Deemed by many scholars as the most complete victory by one side over the other during the Civil War, the Battle of Richmond, fought on August 29 - 30, 1862, was the first major engagement of the Confederate Heartland Campaign.
Bragg and Smith Plan to Invade Kentucky
On July 31, 1862, Confederate Major General Kirby Smith traveled from Knoxville to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to meet with the newly-named commander of the Army of the Mississippi, General Braxton Bragg. There, the two generals developed plans to end the string of Federal successes in the West during the first half of the year by launching a two-pronged invasion of Kentucky.
Smith Enters Kentucky
Following their meetings, Smith returned to Knoxville and began preparing his forces for the planned offensive. On August 14, 1862, he headed north out of Knoxville with a force of roughly 15,000 soldiers. Two days later Smith passed through the Cumberland Gap into southern Kentucky. Leaving roughly 9,000 soldiers behind to guard the gap, Smith headed north with 6,000 seasoned infantrymen and 850 cavalry troopers that would soon be known as the Army of Kentucky.
Smith Decides to Move to Lexington
On August 18, 1862, Smith’s army marched into Barbourville, Kentucky, and discovered they were in hostile territory. With little prospect of receiving comfort or much-needed supplies from the local citizens, Smith informed Bragg on August 20, 1862, that:
I find I have but two courses left me—either to fall back for supplies to East Tennessee or to advance toward Lexington for them. The former course will be too disastrous to our cause in Kentucky for me to think of doing so for a moment. I have therefore decided to advance as soon as possible upon Lexington.
Federals at Richmond, Kentucky
With Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne’s infantry brigade and Colonel John S. Scott’s cavalry leading the way, the Army of Kentucky headed north along Old State Road (modern US 25/421). On August 29, when Cleburne received reports of Union troops moving his way he sent Scott’s cavalry ahead during the morning to investigate. While skirmishing with Union pickets, Scott discovered a large federal force about fifteen miles north near Richmond.
The Union force in front of Cleburne and Scott was Major General William “Bull” Nelson’s Army of Kentucky, which comprised two infantry brigades commanded by Brigadier General Mahlon Dickerson Manson and Brigadier General Charles Cruft, plus a Cavalry Brigade commanded by Brigadier General James S. Jackson. Because Nelson was away, Manson had field command of the 6,800 Federals at Richmond.
August 29 – 30, 1862: Clash at Richmond, Kentucky
August 29: Both Sides Plan to Attack the Next Day
On the afternoon of August 29, 1862, while Nelson was in Lexington, Manson’s brigade encountered the lead elements of Smith’s army south of Richmond. Despite Nelson’s previous instructions to fall back rather than risk a general engagement, Manson decided to attack Smith the next morning.
On the other side, Smith chose to do the same. He ordered Cleburne to attack in the morning, assuring him that Churchill’s division would reinforce him.
August 30: Confederates Attack First
Both sides were up and stirring by 4 a.m. on August 30. Cleburne’s soldiers marched north before dawn and encountered Union pickets in front of Manson’s forces near Zion Church about one mile south of Rogersville and six miles south of Richmond. Manson quickly ordered Cruft’s brigade forward to secure the federal line.
Smith Stalls Federal Advance
As the Yankees began slowly advancing against Cleburne’s right flank, Kirby Smith arrived between 7:30 and 8:00 along with Churchill’s brigade. Soon thereafter, Churchill launched an attack against the Federals on Cleburne’s left flank designed to remove pressure from the Rebels who were falling back on the right. Gradually, the Union advance stalled, and the Confederates began pushing the Yankees back until both sides occupied their original positions.
A Mass Disorganized Federal Retreat
At about 10:30, the confidence of some inexperienced Federal troops on the right faltered. Individual soldiers turned and ran, leading to a mass disorganized retreat. Union officers reorganized their fleeing soldiers at Rogersville, but their attempts to hold a new line proved futile. Manson apprised Nelson that:
We have had severe battle this morning from 8 to 11; had to fall back, but are in good shape now; will fall back farther, near to town (Richmond). Enemy in large force and perhaps flanking us; some regiments behaved well, some badly. You should come at once with all reinforcements you can.
Nelson Injured Trying to Rally His Troops
Nelson quickly headed south to join his beleaguered army, but his presence made no difference. In his after-action report written the next day, Nelson recalled that:
I went on to Richmond, and arrived upon the field about 2 o’clock and found the forces entirely disorganized. After much labor I succeeded in rallying them and forming a new line of battle, but the line was hopelessly broken and scattered and I was left on the field and am now having a ball cut out of my leg.
The Battle of Richmond was a resounding Confederate victory. Nelson barely escaped, but most of his 6,500 soldiers were not as fortunate. The Union Army of Kentucky suffered 5,553 casualties, including 206 killed, 844 wounded, and 4,303 captured or missing. In contrast, the Confederate Army of Kentucky suffered 451 total casualties, including seventy-eight killed, 372 wounded, and one missing.
On August 31, 1862, Nelson’s superior, Major General Horatio Wright, dejectedly informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that “Nelson has been badly beaten, I fear, in an encounter with the enemy near Richmond, Ky.; his force being, as he says, hopelessly broken and scattered.” Many Civil War scholars deem the Confederate triumph at the Battle of Richmond as the most complete victory one side had over the other during the entire conflict.
The Confederate victory eliminated Union resistance to the Rebel invasion in central Kentucky. On September 2, 1862, Kirby Smith rode into Lexington unopposed, announcing that “We come not as invaders but as liberators.” The next day, the Army of Kentucky marched into Frankfort and hoisted the Confederate flag over the state capitol building. Smith’s triumph at Frankfort marked the only Confederate occupation of a Union capital during the Civil War. Despite the totality of the Rebel dominance at the Battle of Richmond, the engagement has been overshadowed in history books by another Confederate victory 500 miles to the east at Manassas, Virginia, on August 30, 1862—the Second Battle of Bull Run.