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Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson received the nickname "Fighting Dick" from Gen. Winfield Scott for his tenacity in the Mexican War. His nickname proved to define his career, his leadership style, and his performance in battle. Jack C. Mason's biography, Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army, explores Richardson's career, with a special focus on his leadership style. Mason argues that Richardson's aggressive battlefield style and relaxed off-the-battlefield demeanor made him popular with his men as well as his fellow commanders. This biography combines the anecdotes of an amiable, if somewhat reserved, general with the battle reports of a remarkable soldier who served in Mexico, on the frontier, and in the American Civil War.
The early part of Mason's biography explores Richardson's career at West Point. The stories of Richardson's time as a cadet depict him as a well-mannered young man. His experiences with illnesses and stories of interactions with fellow cadets create an image of a gentleman, more refined than ruthless. Once he was stationed out west following his graduation, Richardson's toughness appeared.
Mason describes Richardson's first combat in Mexico as gradually more painful and violent. Mason asserts that the Battle of Monterrey was a key turning point for Richardson because his mentor died in combat there. Mason explains, "The loss of so many officers and friends, not only within his regiment but also throughout the army (nine deaths from his West Point class of fifty-two, a rate of almost twenty percent), would always motivate him to set and enforce high standards" (61). Richardson went on to fight at Point Isabel, Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. [End Page 289]
Richardson's encounters in Mexico, like those of many of his West Point colleagues, gave him credibility for the military necessities of the mid-nineteenth century. Richardson disliked his work following the Mexican War, stationed in the south and the west, either fighting Native Americans or combating idleness among his soldiers. Mason writes, "The fact that Richardson was the [Mexican War veterans'] principal source of leadership during this period of isolated duty speaks for his ability as a motivator, instructor, and role model" (67).
The end of Mason's biography describes Richardson's role during the Civil War. Richardson began the war as the colonel of the 2d Michigan Infantry but quickly rose through the ranks. He distinguished himself through the early part of the war through his service with the Army of the Potomac and was an outspoken critic of Gen. George B. McClellan. After Richardson's fatal injury at the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln allegedly told Richardson that upon recovery he would get McClellan's job. Richardson never recovered.
Mason's biography portrays the life of Israel Richardson by utilizing both the general's words and those of his fellow commanders. Mason's representation of Richardson's military actions in both Mexico and the Civil War are detailed yet quite vibrant and exciting. The book makes a welcome contribution to the overall study of Union leadership, filling the void of a fascinating, yet seldom-studied general.