The Civil War Battle of Richmond, Kentucky: Brilliant, but Ignored

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October 19, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: American Civil WarUnionConfederacyKentuckyBattle Of Cannae

The Civil War Battle of Richmond, Kentucky: Brilliant, but Ignored

The Battle of Richmond can never compare with the numbers engaged at Cannae, yet the tactics and the one-sidedness of the battle are eerily reminiscent of that clash.

Manson recalled that “the rout had become general.” Next up was the 18th Kentucky, establishing a line behind which the bloodied 95th and Manson’s broken units could reform. In the face of the persistent Confederate advance, the 18th bravely stemmed the tide. But after a short time the regiment retired with severe losses. General Cruft commended the 18th for having “prevented the retreat at this time from becoming a rout,” but acknowledged that “the panic was well-nigh universal. The time was 10:30 a.m. The whole thing was fast becoming shameful.”

The 12th and 66th Indiana were left of Cruft’s Brigade, and these troops were moved back two miles in the rear of the first battle line in an attempt to rally the rest of the command. Cruft cobbled together a new line west of the Richmond Road, and Manson’s shattered regiments formed east of the road, not far from where Manson’s infantry had driven off Confederate cavalry the previous afternoon. As Manson and Cruft were watching the Confederates forming to advance on the new line, a courier arrived from Lexington and handed Manson an order from General Nelson, a directive that should have been sent two or three days earlier. It instructed Manson not to fight at Richmond, but to march west to Lancaster! Nelson had sent the order 10 hours earlier at 2:30 am in response to the cavalry report the previous day.

Within minutes the confident Rebels, intent on finishing the battle, advanced, McCray’s column spearheading the drive toward Cruft’s position. Preston Smith’s Brigade moved on Manson’s position. When they got to within 400 yards, a Yankee battery of six guns belched cannister, rapidly followed by volleys of musketry. It was, reported McCray, “the most incessant firing of cannon and musketry I have ever heard.”

Cruft’s troops fought with an astonishing determination that checked the Rebel assault. But the butternuts were in earnest, pressing onward until they reached a thickly overgrown fence, about 200 yards from Cruft’s line. McCray, “finding the air literally filled with bomb-shells and Minie balls,” ordered the troops to lie down under cover. Emboldened by their defense, and perhaps thinking the tide had shifted to them, the Yankees counterattacked. When this advance had closed to within 50 yards, McCray gave the order to “rise and fire!” A storm of bullets buzzed through the air like angry insects, knocking down men with fearful effect, driving the Yankees back “in the wildest confusion and disorder.”

Nelson Attempts a Union Rally

The Rebels up and down the line relentlessly pushed forward, both Union brigades melting away before them. Now the second Union battle position had been broken, and as Manson and Cruft worked furiously to regain and retain unit cohesion, they determined to make another stand on the southern outskirts of Richmond, at the city cemetery. As the new position was being organized, sudden cheers erupted that signaled the arrival of the army’s commanding general, “Bull” Nelson.

No doubt some who cheered him soon regretted it, or as one historian put it, “General Nelson in a raging temper attempted to restore order by beating his soldiers over the head with the flat sides of his sword.” Whatever words passed between Nelson and Manson when they met on the field are not recorded, but later Nelson bitterly accused Manson of disobeying his order to avoid a fight and take the army to Lancaster. Generals Nelson, Manson, and Cruft managed to rally 2,500 troops on the crest of a low-lying ridge, where they deployed behind a stone fence and some cemetery tombstones. Meanwhile, Kirby Smith let his enervated Confederates rest for about an hour—the fight had been going on for eight hours under a punishing sun and had covered miles of ground. When reorganized, the plan of attack would go forward unchanged: Strike the flanks, with Thomas Churchill advancing on the left and Preston Smith on the right. On the cusp of a complete success, Kirby Smith added a new wrinkle, sending his cavalry on a sweep around Richmond to cut off the expected Union retreat.

