In June of 1862, Confederate Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith moved his force of approximately 19,000 men into Kentucky using what became the US 25/25W corridor and is now paralleled by Interstate 75.
Union Gen. Cassius Clay of Madison County, who initially was in charge of the Union troops in Richmond, wanted to take up defensive positions on the north side of the Kentucky River to prevent the invaders from reaching Lexington.
However, Clay was replaced by Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, a native of Mason County, who ordered the brigades in Richmond under Gen. Malon Manson and Gen. Charles Cruft to withdraw to Lancaster. But, the commanders in Richmond said they did not receive the order, and their forces were routed after they marched south of town to meet the Confederates head on.
To this day, no one knows for sure why Nelson’s orders dispatched from less than 30 miles away in Lexington, where he had gone to send telegraph messages asking for reinforcements, did not arrive until more than 12 hours later.
Why did Nelson’s order sent at 2:30 a.m. for Manson to redeploy his troops not arrive in time to prevent the Federal disaster? There is some speculation Nelson’s messenger may have become sidetracked on the horse ride to Richmond.
When Nelson arrived in Lancaster, where he expected to meet Mason and his troops, he was astonished to hear the sound of artillery coming from the direction of Richmond. He then rode toward the battle.
Smith’s more experienced Confederate troops, many of whom had fought in the bloody battle of Shiloh, broke the center of the Union line after surprise attaches were launched on their flanks.
By afternoon, Nelson arrived and tried to rally troops who were retreating in disarray. The fighting was intense, and Nelson was wound in the upper thigh as he tried to turn the soldiers around by shouting and slashing at them with his sword.
The words Nelson and Manson exchanged when they met on the battlefield were not recorded. But after surveying the scene, Nelson realized the terrain south of Richmond was not suitable to mount a defense, and he ordered the troops to regroup at the edge of town. There they made a last stand, firing from behind tombstones in the Richmond Cemetery.
Although Nelson’s wound was serious, he survived and escaped capture as the Confederate cavalry rode around Richmond to cut off the federals’ retreat.
The Southern victory at Richmond brought intense criticism from a public that feared the humiliating Union defeat would lead to a Confederate takeover of Kentucky.
After the battle, Nelson bitterly accused Manson of disobeying his order to avoid a fight at Richmond. But Manson claimed he did not received the order until after the fighting had begun.
Because Nelson’s order was issued in the middle of the night, some historians have speculated the messenger may have fallen asleep or patronized a tavern on his way to Richmond.
Whatever the reason for the order’s late delivery, the lack of communication between Nelson and his commanders contributed to the most sweeping Confederate victory of the Civil War.