“[A]s he lived for others, so did he die:” The Life of Israel B. Richardson
Author’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts relating to various medical and military personnel who were known to provide or receive treatment at the Pry house in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam.
Israel Bush Richardson was born in Fairfax, Vermont on December 26, 1815. He was the second of seven children born to Israel Putnam Richardson and Susanna Holmes Richardson. His father was one of the most prominent lawyers in Vermont and served as a state attorney. Young Israel grew up with his three sisters Susan, Marcella and Marcia and loved hearing the stories of his famed ancestor, American Revolutionary General Israel Putnam. Israel dreamed of achieving his own military fame one day.
These aspirations were realized when he was admitted to West Point on July 1, 1835 at the age of nineteen. Never a brilliant student, he struggled with mathematics and relied on his solid study habits and conduct to pull him through. He was a graduate of the class of 1841 – a class that contributed twenty-three generals to the Civil War.
Richardson was then commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant and fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida. During the Mexican American War, he earned the nickname “Fighting Dick” at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and won the esteem of General Winfield Scott. After the war, Richardson was stationed on various frontier posts throughout Texas and New Mexico. In 1849, he reconnected with his old friend James Longstreet; they had first met at Jefferson Barracks in 1843 and later fought in the Mexican American War. They hadn’t seen one another since then and formed a close friendship while in San Antonio together.
In 1850 while in El Paso, Richardson met Rita Stephenson, daughter of Hugh Stephenson, a wealthy merchant whose ranch was one of the few American settlements in the area. On August 3rd of that year the couple were married. Sadly, Rita died a year later in childbirth. Their son, Theodore Virginius Richardson survived but also died six months later. Likely overcome with grief, loneliness and frustration with army bureaucracy, Richardson resigned his commission in 1855. He moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where most of his immediate family resided. For the next five years he lived life as a farmer until circumstances called him back to the military.
After shots were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, Richardson was among the first to offer his services to the state of Michigan. On May 25th the 2nd Michigan Infantry was formed under his command, the first three year unit raised for service. Three days later, on May 29, Richardson married Frances (Fannie) Travors in Detroit.
Richardson quickly earned the respect and love of his troops due to his tough, no-nonsense method of leadership and his humility. He was most comfortable mingling among his men, and was generally seen around camp wearing “a jacket, an old straw hat, and trousers, the side pockets of which his hands are generally thrust.” He disliked pomp and circumstance and lost respect for his superiors if it became apparent they could not lead by example. In battle he had a reputation as a no-nonsense fighter and was described as “a capital leader, very cool and self-possessed.”
His fearless tenacity and aggressiveness in battle made him a standout soldier and he earned quick promotions: brigadier general after the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, given divisional command on March 13, 1862 (just days before Fannie gave birth to Philip Augustus Richardson who Israel would have wait two months to see) and made major general of Volunteers on July 4, 1862. Richardson performed well in battles at Yorktown, Seven Pines and Seven Days. He seemed destined for further promotion, but unfortunately would never have the opportunity.
On September 14, 1862, Richardson’s division arrived at the Battle of South Mountain just as the fighting ended. Richardson took a moment to pen a letter to his wife: “Now is the time to end war if the North turns out …. Now, my dear, take good care of yourself, give my love to all the family, also to little P.[Philip] kiss him many times.” Israel didn’t know it at the time, but it would be last words he would write to his wife. The next night, his division camped near the Pry house, west of the Boonsboro-Sharpsbug Turnpike near Antietam Creek.
During the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, Richardson personally led his division’s attack at Bloody Lane, managing to drive the Confederates from their position and nearly cut their line in two. As he was giving orders, a shell burst and struck him in the trunk of his body. Where exactly his wound occurred is unclear; in his personal diary Colonel Edward Cross wrote Richardson had been struck in the “breast,” while Lt. Thomas Livermore claimed Richardson “received his mortal wound in his side.” Exact location notwithstanding, wounds to the trunk of the body were often mortal. Even though anesthesia was available, invasive surgery that trunk wounds typically needed was not feasible in the age before germ theory.
