On to Richmond!

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

On to Richmond! This was the battle cry in the North at the beginning of the Civil War, and it signified the objective to capture the Confederate capital and thereby bring a quick end to the rebellion. The history books state that it took nearly four years from the war’s outset until that goal was attained. However, Richmond actually fell under Union control by the end of 1862, but before this happened there was a battle there that was not only the most one-sided Confederate victory, but the most one-sided victory by either side during the Civil War. Moreover, the commander of the Union army at Richmond was killed by Jefferson Davis. Of course, these statements do not refer to Richmond, Virginia, but to Richmond, Kentucky, although there is a connection between these two cities. The Richmond in Kentucky was founded by Revolutionary War veteran John Miller in 1798, and it was named in honor of Miller’s birthplace, Richmond, Virginia.

Kentucky was considered of utmost importance by both sides during the Civil War, not simply because this state was the birthplace of both the president of the United States of America and the president of the Confederate States of America, but because of its geographic importance. Abraham Lincoln thought that Kentucky was so important to the Union war effort that he reputedly said in 1861, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” and later that year Lincoln wrote in a letter, “I think to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game.” The Confederacy wanted Kentucky in order to have the more defensible Ohio River as part of its northern border. At the beginning of the Civil War, Kentucky, by its own proclamation, belonged to neither side, since the state made the unrealistic declaration of its neutrality. Confederate General Leonidas Polk violated this neutrality in September 1861 by having the army he commanded occupy Columbus, Kentucky, and from that point on Kentucky was in the war. Other Confederate forces later pushed into southern Kentucky. But after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Confederate positions in Kentucky became untenable, and all Confederate forces there withdrew to Tennessee.

In the summer of 1862, two Confederate armies advanced into Kentucky from Tennessee with the objective of securing the Bluegrass State and validating its star on the Confederate flag. Braxton Bragg’s army moved into central Kentucky, and Edmund Kirby Smith’s smaller army moved into eastern Kentucky. While Don Carlos Buell moved his army north in pursuit of Bragg, a small army under the command of William “Bull” Nelson advanced from its camp, which was not far from Lexington, to meet Kirby Smith’s force. On August 29-30, 1862, the same dates as the Second Battle of Bull Run, Kirby Smith’s veteran army and Nelson’s inexperienced force clashed at Richmond, Kentucky, which is about 25 miles southeast of Lexington.

William “Bull” Nelson

When the battle started, Nelson was still in Lexington. On the first day of the battle, there was some action that started near sunset, but was inconclusive. The majority of the fighting occurred on the second day, and early on that second day Kirby Smith’s army, spearheaded by a division commanded by Patrick Cleburne, drove the Union army back in what was later characterized as a rout. At about this time Nelson arrived on the battlefield and was able to stem the flight and reorganize his line. To calm his inexperienced men, Nelson, who was a very big man at 6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds, walked along his line and shouted to his men, “If they can’t hit me, they can’t hit anything.” Unfortunately for Nelson he was hit twice, although the wounds were superficial. Nevertheless, the sight of their commander being shot put Nelson’s green troops into a panic, and they fled in disorder. The ensuing Confederate victory was total. Of the 6,500 Union men in the battle, over 5,300, or more than 82%, were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Confederate losses were about 450, or less than 7% of their total force and only 8% of the Union losses.

Jefferson C. Davis

Less than three weeks after the battle, Nelson had recovered from his minor wounds and was working with other Union commanders in making plans to stop the Confederate advance into Kentucky. An Indiana officer with the unfortunate name of Jefferson Davis was assigned to assist Nelson. Davis had been at Fort Sumter on the first day of the Civil War and then in a few battles thereafter, and he desired to return to combat. But Nelson gave Davis non-combat assignments, and Davis took to these tasks less than enthusiastically. When Nelson, whose leadership style was brusque, became upset with Davis’ poor attitude, there was a confrontation between the two men. After an argument, Nelson relieved Davis and told him to leave Kentucky. Davis returned to his home state of Indiana and, still seething, met with the governor, who accompanied Davis to Kentucky to confront Nelson. Again an argument ensued between Nelson and Davis, but this time words escalated to actions. These actions began with Davis tossing a crumpled card into Nelson’s face. Nelson responded by giving a backhanded slap to Davis’ jaw with one of his large hands, and then Nelson stormed away. The enraged Davis borrowed a pistol on the spot, pursued Nelson, aimed the pistol at the large man, and shot him in the chest. Exactly one month after the first day of the Battle of Richmond, Bull Nelson was dead at the hand of a fellow officer. Davis was arrested but was never prosecuted or punished, most likely because of the Union’s great need for experienced officers. Later in the war, Davis served under William Tecumseh Sherman as a corps commander during Sherman’s campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas. After the Civil War, Davis was made the first commander of the Department of Alaska.

As for the immediate problem of the twin Confederate advances into Kentucky, these culminated with the Battle of Perryville in early October of 1862. After Bragg’s setback there, his army joined with Kirby Smith’s army, and both armies withdrew to Tennessee. From then on there was no major effort by the Confederacy to take Kentucky, and the only Confederate action in the state consisted of some raids by Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. For the remainder of the Civil War, Kentucky, including Richmond, remained under Union control. Lincoln had Kentucky, as he wanted for fear of losing the whole game, although opinions differ as to whether God was on his side.

On to Richmond. This goal was reached in Kentucky before it happened in Virginia, although prior to Richmond, Kentucky falling under Union control, the Confederacy won a great victory there. No less an authority on the Civil War than Shelby Foote called the South’s victory at Richmond, Kentucky, “the nearest thing to a Cannae ever scored by any general, North or South, in the course of the whole war.” Of the two Richmonds, the one in Virginia is certainly the more popular destination for Civil War enthusiasts. But if someone wants to visit the site of the most one-sided victory in the Civil War, then the thing to do is to go ‘on to Richmond,’ but to the other Richmond: Richmond, Kentucky.