"The Old 154th Can't Be Whipped!" A Confederate View of the Battle of Richmond

     During the Civil War, Corporal John Gordon Law of Co. E of the 154th Senior Tennessee Infantry regiment kept a daily diary of his experiences serving in the ranks of the Army of Tennessee. His entries were well-written and detailed, and perhaps some of his best writing concerns the role his regiment played in the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky. 

    "The curtain has dropped. The dark and bloody tragedy is closed, and we are in possession of the town of Richmond," he wrote at 7 o'clock the night of August 30, 1862. "Just as the sun was sinking, we drove them from behind the tombstones in the graveyard, pursued their flying columns through the town, and the citizens of Richmond heard the Confederate shout of victory and saw our battle flags waving in triumph over the long gray line that filed through their streets. The 30th day of August will ever be memorable in the history of our country, as marking one of the most brilliant victories ever achieved by Confederate arms," he wrote.

    He shared portions of this extraordinary document with the Southern Historical Society in the 1880s which I am glad to share below.

This well-armed but unidentified Confederate soldier typifies the look of a western Johnny Reb. At Richmond, two divisions of veterans like him made quick work of the newly raised troops from Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, gaining one of the most lopsided victories of the war. It was an auspicious opening to the Confederate invasion of Kentucky. 

August 30, 1862, 12 o'clock. On the battle field.

We have had a hard fight of three hours' duration, have routed the enemy with great slaughter, and are now resting in an apple orchard. About daylight we were in line of battle, and moved forward about two miles, when we filed off into the turnpike and resumed the rout step. We were under the impression that the enemy had fled as usual upon our approach, and were marching quietly and carelessly along about 8 o'clock, when all of a sudden, like a clap of thunder in a clear sky the report of a cannon rung out on the morning air and a shell came whizzing over our heads. The head of the column immediately filed off int the woods and we were again drawn up in battle array. "Forward, march!" shouted our gallant Colonel Edward Fitzgerald, and the gray line steadily advanced through a heavy fire from the Yankee batteries, until we reached a rail fence, where we encountered the infantry, who were strongly posted on the opposite side of an old field, and from the skirt of the woods opened on us with a galling volley of musketry.

And a desolating fire it was, for it deprived the 154th regiment of its beloved leader. The brave and gallant Fitzgerald fell dead from, his horse before he heard our shout of victory. He was shot through the heart and expired instantly. Colonel Fitzgerald entered the Confederate service as Captain of a company raise in Paris, Tennessee, where he was a promising young lawyer. At the reorganization of the 154th Tennessee, at Corinth, he was elected Colonel, and by his kind consideration of the comfort of his men had won for himself the esteem of the entire regiment. He was universally popular, and his loss will be severely left. His first, last, and only command in action was, "Forward, march!"

Sergeant Eldridge Wright
Co. G, 154th Tennessee

Dr. Barbour, and Billy Goodlett, of the "Maynard Rifles," were both wounded by the same volley that cut short the brilliant career of the chivalric young Fitzgerald. We held our position behind the fence for some minutes under a continuous stream of fire, wondering why we were not ordered to charge, when all at once a tremendous roar of musketry broke out on the flank of the enemy, and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Mageveney, who had assumed command of the regiment, rode along the lines, and in his rich Irish brogue, shouted: "Mount the fence lads; mount the fence, and at 'em; charge!" No sooner was the command given, than one wild yell arose from the ranks of the old 154th and leaping over the fence, we charged through the open field in the face of a perfect storm of bullets, and scattered the enemy like chaff before wind. As they turned to fly, we opened fire with our Enfield rifles, and mowed them down like grass.

The flanking column closed in on the right, and their rout was complete. A gallant officer mounted on a white horse was seen with sword in hand, making a desperate effort to rally the flying columns, and reform the broken lines on a commanding eminence, but a well-directed volley was poured into the disorganized blue mass, and horse and rider disappeared. The enemy continued their flight hotly pursued by our victorious troops, and left the ground covered with their dead and wounded. We have captured a large number of prisoners, and they are still coming in. General Patrick Cleburne is wounded.

Colonel Preston Smith, 154th Tennessee
Killed in action Sept. 19, 1863 at Chickamauga

Two o'clock p. m. We have had another fight, and have again routed the enemy and driven him in confusion from a strong position in the open fields. His artillery was well posted, and the shot and shell tore through our ranks as we advanced to the attack, but such was the impetuosity of our charge, and such the demoralization of the enemy,  that their line was easily broken, and the shout of victory again went up from the Confederate ranks.

We have had a beautiful battle-ground, and could plainly see every movement of the enemy  before we came within range of their fire. We are now resting in sight of their camp, and the white tents look very tempting. But they are shelling us, and we will have to take the battery. I thank God for my escape from injury so far. One of the prisoners reports that they have 18,000 fresh troops coming up to reinforce their army, but I feel confident of our ability to hold the field, trusting not in numbers, but in the God who rules over the earth and defends the right. The firing had ceased, but we will probably have more of it before night. Our army is elated with success and flushed with victory, while the enemy are demoralized and dispirited by continuous defeat. General Preston Smith is now in command of the division, as General Cleburne is disabled by his wound. Colonel Alfred Vaughn, of the 13th Tennessee, commands the brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel Mageveney commands the regiment.