Richardson was stunned but continued to walk around the battlefield for several minutes before succumbing to the agony. He was taken off the field with the words “Tell General McClellan I have been doing a Colonel’s work all day, and I’m now too badly hurt to do a General’s.” Tragically, it was his good friend James Longstreet who personally ordered the cannon fire that caused Richardson’s injury and subsequent death.
Richardson was evacuated to the field hospital at Samuel Pry’s mill, where he waited for treatment for nearly four hours in extreme agony. Given Richardson’s rank as division commander, he would have been given immediate attention. This suggests Richardson ordered surgeons to care for his men first, an act that may have cost him his life.
After receiving preliminary treatment, he was taken to the Pry house where he was placed in an upstairs bedroom. General McClellan sent Dr. Benjamin Douglas Howard, a member of his staff, and Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Letterman to examine Richardson. Both men feared shrapnel had lodged in his left lung and deemed the wound mortal.
Dr. J.H. Taylor, Medical Director of Richardson’s division and a close personal friend, examined Richardson and did not think the lung had been damaged. Dr. Letterman urged Taylor to tell Richardson of his fate but Taylor refused saying it would “kill Israel if he did.” The wound was excruciating and efforts by doctors to extract the piece of shrapnel embedded in his body proved futile. Pneumonia soon set in but Richardson recovered and steadily improved under Dr. Taylor’s care.
After hearing of her husband’s injury, Fannie and her sister-in-law Marcella immediately traveled the eighty miles from Alexandria, Virginia to help care for him. In a letter written from the Pry house in October, Fannie related that “Israel is slowly but steadily improving [but he] has grown very thin and very weak. He is very much depressed, not at all like himself, and inclined to look on the dark side, more than is good for him.”
On October 4, 1862, President Lincoln visited Richardson at the Pry house. According to Captain Draper, a member of Richardson’s staff who was injured and present in the room, the president told Richardson that if he recovered, he would be selected as General McClellan’s successor.
Fannie and Marcella were busy with arrangements to move Richardson to Washington for further treatment, but by the end of October his wound became infected and his condition rapidly deteriorated. Dr. Taylor noted “his nervous system is much shocked. So much so that he makes no effort to rally, and has himself given up all hopes for recovery.” At 7:30 pm on November 3, 1862, Israel Richardson succumbed to his injuries and passed away upstairs in the Pry house.
His wife Fannie and sister Marcella took his embalmed body back to Michigan and he lay in state at the Pontiac courthouse. Hundreds of mourners paid their respects to “Fighting Dick” before he was laid to rest at Oak Hill Cemetery on November 11, 1862. His close friend and caregiver at the Pry house Dr. J.H. Taylor penned a eulogy that was printed in Philadelphia Press:
“He looked at the world through his own unselfish nature, trusted to that integrity in others, which was but a counterpart of himself … But as he was kind and gentle in retirement, so was he stern and invisible in war; and, as he lived for others, so did he die.”
 Jack C. Mason, Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 121.
 Ibid, 132.
 Ibid, 192.
 Thomas L. Livermore, Days and Events: 1860 – 1866. (Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1920), 144, https://archive.org/details/daysevents18601800live.
 Mason, 189.
 Gary Scott, Historic Structures Report. The Philip Pry House. Headquarters of Major General George B. McClellan. Antietam National Battlefield, ed. Donald Pfanz. (Sharpsburg, MD: Antietam National Battlefield Site. National Park Service. Library Copy), 34.
 Mason, 196.
 Ibid, 202.
About the Author
Rachel Moses is the Site Manager for the Pry House Field Hospital Museum. She received her M.A. in History and Museum Studies from Youngstown State University in Ohio. She most recently worked as an Education Specialist for the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, WV from 2011 to 2018.Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Antietam, Dr. J.H. Taylor, Israel B. Richardson, James Longstreet, Jonathan Letterman, Pry House, Rachel Moses Posted in: Pry