Our cause is on the advance—our star in the ascendant. The tide is swelling in our favor: shall we take it at its flood…? The army and the people say, advance—seize the golden opportunity…. An opportunity lost, seldom ever returns. The tide, if not taken at the flood, sweeps past us forever.
—Richmond [Va.] Whig, August 7, 1862
On September 7, 1862, Colonel Walter Taylor of General Robert E. Lee’s staff wrote in a letter to his sister, “The Yankee papers of the 6th exhibit a gloomy picture for our enemy. Just now it does appear as if God was truly with us. All along our lines the movement is onward. Ohio, Maryland they expect to see invaded. We are here & I trust Kirby Smith will ere long shell Cincinnati.”
The Confederacy’s Apogee
The colonel was correct in believing that the Confederacy was reaching its apogee in September 1862. In view of the South’s strength mobilized and concentrated in the field, the morale of its soldiers and citizens, and a Confederate offensive push set in motion that saw six Confederate columns on a front stretching from western Virginia to northern Mississippi on a drive to the Ohio River, and a seventh under Kirby Smith that had already entered eastern Kentucky, Taylor’s was a reasonable assumption.
In addition to these seven, General Lee would cross the Potomac into Maryland, and General John C. Breckinridge would be belatedly ordered northward to Kentucky from operations against Baton Rouge. Thus a total of nine columns would be part of the offensive. From August through October 1862, the Confederacy mounted its greatest effort to expel the invaders from its borders and to claim the provinces irredenta. With one eye cocked toward the northwest and the other carefully examining the apparently anomalous situation in two Union slave states, Maryland and Kentucky, the Confederate leaders amused themselves by dreaming of a politico-military offensive. Indeed, historian Frank Vandiver refers to Lee’s campaign into Maryland as “part of the biggest, most comprehensive political campaign attempted by the Confederate government,” and hints that at that late hour some Confederates thought they might yet “detach a Yankee state or two from the Union.”
Flushed with the success of Lee’s campaigns of July and August, coming on the heels of Stonewall Jackson’s victory in the Shenandoah Valley, and the modest cavalry raids of John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee, the Confederate Senate passed a resolution on September 12, 1862, calling upon President Jefferson Davis to direct his commanders to reaffirm free trade on the Mississippi River wherever “they approach, or enter, the territory of the United States bordering upon the Mississippi River, or the tributaries thereof.” Even if this maneuver did not shake the allegiance of the Northwest, perhaps these military operations, by bringing war to the doorsteps of Union voters for a change, would persuade them to vote for less resolute candidates. The catch, however, was that these operations would have to produce military results.
Now or Never for the Confederate Army
Despite the successes of the summer of 1862, however, the clock was already running against the Confederacy, compelling the South to take normally avoidable risks. The Confederacy currently enjoyed the best odds it could ever hope to obtain after the opening months of the war. The peak number of men that could be put into the field at any one time had nearly been reached, while the North was just beginning to tap its potential. Record-keeping and intelligence were scanty, but it is likely that Southern leaders understood that the 477,000 men the South had in the field in July and August represented 76 percent of the North’s 624,000, giving it a disparity of slightly better than 3 to 4. Certainly the Confederate leaders knew that on July 1 Lincoln had called for an additional 300,000 three-year volunteers. When mobilized, these men would increase the North’s total to 924,000, and tip the scales against the South to odds of worse than 2 to1.
Even with these new volunteers, the North would still have mobilized scarcely 20 percent of its potential military manpower. The South, on the other hand, had already put in the field almost twice that proportion (40 percent) from its pool of white males aged 18 to 45. Furthermore, on August 4 the Northern War Department drafted an additional 300,000 men from the state militias for nine-month service. This would raise the odds against the South to 2.6 to 1. Also, Confederate leaders could not have known that the Lincoln government was fast approaching the decision to enlist blacks as soldiers. The South believed the moment was ripe for action.