Seven o'clock p. m. The curtain had dropped. The dark and bloody tragedy is closed, and we are in possession of the town of Richmond. The enemy made a last desperate stand on the outskirts of the town, and fought us with great gallantry, contesting every inch of ground, and slowly retreating before our steady and determined advance. They fought us from behind haystacks and hedges, but all in vain. We were determined to win the fight, and we won it. Just as the sun was sinking we drove them from behind the tombstones in the graveyard, pursued their flying columns through the town, and the citizens of Richmond heard the Confederate shout of victory, and saw our battle-flags waving in triumph over the long gray line that filed through their streets. Captain Sterling Fowlkes, of the 154th regiment, was killed just as we entered the town. He was Captain of the Zouave Cadets, a brave soldier, and a most accomplished young officer. His death will be deeply lamented. It is a costly victory when two such men as Fitzgerald and Fowlkes yield up their lives.

General Preston Smith rode up to our regiment as we were formed in the streets of Richmond, and congratulating us on victory said: "Boys, there is one thing I have to say, the Old 154th can't be whipped." We have had a terrible experience today. Without food and without water we have been on the double quick, charging infantry and artillery through open fields, and climbing fences under a galling fire, and yet not a man faltered. The gaps made in the ranks by the enemy's fire would close us, and with a determination to conquer or die, our invincible column moved forward, sweeping the field before its fiery onslaught. We have fought over about ten miles of ground, and rest tonight in a lovely grove just outside the town of Richmond. The 30th day of August will ever be memorable in the history of our country, as marking one of the most brilliant victories ever achieved by Confederate arms. And now with gratitude to God for my singular preservation through all the dangers of this bloody day, and a tear for the lamented dead, who have laid their lives upon the altar of our dear native land. I will seek 'tired nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep," on a soft carpet of blue grass.

The final phase of the Battle of Richmond was fought here amongst the tombstones of the town cemetery. 

Sunday, August 31. –

We have rested all day, and will probably move on to Lexington tomorrow. Our victory yesterday was a glorious one. We captured all of the enemy's artillery and 5,000 prisoners. General William Nelson, who was in command of the Federals, was wounded. We also captured the enemy's wagon train with quartermaster and commissary stores in great abundance. Spent the morning inspecting the fruits of our victory and in gazing with absorbing interest at the long line of prisoners that we were fighting yesterday. Our cavalry intercepted the retreating army of Federals and brought in a long line of prisoners this morning. One of our boys in gray recognized his brother in blue among the prisoners and gave him a bountiful supply of rations. One of the sad features of this bloody war is that it is a fratricidal strife. Brother is arrayed in arms against brother, father against son, and friend against. Especially is this the case among the troops of Kentucky, where there is such serious division of sentiment in families, some in unnatural sympathy with the Federals who are seeking to subjugate us and enforce a union that we do not desire, and some in sympathy with the Confederates who are battling for the sacred rights of independence and confederation. It was quite affecting to witness the meeting between the two brothers, one a ragged, war-worn and half-starved Confederate, and the other a well-dressed and well-fed Federal. Yesterday they were enemies and would have shot each other down in the heat of battle. Today they are friends and the Confederate ministers of the bodily comfort of his Federal brother. Such are the reversible fortunes of war.

Richmond is a beautiful little town, and the private residences have an air of elegance and wealth. The church buildings are very handsome, which indicated a refined, generous and cultured people. We are encamped in one of the most beautiful groves that I ever saw. To my mind the Arcadian grove would not be a sweeter resting-place than this lively spot. Rations are now abundant, and we are enjoying the luxury of genuine coffee and sugar. I feel thankful that our Sabbath rest has not been disturbed by the rude clash of arms.

This historical marker located in front of the Madison County Courthouse in Richmond indicates that the Federal prisoners were corralled around the courthouse right after the battle. One Confederate officer didn't take the time to count them but reported that he had a "ten acre lot full." More than 5,000 Federals ended up being captured, an overwhelming number that General Edmund Kirby Smith quickly set about paroling. To have continued to hold on to the captured Federals would have presented logistics and supply problems that would have distracted Smith from the offensive. The ripe plum of Kentucky seemed ready to fall into Smith's grasp, and he intended to maintain the initiative. After being paroled, the dispirited prisoners marched by foot the hundred or so miles to the Ohio River where they went off to parole camps in Ohio and Indiana. 

September 1.-

Left Richmond early this morning and marched 18 miles. We crossed Kentucky river without opposition, as the demoralized Yankees fled on our approach. We are now marching through one of the wealthiest regions of Kentucky and find the sentiment of the people almost unanimously Southern, it being a rare exception to meet with an avowed Union man. The Kentuckians seem to be frantic with joy over the appearance of a Confederate army in their State, and have already began the organization of a regiment at Richmond. It was hard to leave our bluegrass beds, but a soldier can't expect to sleep on a downy bed of ease every night.

September 2. –

We camp to night only four miles from Lexington. The enemy continue to fly before our victorious advance, and we expect to make a triumphal entry into the city of Lexington tomorrow.

September 3, Lexington, Ky. –

This morning at 9 o'clock, our victorious army marched through the streets of Lexington, flushed with success and buoyant with joyous excitement. At the head of the column marched the regimental band, filling the air with the inspiring strains of martial music, followed by the long line of gray, with bayonets fixed and banners floating proudly in the breeze. We could not have met with a more enthusiastic reception if the Old 154th senior regiment of Tennessee volunteers, had marched down Main street in Memphis, after its baptism of blood at Belmont. It was a proud moment for the Southern army. The morning  was lovely and heaven seemed to give us its gracious benediction. It was a perfect ovation. The streets of the beautiful city were lined with fair women and brave men. Confederate flags waved over our heads and floated from the windows, and as we filed through the streets under  a canopy of while handkerchiefs, cheer upon cheer rose in one harmonious volume of enthusiasm for Jefferson Davis and the Southern boys.


Diary of Rev. John Gordon Law, Co. E, 154th Senior Tennessee Infantry, Southern Historical Society Papers Vol. 12 (1884), pgs. 538-542


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