmond, shouting, “…I make due allowance for your being new hands at this business; I will show you how to whip the scamps…”

Nelson positioned the 69th Indiana on the Union right flank, anchoring them in a wooded area. He set the 12th, 16th, and 71st Indiana to the left of the 69th. These three regiments build up defenses while looking out across a cornfield. The 95th Ohio was stationed around the turnpike’s toll gate and the men of the 66th Indiana sheltered themselves among the gravestones of Richmond Cemetery. The 18th Kentucky was put out on the Union left. The weary men positioned themselves where ever they could, behind stone walls, rails, and haystacks. The third segment of the fight was to occur here, just a few hundred yards south of Richmond.

Kirby Smith directed Churchill to take his division and attack the Union right. Churchill placed McCray’s and McNair’s soldiers side-by-side, and the 2,000 men pushed into the corn before the Yank lines. Preston Smith’s two brigades were ordered to charge the Union center and left. This attack began at about 7 p.m., as the sun began to sun. The Confederate attack came, “…in front and on both flanks simultaneously with vigor…” The Union troops waited until the Rebs were very near before opening fire. The 66th Indiana waited until the attackers were only 60 yards distant. The Confederates shook off the Blue volleys and returned fire. The fighting was the heaviest of the day. One Union company lost a third of its men in less than ten minutes. Casualties mounted quickly as the Confederates closed on the Union positions.

Then, the exhausted Federals’ energies seemed to flag. One Union regiment withstood, “…three [close] volleys and then fled in disorder…” Here and there, in small groups, weary soldiers began to drift away from the line and edge towards the presumed safety of Richmond. The trickle of worn out men increased and eventually, large gaps began to appear in the Union defenses. All the while, the Confederates kept up heavy pressure.

The rest of the defenders remained to fight for only another half hour before their battle line collapsed. The front dissipated and the routed men streamed into Richmond. The 69th Indiana attempted to rally and fight a rear guard action but they were soon swept away by the growing panic. Many officers fell in this final struggle; Lt. Col. Butler, commander of the 2nd Tennessee (CSA) was killed, and Col. McMillen of the 95th Ohio was wounded.

Earlier in the day, Col. Scott and his Confederate cavalry had been sent to gain the rear of Richmond. With his 850 men, Scott took up a position on the Lexington and Lancaster roads. They went, “…into a cornfield and formed a line of battle. Every row went straight to the pike, and each man had a row to himself…” Scott’s men began to pick up the first Union stragglers about 4 p.m. Then, the last strains of discipline crumbled, and, “…both officers and men became reckless of all restraint or command, and rushed pell mell to the rear, amidst a mingled mass of horses, wagons, [and] artillery…in an utter rout.” After 8 p.m., masses of routed Federals were rounded up. The Confederate cavalry, “…fell upon the helpless and demoralized mass of fugitives, and either slew them or captured them without much show of resistance…” The only organized command was by the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry (US), under the command of Lt. Col. Childs, with his 250 troopers. But this lone Federal cavalry unit was scattered by Scott’s forces and Childs was captured. After the fighting ended, the 3rd Tennessee could only muster 80 men.

The disorganized Federals offered little resistance. “…[the Union] infantry tried to escape, but when they reach the ambush, they threw down their arms and surrendered, and were marched back to Richmond…” And, to add to the confusion, a half dozen political prisoners had been released from jail by the Confederates. These individuals ran about Richmond, “…frantic with joy…”

Gen. Manson rallied about 100 men and retreated four miles north of the town. Here, they were ambushed by Confederate cavalry who had hidden in a cornfield to the left of the road. Over 40 of Manson’s men fell. Manson’s horse was shot and fell upon the general, injuring him and leaving him helpless. He was captured, suffering from chest injuries.

While Manson was being taken into custody Gen. Nelson was also wounded in the thigh and captured, however, later in the night’s confusion, he escaped into a cornfield and got away.

Federal storehouses were broken into by the hungry and ill-equipped Johnnies, one writing, “…they had great quantities of stores and munitions of war at this place…canned fruits of all kinds, condensed milk…cheese, and other edibles. They also had large quantities of clothing, hats, shoes, etc…all of which we put to good use…” In fact, there were so many blue-uniformed Confederates the next day that considerable confusion resulted. Kirby Smith had to issue an order to his soldiers to resume wearing their familiar gray uniforms.

The next day the badly mauled Federal units tried to regroup. The surviving soldiers who had not been picked up by Scott’s cavalry were scattered all over the region. These men resolutely made their way back to Lexington. By this time the Union high command was able to assess the Richmond debacle. Only 800 to 900 soldiers could be counted, and many of those were from the 18th Kentucky. The 95th Ohio had been reduced to 168 soldiers. The Confederates did little to pursue the beaten Yanks, as they were also exhausted. Therefore, Gen. Smith ordered a day of rest.

Kirby Smith had commanded in his first major battle and had won what might have been a decisive action. He had sent about 5,000 men into battle and lost 451 (about 9%). The Federals had started with 6,500 men and lost 5,353 killed, wounded, and captured. This loss totaled an incredible 82 percent! The Union also lost nine pieces of artillery and 24 wagons, from which the Confederates captured 10,000 weapons.

With this, the first major conflict of the Kentucky Campaign over, but this incredible outcome worked inversely for both sides. The results galvanized the Federals, and people of nearby states. Nelson rallied the citizens and organized Louisville into such a defensive powerhouse that the Confederates never could threaten it. The citizens of Cincinnati put the city under martial law and almost overnight, constructed ten miles of trenches and gun emplacements. The Confederates, on the other hand, had reached the high point of their northern advance. Though some Gray units advanced to within a mile or two of the bristling Cincinnati defenses, they did not have the resources or power to succeed. Thus, the Confederates were never able to take advantage of their overwhelming first success. The invasion which had begun with such a triumph, failed to live up to its promise, and their initiative was, in the end, largely wasted.

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