Experience or a Gift on a Platter? A Closer Look at the Battle of Richmond.
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
One of the more common reasons for the overwhelming Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky on August 30, 1862, is that the Confederate army was vastly more experienced, leading them to easily crush their Union enemy. Open up any web article, and this is likely to be the case, but is this the only reason? Was the average Confederate soldier’s veteran status really what made victory possible, or was there another element? A look into the unit histories can give us a surprising conclusion on Confederate experience. Some of the Confederate soldiers had vast combat experience, while some had very little. A closer look at the combat experience of these troops may yield some interesting thoughts. In addition, the Union army gifted the Southerners several opportunities to secure a victory, despite the tenacious resistance put up by many of these green Yankees. Without the mistakes made by Union high command, the Southern experience may have counted for naught. This piece is not a comprehensive look at the Battle of Richmond, nor is it a thorough look at the Union regiments. I believe that going through each Union regiment, for this piece, would be redundant as it is understood that these men were new to the army. This piece is merely a thought as to why victory for the Confederates happened the way it did. The easy answer is Confederate experience, but is that the whole answer?
On that hot August day in 1862, E. Kirby Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky presented two divisions, made up of four brigades, against two Union brigades commanded by Brigadier General Mahlon Manson, and later Major General William “Bull” Nelson. Though Smith fielded more brigades, the numbers were mostly even. Of the three Southern brigades heavily engaged in the first two phases of the battle, only two had any real combat experience. Colonel Preston Smith’s brigade, one of two in Patrick Cleburne’s division, is an example of the veteran status of these Confederate troops. Consisting of the 12th, 13th, 47th, and 154th Tennessee Infantry regiments, these troops had all fought at Shiloh, and some even at the 1861 Battle of Belmont, Missouri. These troops had the lion's share of experience in the Confederate Army of Kentucky.
The experience in the other brigade of Cleburne’s division, commanded by Colonel Benjamin Hill, paints a different picture. Consisting of the 13/15th Arkansas (Consolidated) Infantry regiment, plus the 2nd, 35th, and 48th Tennessee regiments, these units all differed in their pre-Richmond experience. The 48th Tennessee was a conglomeration of escapees from Fort Donelson, while the 13/15th Arkansas consisted of Shiloh veterans, with a few companies also having fought at Belmont. The 35th Tennessee, formerly the 5th, fought at Shiloh. The 2nd Tennessee, perhaps with the most unique background, previously fought at Aquia Creek and First Manassas in 1861, before fighting at Shiloh in April 1862.
Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s division can easily be considered a Trans-Mississippi transplant. Both brigades consisted of regiments totally consisting of Texas and Arkansas troops that were all recent arrivals to the Western Theater. Churchill’s first brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas McCray, consisted of the 31st Arkansas Sharpshooters, along with the 10th, 11th, 14th, and 32nd (15th) Texas Dismounted Cavalry regiments. It should be noted that all of these former cavalry regiments functioned as infantry at the Battle of Richmond. When it comes to the combat experience of these Arkansas sharpshooters and former Texan cavalrymen, only the 11th Texas had seen any meaningful combat experience, and that at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The 31st Arkansas Sharpshooters, as the other Texas regiments, had seen very little in the way of fighting, except for skirmishes during the advance on Corinth, Mississippi.
Colonel Evander McNair’s brigade, the second in Churchill’s division, was an Arkansas exclusive brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, who like their Texas colleagues were dismounted, the 4th and 30th Arkansas (later the 25th) Infantry regiments, and the 4th Arkansas Infantry battalion. Most of these men fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek a little over a year before, Pea Ridge, and even Farmington, Mississippi and other smaller engagements. Though laden with experience, this brigade did not see action at the Battle of Richmond until the final stage of the battle.
In Civil War engagements, experience could work as a major advantage. Generally, experienced soldiers outperformed green troops, but there were instances where inexperienced men fought hard and fought well. At Richmond, the green troops did not perform as poorly as we would expect, given the fragmented ways in which they were deployed and orders to advance away from good ground. Confederate sources routinely mention the galling fire they received throughout the battle, showing us that the battle was no walk in the park. On the flip side, the experience of Confederate troops was less of a factor in determining victory than the management of Union forces by their commanders At the Battle of Richmond the Federal high command committed several blunders, handing even the most inexperienced Confederate units phenomenal opportunities to drive away their foe. Had the Union generals, mostly Manson, utilized their men in a more competent manner, perhaps the day may have been different.
The battle can be divided into three distinct phases. The first played out near the Armstrong House and Mount Zion Church, just south of the hamlet of Rogersville. The second phase occurred along the Duncannon Lane, midway between Rogersville and Richmond. The third and final phase of major fighting materialized at the cemetery in Richmond itself. During the first two phases of the battle, Union generalship made several critical mistakes that led to the army’s demise at Richmond.
