Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army

Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army

by Jack C. Mason
     
 

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While researching this book, Jack C. Mason made the kind of discovery that historians dream of. He found more than one-hundred unpublished and unknown letters from Union general Israel B. Richardson to his family, written from his time as a West Point cadet until the day before his fatal wounding at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

Overview

While researching this book, Jack C. Mason made the kind of discovery that historians dream of. He found more than one-hundred unpublished and unknown letters from Union general Israel B. Richardson to his family, written from his time as a West Point cadet until the day before his fatal wounding at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Using these freshly uncovered primary sources as well as extensive research in secondary materials, Mason has written the first-ever biography of Israel Bush Richardson.

Richardson’s letters span more than twenty years of service in the U.S. Army. He served on the front lines of the Seminole War, chasing Indians through the swamps of Florida; fought in every important battle of the Mexican-American War, during which he distinguished himself by capturing a Mexican artillery piece and turning it against the enemy at the Battle of Cerro Gordo; guarded dangerous outposts in southwest New Mexico; and raised a regiment at the start of the Civil War that would become the 2nd Michigan. During the Civil War, Richardson fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, patrolled the area south of Washington, D.C., and led his division in the Peninsular Campaign. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Union Army over the first year of the war, as he was admired for his common sense, motivating leadership, and straightforward approach to combat.

Mason traces Richardson’s growth as a soldier, through his experiences and the guidance of his superiors, and then as a leader whose style reflected the actions of the former commanders he respected. Though he was a disciplinarian, Richardson took a relaxed attitude toward military rules, earning him the affection of his men. Unfortunately, his military career was cut short just as high-ranking officials began to recognize his aggressive leadership. He was mortally wounded while leading his men at Antietam and died on November 3, 1862.

Until Antietam brings to life a talented and fearless Civil War infantry leader. Richardson’s story, placed within the context of nineteenth-century warfare, exemplifies how one soldier’s life influenced his commanders, his men, and the army as a whole.

           

Editorial Reviews

Civil War News

Civil War enthusiasts enjoy probing the many “what if” scenarios presented by that conflict. Several focus on the hypothetical survival of prominent commanders who met an early demise, such as Stonewall Jackson or Albert Sidney Johnston. Jack C. Mason provides another example with his biography of Union Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson. Unaccountably, this is the first book-length treatment of Richardson. Mason, an instructor at the Command and General Staff College, chronicles Richardson’s career from West Point through his service in the Seminole and Mexican wars, his antebellum years in scattered Western posts, and finally Richardson’s rapid rise during the Civil War from regimental to divisional command.

Richardson’s promising generalship was cut short by his mortal wounding at Antietam in September 1862.

The heart of Mason’s book is a collection of Richardson’s previously undiscovered correspondence totaling close to 100 letters, as well as an unfinished journal that Richardson had commenced in the 1850s.

By this reviewer’s count, 54 of the letters either are used as sources or are quoted directly in the text. Not surprisingly, given the relative brevity of Richardson’s Civil War service and his command responsibilities, most of these letters cover Richardson’s career before the war.

Judging from the portions quoted, Richardson was an observant, literate officer imbued with common sense and fairness who effectively related to the common soldiers under his command.

Mason uses these letters to show Richardson’s evolution as a career officer who adopted positive command doctrines and practices from his various mentors, including Zachary Taylor.

Mason’s speculation about what might have been had Richardson survived Antietam is based on an alleged conversation between Richardson and Lincoln in the former’s sick room after his wounding.

Conceding that this uncorroborated account by a staff officer is thin evidence, Mason postulates that Richardson was in line to succeed George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. Given Richardson’s seniority, his record as an aggressive division commander, and his close connection with Republican leaders from his adopted state of Michigan, this is far from implausible. Certainly a corps command by 1863 seems likely.

Mason occasionally lapses into a common biographer’s ailment and becomes effusive about his subject. He also sporadically resorts to extended quotations in the text.

