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Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army Hardcover – November 3, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


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 2011-01-01)

About 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st Edition edition (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809329476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809329472
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,880,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By James A. Rosebrock on December 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Until now, scholarship on the Maryland Campaign has not included a biography of Major General Israel B. Richardson, commander of the First Division of the Union Second Corps. Richardson played the key role on the Union side in the Sunken Road at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. He was mortally wounded there.

Jack C. Mason has filled that void with this work. Richardson was a rising star in the Army of the Potomac. His aggressive fighting style, outspokenness, gruff demeanor, and close connections to Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler endeared him to the Radical Republicans. They increasingly saw Richardson, as a compelling alternative to the politically conservative and militarily cautious and orthodox George B. McClellan. Indeed, Mason submits that Lincoln's visit to Richardson's hospital bed after the battle amounts to almost a job interview for the Army of the Potomac top job. While we usually link McClellan's relief to the November 4 midterm elections, it may actually be connected to Richardson's death. It is an intriguing timeline. Richardson died on November 3, 1862. With hopes dashed that Richardson would recover so that he could name him as McClellan's replacement, Lincoln, two days later on November 5, 1862, relieved McClellan and named Ambrose Burnside to command the army. Mason offers this hypothesis for our consideration.

The work is a very complete depiction of Richardson's military career. While based largely on his personal letters and an unpublished manuscript that he authored about his antebellum army career, it contains other very interesting sources and is well footnoted. It clearly paints the picture of Richardson as one of the most experienced small unit infantry commanders in the old army.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By david l. poremba VINE VOICE on May 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Finding a treasure trove of historical materials is the dream of every archivist, librarian and most authors (and it still happens from time to time). Jack Mason uncovered more than one hundred unpublished, letters from Union General Israel Richardson to his family. The previously unknown cache covers his career from his cadet days at West Point, service in Florida, Texas, Mexico, New Mexico and the Civil War up to the day before his fatal wounding at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.
Richardson was one of a number of career army officers who were graduates of the Military Academy at West Point, New York, during the 1830's and 1840's who remained in uniform and learned their craft in active campaigns large and small. This cadre of officers provided the leadership for the North and South during the Civil War. The level of leadership would certainly be cause for concern in some cases but Richardson was of the group that provided excellent leadership of combat troops, in his particular case, the infantry. His untimely death in 1862 leaves his potential role as commander in chief, Army of the Potomac, a matter of speculation.
Richardson, a Vermont native, settled in Michigan after resigning from the army in the 1850's after a decade of active service. Returning from skirmishing with the Apaches throughout the Southwest, he settled down to do some farming near Pontiac, Michigan but the onset of the Civil War demanded his return to the colors. As Colonel of the Second Michigan Infantry, Richardson saw combat in nearly every engagement in the eastern theater of war and his experience and training led him to higher and more important commands, culminating in his promotion to Major General on July 4, 1862.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Paul on December 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Isreal Richardson didn't live long enoough to become a major factor in the Civil War, but he could have been. Under his leadership the Union Army was about to break through the center of the Confederate line at Antietam. After his wounding momentum was lost and the opportunity missed. Jack C. Mason has written an excellent book about Major General Isreal B. Richardson, "Fighting Dick". We learn about the man and his accomplishments in a way that leaves you glad you got to know him better. The book is a very good bit of history and an interesting story. I would recommend this book to all who have an interest in the Civil War...
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By JBCSLC on March 4, 2015
Format: Hardcover
In general agreement with the other reviews--the maps are seriously lacking in number and in helpful detail. The Antietam map does nothing to support the excellent and little known detail of Gen. Richardson's key role in this key battle. I'll need to go to Gottfried's or Priest's book for help, or go back and walk the field again.

That being said, it is an excellent military biography and any student of the WBTS interested enough to read these reviews will be moved by Mason's narrative of Gen. Richardson's leadership of his division attacking the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane), of the amazingly active leadership of a major general directing individual regiments at the front, and of the very near breakthrough that would have divided the Confederate army prior to the wound that disabled Gen. Richardson. It was a very near thing--the war could have ended then and there, especially with more decisively leadership at the top. A might-have-been similar to the wound that stopped Stonewall Jackson's attack seven months later. An excellent history of an important battle...
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