In the early hours of August 30, 1862, Manson’s green Union brigade sat along the Richmond Road near Mt. Zion Church. Seeing the Confederate infantry deploy in his front, Manson became increasingly concerned about his left flank and shifted the majority of his regiments to that sector, east of the road, leaving only three companies of the newly raised 69th Indiana on the west. As the battle intensified, Charles Cruft marched his equally green brigade south to Manson’s support. As Cruft’s regiments arrived on the scene, Manson ordered them to different areas in a piecemeal fashion, most of them to the Union left. This wide-open Union right flank was a gift served on a silver platter to Kirby Smith. Having already ordered Churchill’s division to begin advancing toward the Union right, the inexperienced infantrymen of Thomas McCray’s Confederate brigade led the way through a deep ravine (later dubbed Churchill’s Draw), their advance completely shrouded from anyone within Union lines. As they emerged from their cover, they slammed into the unsuspecting men of the 69th Indiana and 95th Ohio, who were surprised to find infantry on their right flank as they charged a rebel battery. These Federals attempted to make a stand, but their position was untenable. At the same time, the two brigades of Cleburne’s division had finally overwhelmed the Union left, after hard and desperate fighting on the part of the inexperienced Union troops. Had Manson asked for Cruft's support earlier, and had he deployed his men in a more coherent fashion, perhaps Kirby Smith would have rethought his attack.
After restoring organization to their two brigades, Cruft and Manson established new positions along the Duncannon Lane, a road perpendicular to the Richmond Road. Cruft’s brigade held the Union right, while Manson’s battered brigade anchored the left, though 200 yards to the rear. The Confederates again appeared in view, with McCray’s brigade still in the lead on the Confederate left. The Texans and Arkansans, after coming under a terrific fire, halted their advance in a low lying position. Churchill reported, ‘I then ordered my command to lie down, protected by a fence and ditch, and for a full five minutes we did not fire.” Cruft, usually a competent officer, mistook the lack of Confederate fire and the halt in the advance as a sign that the enemy were close to breaking. He ordered his brigade forward, only to have a stunning volley rip into his ranks at 50 yards. McCray’s brigade surged forward, but their blue-coated and green enemy stubbornly resisted every inch of ground. As Cruft’s casualties quickly mounted, Hill’s veterans crashed into Cruft’s left before he could adequately react, while Manson’s brigade, a few hundred yards to the rear, failed to fire a shot, save for a few rounds of artillery. Needless to say, Cruft’s brigade broke, and both Union brigades fled north to Richmond. Had Cruft and Manson anchored their lines in supporting distance with one another, McCray’s advance and Hill’s flanking attack may have been stymied. As in the first phase of the fight, the raw Union troops proved they would fight, and fight well, but due to mistakes made at the command level, defeat was their reward.
In the third and final phase of the Battle of Richmond, the two Union brigades were finally under the command of William “Bull” Nelson. After rallying his retreating forces, and lying to them about arriving reinforcements, Nelson set up a defense in the Richmond Cemetery. The line was reasonably strong, except for one glaring weakness-a lack of artillery. By the afternoon, the artillery had exhausted its ammunition, mostly from wasted artillery duels earlier in the day. They would not be able to provide any long-range support for their comrades in the infantry, except for two guns that managed to fire only a few rounds. For this final attack, Smith had the advantage of replacing McCray’s tired men with McNair’s brigade. Though they had yet to be engaged, the men were still thoroughly tired from the heat and long march under the August sun. The combined brigades of McNair, Hill, and now Vaughn (Preston Smith’s brigade) eventually broke the Federal line, with the Southerners suffering well over 270 casualties, including several regimental officers and Hill himself, who received a serious wound. In the city cemetery, the Confederates suffered their highest casualties, perhaps giving a glimpse of what might have been, had the Federals fought united and in a good position all day. Unfortunately for the Union troops, John Scott’s southern cavalry captured nearly 4,000 of them as they fled toward Lexington, with only a remnant escaping to fight another day.
The high levels of experience of the average Confederate soldier at the Battle of Richmond undoubtedly was a major advantage that helped secure victory. However, the green Union soldiers proved all day that they could, and would, fight doggedly and inflict heavy casualties on the attacking Confederates. The egregious mistakes made by Manson and Cruft negated the determined stands made by their men. Perhaps the Battle of Richmond would not have gone down as one of the most complete Confederate victories of the war, had Union command not served up Union defeat as a welcoming gift to the state of Kentucky for Kirby Smith.
Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.
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