August 29–30, 1862
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 September 29-30, 1862, was the first major engagement of the Confederate Heartland Campaign.
On July 31, 1862, Confederate Major General Kirby Smith traveled from Knoxville to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to meet with 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.
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.
On August 18, 1862, Smith's army marched into Barbourville, Kentucky, and discovered that they were in truly hostile territory. With little prospect of receiving comfort or much-needed supplies from the local populace, 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."
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 what was then known as the 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 the presence of 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 consisted of 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 at the time, Manson had field command of the 6,800 Federals at Richmond.
On the afternoon of August 29, 1862, the skirmishing intensified when Manson ordered Union artillery and infantry forward, forcing Scott's troopers to retreat to Big Hill fifteen miles south of Richmond. The Federal brigade pursued the Rebels as they fell back, but the fighting subsided as evening approached.
Overnight, Manson learned that Smith's entire force was moving north in support of Cleburne and Scott. The Union general sent a messenger to Nelson in Lexington advising him of Smith's movements and asking for instructions. Nelson advised Manson to fall back rather than confront Smith's army en masse. Nelson's message failed to reach Manson by the next morning, however, so Manson decided to continue to press forward. On the other side, Smith also chose to go on the offensive. He ordered Cleburne to attack in the morning, with assurances that he would be reinforced by Churchill's division.
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.
As the Federals began slowly advancing against Cleburne's right flank, Kirby Smith arrived on the scene 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 that was designed to take pressure off of 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.
At about 10:30, the confidence of some of the inexperienced Federal troops on the right began to falter. 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. General Nelson arrived on the battlefield at about 2 p.m. and tried to rally his forces just south of Richmond, but to no avail. Most of the terrified Bluecoats laid down their arms and surrendered.
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 78 killed, 372 wounded, and one missing. On a strategic level, the victory cleared Union resistance in central Kentucky during the Confederate Heartland Campaign. 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.