It was about 5 pm when the Confederate general advance was ordered. Union artillery opened first, firing shells and then cannister at the disciplined Rebels. The Union soldiers waiting for Kirby Smith’s men were not quite as green as they had been earlier in the day. The pair of drubbings they had received taught them a great deal about combat, and now they were delivering a withering fire and exacting a heavy price. A Southerner recalled, “We quickly formed our lines and moved on the cemetery, and in 20 minutes 140 men of the 2nd Tennessee and 128 of the 48th Tennessee were killed and wounded.”

With the setting sun’s rays wreathed in sulphurous smoke and presenting a blood-red hue, General Nelson rode among the troops, attempting to inspire them and threatening them with bodily injury if they failed to do their duty. Displaying his huge bulk he shouted, “Boys, if they can’t hit something as big as I am, they can’t hit anything!” Perhaps his entreaties worked because the Union line held firm and responded in kind to a murderous Southern volley.

But within seconds, another deadly volley ripped into the Union lines, and those who were not killed or maimed broke for the rear. Nelson, who was shot down when a pair of balls smashed into his thigh, recalled, “They stood about three rounds, when struck by panic, they fled in disorder.” The panic-stricken mob that had been the Union Army fell back in utter disorganization through the streets of Richmond and onto the Lexington Road. Of course, it was there that Kirby Smith’s cavalry awaited them. His troopers shot down a good many men, and by the hundreds they surrendered. Confederate Major Paul Hammond wrote that the “havoc was frightful, and the Federals threw down their arms and surrendered in crowds, and of the few who escaped not one in ten carried his musket with him.” First concealing himself in a cornfield, Nelson managed to sneak away. There were so many prisoners that the cavalry commander could not give Kirby Smith an accurate estimate, he simply reported that he “had a ten acre lot full.’’

Confederate Victory

The Battle of Richmond can never compare with the numbers engaged at Cannae, yet the tactics and the one-sidedness of the battle are eerily reminiscent of that clash. The Union loss was 206 killed, 844 wounded, and 4,304 missing (mostly captured), with only between 800 to 900 managing to escape. Confederate losses were 98 killed, 492 wounded, and eight missing. Kirby Smith pushed on to occupy Lexington, where he wrote his wife, “I am well and have the most enthusiastic reception in Kentucky—the whole population is turning out in mass…. Recruits are flocking to me by the thousands,” asserting that “all of Kentucky to the Ohio is at our feet.”

Indeed, enthusiasm abounded. The Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch wrote: “We think we may safely say that the day of Kentucky’s deliverance from the hateful thrall of abolition despotism has brightly dawned.” Vast military opportunities lay before the Confederates, but it would remain to be seen whether they would reap the harvest.

“Kentuckians,” proclaimed General Bragg on September 14, “I have entered your state with the Confederate Army of the West, and offer you a chance to free yourselves from the tyranny of a despotic ruler.” Indeed, the reception was encouraging, many waving and cheering the Confederates. One Rebel remembered “how gladly the citizens received us.”

The stolid Northern commander Buell, while casting a wary eye toward Kirby Smith, focused his attention on Bragg, whose march had developed on his rear, threatening his communications. But Buell did not move his whole army north to secure his line of communication because he concluded that if he did, Bragg would pivot westward, capture Nashville, and reconquer middle Tennessee. Buell’s slow and methodical withdrawal north allowed Bragg to reach Buell’s rear and place his army astride the great geographical axis that was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. For the Confederates, a successful campaign hinged on denying Union forces access to the all-important transportation and communication artery. In fact, it was along the L&N, on September 17, that Bragg gained a small tactical victory at Munfordville, Ky.

Buell’s Blunder

But Bragg then faced a decision: Should he wait to fight Buell’s slowly approaching army before it reached Louisville, or should he turn east to join Kirby Smith? He chose to abandon the railway to join Kirby Smith. Buell then took advantage of this strategic blunder and moved his army up the L&N Railroad to Louisville. To historian Stanley Horn, Bragg’s failure to fight Buell represented “probably the war’s greatest moral crisis.” He continued in his Army of the Tennessee—A Military History: “After an admirably devised and executed movement of more than 600 miles, he had placed his army exactly where he wanted it—squarely across the enemy’s line of communication. His soldiers were inspired by the Munfordville victory, and Buell’s men correspondingly depressed. There was every sound reason why he should fight at once, and there is some evidence that he thought of it … but he did not fight.”