Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 9,000-man Confederate Army of Kentucky crossed the last mountain range on the way to Lexington, only to find the path blocked by 6,500 Federals under Brigadier General Mahlon D. Manson about a half-mile in front of Rogersville. The Federals belonged to the nearby Richmond garrison in central Kentucky; they were raw Indiana recruits who had never seen combat before. Smith ordered his Confederates to attack.
Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne’s division led the Confederate charge. The Federals initially held firm; Cleburne was shot through the face and replaced by Colonel Preston Smith. As the fighting continued, Colonel John S. Scott’s Confederate cavalry worked its way into the Federal rear. Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Confederate division then arrived on the field and joined Preston Smith’s attack.
The Federals finally wavered and retreated to Rogersville, only to be stopped by Scott’s horse artillery. The Federals rallied briefly but then broke again and fled toward Richmond. Major General William “Bull” Nelson, concerned about Manson’s leadership, traveled from Louisville to Richmond and rallied about 2,500 Federals atop a hill south of town. Nelson later reported that the Federals withstood three volleys before breaking and fleeing into Richmond. Nelson was shot through the leg, but he escaped to Lexington.
The Confederates trapped and captured “a ten-acre lot full” of enemy troops in the town streets, including Manson. They also took about 10,000 small arms and the entire Federal supply train. This the first full-scale battle of Smith’s Kentucky incursion, and it was the most decisive Confederate victory of the war. The Federals sustained 5,194 casualties (206 killed, 844 wounded, and 4,144 captured or missing); those who escaped fled toward Louisville. Nelson eventually recovered from his wound and regrouped his command. The defeat forced Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s Federals to evacuate Cumberland Gap.
The Confederates lost about 451 (78 killed and 372 wounded, and one missing). E.K. Smith congratulated his troops and ordered, “Tomorrow being Sunday, the general desires that the troops shall assemble and, under their several chaplains, shall return thanks to Almighty God, to whose mercy and goodness these victories are due.” The twin victories at Richmond in Kentucky and Manassas Junction in Virginia indicated a resurging Confederacy, with Smith having a clear path to the Ohio River just as General Robert E. Lee had a clear path to the Potomac.
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