When the material consists of Richardson’s letters, this is an attribute. On the other hand, it can be an annoyance when the source is other material, such as Mason’s wholesale importation of a florid contemporary newspaper eulogy to summarize Richardson’s career.

Mason’s narrative of Richardson’s combat actions focuses tightly on the role of Richardson’s commands. His description of Richardson’s actions is fast-paced and highly readable.

As might be expected from someone with Mason’s background, his analysis of Richardson as a commander is insightful, particularly regarding Antietam. The text is accompanied by good maps showing the actions of Richardson’s units in their Mexican War and Civil War battles.

Richardson is an undeservedly ignored Union general, and this book ably fills an empty niche. The Richardson letters, which were written to family members, also provide a revealing look at officer life during the Seminole War, the Mexican War and at isolated western outposts. Mason’s book is strongly recommended despite its minor flaws.

— John Foskett

Civil War News - John Foskett

Civil War enthusiasts enjoy probing the many “what if” scenarios presented by that conflict. Several focus on the hypothetical survival of prominent commanders who met an early demise, such as Stonewall Jackson or Albert Sidney Johnston. Jack C. Mason provides another example with his biography of Union Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson.

Unaccountably, this is the first book-length treatment of Richardson. Mason, an instructor at the Command and General Staff College, chronicles Richardson’s career from West Point through his service in the Seminole and Mexican wars, his antebellum years in scattered Western posts, and finally Richardson’s rapid rise during the Civil War from regimental to divisional command.

Richardson’s promising generalship was cut short by his mortal wounding at Antietam in September 1862.

The heart of Mason’s book is a collection of Richardson’s previously undiscovered correspondence totaling close to 100 letters, as well as an unfinished journal that Richardson had commenced in the 1850s.

By this reviewer’s count, 54 of the letters either are used as sources or are quoted directly in the text. Not surprisingly, given the relative brevity of Richardson’s Civil War service and his command responsibilities, most of these letters cover Richardson’s career before the war. 

Judging from the portions quoted, Richardson was an observant, literate officer imbued with common sense and fairness who effectively related to the common soldiers under his command.

Mason uses these letters to show Richardson’s evolution as a career officer who adopted positive command doctrines and practices from his various mentors, including Zachary Taylor.

Mason’s speculation about what might have been had Richardson survived Antietam is based on an alleged conversation between Richardson and Lincoln in the former’s sick room after his wounding.

Conceding that this uncorroborated account by a staff officer is thin evidence, Mason postulates that Richardson was in line to succeed George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. Given Richardson’s seniority, his record as an aggressive division commander, and his close connection with Republican leaders from his adopted state of Michigan, this is far from implausible. Certainly a corps command by 1863 seems likely.

Mason occasionally lapses into a common biographer’s ailment and becomes effusive about his subject. He also sporadically resorts to extended quotations in the text.

When the material consists of Richardson’s letters, this is an attribute. On the other hand, it can be an annoyance when the source is other material, such as Mason’s wholesale importation of a florid contemporary newspaper eulogy to summarize Richardson’s career.

Mason’s narrative of Richardson’s combat actions focuses tightly on the role of Richardson’s commands. His description of Richardson’s actions is fast-paced and highly readable.

As might be expected from someone with Mason’s background, his analysis of Richardson as a commander is insightful, particularly regarding Antietam. The text is accompanied by good maps showing the actions of Richardson’s units in their Mexican War and Civil War battles.

Richardson is an undeservedly ignored Union general, and this book ably fills an empty niche. The Richardson letters, which were written to family members, also provide a revealing look at officer life during the Seminole War, the Mexican War and at isolated western outposts. Mason’s book is strongly recommended despite its minor flaws.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780809386871
Publisher:
Southern Illinois University Press
Publication date:
11/03/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Jack C. Mason is a Department of Army civilian and a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army Reserve. He serves as an instructor for the Command and General Staff College and has published several articles in Army magazine.

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