By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
If you were asked, “What was the most important victory of the Civil War?” most of us would respond the Battle of Gettysburg. If you were asked, “What was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War?” most of us would respond the Battle of Antietam. If you were asked, “What was the most famous naval battle of the Civil War?” most of us would respond the Monitor vs. the Virginia. However, if you were asked, “What was the most lopsided battle of the Civil War?” one might need a few minutes to think it over. To explore a quicker answer to the question, let us go to Kentucky in the scorching hot, dry summer of August 1862.
The strategic situation in the West finds it the great hope of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to sway Kentucky to the southern cause. The North’s President Abraham Lincoln was born and bred in Kentucky and of course intended to keep that state firmly part of the North. To threaten Kentucky and regain the initiative after Shiloh, General Braxton Bragg, despite his many perceived shortcomings, was skillfully, and seemingly unobserved in the North, assembling a significant southern army of 30,000 in Tennessee and Kentucky by shifting troops by rail from points all over the Western Theater. Bragg’s goal was to invade Kentucky and persuade the state legislature in Frankfurt to embrace the secessionist cause.
Complementing Bragg was the South’s General Edmund Kirby Smith, a West Point graduate and former math instructor there. Kirby Smith was a noted botanist and was clearly a man of intellect. Kirby Smith fought in the Mexican-American War and was a brigadier general at the First Battle of Bull Run. In early 1862 Smith was promoted to major general and was given a command of 20,000 troops at Knoxville, Tennessee. Kirby Smith and Bragg met and devised a promising plan to conquer Union forces in the Bluegrass State and arrange for the legislature to “free itself” from the northern beasts. Kirby Smith would take the Cumberland Gap with his 20,000 and advance north into Kentucky. Then he would join with Bragg in the vicinity of the capital, Frankfort.
The Cumberland Gap was defended by about 9,000 bluecoats under George Morgan. In August, Smith moved forward, and with overwhelming numbers he quickly outflanked Morgan. Soon, under Smith’s command, General Patrick Cleburne’s division of about 7,000 was just south of Richmond, Kentucky. Cleburne was an Irish immigrant from Cork County, Ireland. By August 23, with the rest of Smith’s army still making its way north, Cleburne was faced by Union Brigadier General Mahlon Manson, a druggist before the war, who also had about 7,000 soldiers. Manson was the second in command to the colorful and rotund Major General William “Bull” Nelson, a native Kentuckian from Maysville, not far upstream from Ripley, Ohio.
Back in Washington, alarm bells were ringing due to the importance of President Lincoln’s home state. However, Old Abe had previously heard such Kentucky “cries of wolf” and simply commented to his chief of staff, General Henry Halleck, “They are having a stampede in Kentucky, please look into it.” That said, Bull Nelson, himself, was having a difficult time “looking into it” due to poor communications and a lack of reliable information. However, Union cavalry had now clashed with General Cleburne’s veteran division and confirmed to Nelson the invasion of Kentucky. Nelson began dispatching General Manson’s Union troops, which were mostly green and untried by battle.
Nelson wanted to form a line on the easily defended high banks of the Kentucky River, especially in light of his inexperienced force. On the other hand, the well-respected Cleburne led a well-seasoned division that had proven itself in many fights already, especially at Shiloh. In a nutshell, Manson claimed that he never received Nelson’s messages to position his troops on the Kentucky River and instead marched to a patch of high ground south of Richmond.
The tactical situation is easy to envision: the Union and Confederate troops of equal number at about 7,000 each, strung out in line formation facing each other astride the main road south of Richmond and leading from there northward to Lexington and thence to Frankfort. At 7:00 a.m. on August 30, rebel troops marched toward the hilltop Union positions and were met by fire from the few Union artillery pieces present for the battle. The rolling landscape of the bluegrass region not only offered such high points of ground, but conversely also offered numerous ravines, defiles, and draws that easily go unnoticed and hide enemy troops. The inexperienced Union officers and troops failed to see two such ravines on either side of their lines. However, under the veteran leadership of Cleburne, the Confederates did a better job of scouting these.
Accordingly, Cleburne led a ferocious assault on the Union left and used this defile terrain to partially conceal his troop movements. This quickly caused Manson to shift troops from his right to his left. Meantime, Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Churchill, a native Kentuckian, marched his troops on the Union right through a ravine that was further shrouded by a cornfield. It was Churchill’s surprise attack on the now weakened Union right that did the most damage. The butternuts sprang out screaming the rebel yell, shattered the green Union troops, and panicked their green officers into retreat. When the troops noticed their officers begin to flee, very few stayed to hold the line. By midday, against all odds, some of the more senior officers began to collect retreating troops in a new position about a mile north. However, this mix of rabble having lost its unit cohesion, was also not able to hold very long against the onrushing rebel veterans, who now had their lather fully up.
Late in the afternoon and having fallen all the way back to a cemetery on the south edge of Richmond, itself, General Nelson, who had been galloping most of the morning toward the direction of the firing, finally arrived and emboldened the men to make a stand. The corpulent Nelson dismounted his horse in front of the line and seemingly rallied the troops. However, his size and obvious stature as a Union commander made him an easy target, and he soon suffered a serious thigh wound. Helped by an aide back onto his horse, Nelson left the field.
In the meantime, the Union troops sheltering behind gravestones finally inflicted some casualties to the onrushing rebels. But when Nelson was wounded, the Union troops soon lost hope and fled through the town to join the others in a headlong retreat hoping to escape capture. However, Confederate cavalry bagged most of them. The prisoners were taken back to Richmond, where they were humiliatingly penned up behind a wrought iron fence that surrounded the courthouse in the middle of the town.
In what became known as the Battle of Richmond, Union dead were about 200 with 850 wounded. A whopping 4,300 were captured, and only about 500 escaped. That tallies about 90% killed, wounded, or captured. On the Confederate side of the ledger, a mere 98 were killed with 490 wounded for only about 10% killed, wounded, or captured. Accordingly, this outcome of 90% Union losses to only 10% Confederate losses is considered one of the most lopsided of the war. From here, General Kirby Smith, Napoleon-like, made a lightning quick follow-up march unscathed by Union interference to both Lexington and Frankfort by September 2, to the horror of the government in Washington. Frankfort was the only Union state capital to fall during the war.
Lincoln now truly did indeed have a rebel stampede on his hands! Kirby Smith was later promoted to lieutenant general and was thanked for his victory by a legislative act of the Confederate Congress. However, in the end the Kentuckians proved to be loyal to the North, contrary to the hopes of Jefferson Davis, and soon the bumbling Confederate General Braxton Bragg squandered Kirby Smith’s tremendous victory by losing ignominiously at the Battle of Perryville and thereafter ceding the initiative back to the Union.
For those interested in learning more about this battle and the Kentucky campaign of 1862, a good place to start is the book The Civil War at Perryville: Battling for the Bluegrass by Christopher Kolakowski.
Click on the book link on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.
On to Richmond!