The drumbeat of parallel happenings, east and west, rolled with rapidity. On August 16, as General Lee planned to flank General John Pope on the Rapidan, Edmund Kirby Smith’s vanguard crossed into Kentucky. On August 22, as Lee danced with Pope on the Rappahannock, General William Loring, in West Virginia, sent Albert Jenkins on a cavalry raid to the Ohio River. On August 25, as Stonewall Jackson set out for Thoroughfare Gap, General Braxton Bragg of the Army of the Mississippi put the columns of Earl Van Dorn and Stirling Price in motion on western Tennessee. On the 28th, as Jackson fought the skirmish at Brawner’s farm, Bragg left Chattanooga for Kentucky. A surgeon in Bragg’s Army wrote, “Our army is in fighting trim and Bragg is anxious to strike a blow, and will surely do it. I have strong hopes of watering my horse in the Ohio before long.”
Finally, on the 30th, as James Longstreet smashed FitzJohn Porter’s flank on the fields of Manassas, Kirby Smith won an equally brilliant tactical victory at Richmond, Ky. This largely overlooked Confederate victory, coinciding with Lee’s push into Maryland—and England and France seeming as close as they ever would be to intervention on behalf of Southern independence—ushered in what historian Nathaniel W. Stephenson describes as “the one brief space of Confederate history that was pure sunshine.”
General Braxton Bragg was in titular command of five of the northward-marching Confederate columns: his own, the armies of Earl Van Dorn and Stirling Price in northern Mississippi, Kirby Smith’s column, and a smaller force in southwestern Virginia under Humphrey Marshall. In the meantime, Loring launched his own army and a separate cavalry raid under Jenkins to clear the mountainous counties of western Virginia.
“Bragg ought immediately to advance,” Lee wrote to Secretary of War George W. Randolph on June 19. Ten days later Randolph ordered Bragg, “Strike the moment opportunity offers.” On September 4, President Davis wrote, “You have the field before you and I rely on your judgment.” Athough he ultimately focused on the Union Army of Don Carlos Buell, which had set out from Corinth, Miss., toward Chattanooga, Bragg was never able to exert more than marginal coordination over his disparate command. Even in Kentucky, the three armies (Bragg, Smith, and Marshall) never physically united. In consequence, the grand Confederate offensive was a web of nearly random design held together by the most diaphanous of threads.
The plan called for Bragg’s army of 35,000 men and Smith’s army of 18,000 to move in concert against Buell in central Tennessee, catch him in a pincer movement and, after he was “crushed,” advance into Kentucky, being supported on their right flank by the forces of Humphrey Marshall and William Loring from western Virginia. As Bragg moved north through Tennessee and central Kentucky, Kirby Smith would knock out the small Union post holding Cumberland Gap on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky.
“The junction with Bragg if effected in time will I trust enable the two armies to crush Buell’s column and advance to the recovery of Tennessee and the occupation of Kentucky,” Davis wrote to Kirby Smith. Smith had agreed to cooperate with Bragg, and to “cheerfully place my command under you subject to your orders.” Unfortunately, there would be no unified movement; the plan was weakened from the start by Bragg’s vacillation and timidity, coupled with Smith’s boldness and independent command status. Thus neither was in effective charge of the invasion.
In his monumental narrative of the Civil War, Shelby Foote called the Battle of Richmond the nearest in the entire war to being a Cannae, the great Carthaginian victory of the Punic Wars at which Hannibal enveloped both Roman flanks, interdicted the line of retreat, and virtually destroyed the Roman Army. Richmond was the most complete Confederate success west of the Appalachians, although by Civil War standards the battle was not a large engagement. This fact, coupled with Lee’s stunning victory at Second Manassas on the same two days, accounts for why it has largely been ignored by historians. Its obscurity is both ironic and undeserved, for the battle boasts several unique aspects, including a higher percentage of total loss in the Union Army in killed, wounded, and captured than either side suffered in any other single engagement of the war. Strategically speaking, the Richmond fight virtually obliterated Union power in central Kentucky.