Israel Richardson at Antietam

A Rising Star Struck Down in His Prime
Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army, by Jack C. Mason, Southern Illinois University Press

Up to the moment he was mortally wound­ed along Antietam’s Sun­ken Road on September 17, 1862, Israel Richardson had been a rare bright spot in the Union Army’s dysfunctional early-war command fraternity. For some reason, though, the Vermont native tends to be overlooked in many accounts of the Battle of Antietam as well as larger Civil War histories. Fortunately, with his impressive new biography, Jack Mason rescues Richardson from slipping further into historical obscurity.

“Fighting Dick,” a captain in the antebellum Army before resigning in 1855, rose quickly through the volunteer ranks early in the war and was elevated to divisional command in Edwin Sumner’s II Corps at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign in May 1862. Although he was known as a rigid disciplinarian, the unpretentious Richardson cared deeply for his men and was fearless in battle. He quickly molded arguably the finest and hardest-fighting division in the whole Army of the Potomac.

To tell Richardson’s story, Mason relied heavily on the general’s own writings, including about 100 pre­viously un­known letters that Richardson had penned to his family during 20 years of service. This correspondence shows the personal side of a man usually characterized as mostly a gruff and aggressive warrior.

Mason contends that, had he survived, Richardson would have risen to corps command, which is hard to refute considering both of his fellow II Corps divisional commanders at Antietam—John Sedgwick and William French—were ultimately promoted to that level. Mason’s argument that Richardson was being seriously considered as George B. McClellan’s replacement to lead the Army of the Potomac is debatable, however. According to Mason, Abraham Lincoln made an overture to that effect while visiting the wounded general at the Pry House, but he relies on the postwar writings of Captain Charles Draper, one of Richardson’s aides, in making this claim. While Rich­ardson fit the mold of the “fighting general” that Lincoln admired and it was popu­larly believed his appointment to army command would assuage the Radicals in Congress, no other sources are presented to support Draper’s account—and the aide’s own motives and veracity go unquestioned by Mason.

Although there are minor historical errors in his book, Mason has done a valuable service in bringing Rich­ard­son’s fascinating story to life.

6 Responses

  1. Jack C. Mason

    John,

    I appreciate your comments….and yes, it might be a stretch to argue that Lincoln was considering replacing McClellan with IBR. But I couldn’t ignore Draper’s claim and it appears that the President dragged his feet about making a change of command until IBR took a turn for the worse and died. Then the day following IBR’s death suddenly Lincoln makes a decision; hurriedly and awkwardly it seems, with no probing to illicit opinions on candidates from his staff or Cabinet. Intriguing, is it not?

    So I would welcome any discussion from the readers and experts to get their views. I am not rigidly defending my position; only wishing to give some credit to IBR for his service to the nation in twelve active campaigns over the course of three conflicts; the Seminole War, the Mexican War and the Civil War.

    Thanks,
    Jack C. Mason

    Reply
    • Mike R

      Jack,
      It was about time that someone honored this General, who remained publically obscure to modern times, but certainly to no one of that era. I am trying to get in touch with you to follow up on your work. Can you send an email address for that purpose to majorgeneralmontym@hotmail.com.

      Reply
  2. G. Lee Aikin

    The General was an ancestor. My son is named Grant Richardson Aikin. He is currently in Special Forces. He served in Gulf War I with the 82nd Airborne, and more recently 2 tours in Afghanistan. I am told the General was a tall strong man and that when the hazing committee at West Point came to haze him he threw the committee down the stairs. My uncle was into geneology and his family may have some records from his research.

    Reply
  3. Mike R

    Dear Mr. Aikin,

    I would like to explore your comments further, as I am currently in research to follow up on Jack’s book about the General. Please send me an email at majorgeneralmontym@hotmail.com with contact info and I will respond with more info to personalize my correspondence to you, as well.
    Hope to hear from you!

    Reply
  4. Bruce Harrison

    For Jack and Mike: My name is Bruce Harrison. My late mother’s name was Frances Joyce Harrison (nee Richardson). She was one of two daughters of my grandfather, Philip Richardson, who was General Richardson’s son. So obviously, that makes me General Richardson’s only great-grandson.

    My grandfather’s other daughter was Virginia John (nee Richardson), who had one daughter named Nancy South (nee John). We have a number of interesting memorabilia of the General, although not as many as you’d think. I have the General’s West Point compass, but most of what we have is in Nancy’s hands.

    One item of interest is the General’s commission as Brigadier General (his permanent rank – MGEN was a brevet rank), signed by Abraham Lincoln.

    If you wish to correspond, you can reach me at bruharris@aol.com or bruceharrison@gmail.com.

    Regards,

    Bruce Harrison, LT USN (Ret.)
    USNA ’70

    Reply
    • Don Richardson

      To All: I came across this review while doing one of my periodic Google trawls. Bruce, I will be in touch! I have been researching the General off and on for years but shifted my focus to filling out knowledge of his family after Jack Mason published his excellent book. My connection to IBR is pretty distant (we both descend from the three Richardson brothers who came to Massachusetts in the 1630’s) but I was always struck by the similarity between photos of him and photos of my own grandfather.

      Reply

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