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Brig. Gen. Wilds P. Richardson: North Russia Expeditionary Forces


(Brig. Gen. Wilds P. Richardson - U.S. Army Signal Corps)


Wilds P. Richardson was born March 20, 1861, his parents Oliver and Hester Wingo Richardson having just moved to Texas. Wilds attended schools in Paris, TX, along with his older sister, Lula, however he much preferred the world outside of the classroom. His parents allowed the boy his freedom, however they made sure ‘Dick’ as he was called, was well schooled. Thus, Dick grew up, loving the challenges of Texas’ frontier culture, while at the same time he was solidly grounded in academics. The young man earned an appointment to West Point, and graduated in 1884, ranking 22nd out of 37 graduates.[1]

Second Lieutenant Dick Richardson was assigned to the 8th Infantry and sent to the garrison at Angel Island in California, a post involved in subduing the Modoc tribe in northern California. Following this, in December 1885, he was sent to Fort Bowie, AZ, a base station for United States troops trying to subjugate the Apaches.[2] Lieutenant Richardson’s responsibilities at Fort Bowie were clerical rather than involving combat command, therefore he only acted as logistical support for the force detailed to deal with the Apache leader, Geronimo. However in the fall of 1886 Lt. Richardson did lead a scouting element into the wilds of Arizona, a command he greatly relished.[3] This role did not last long; in November 1886 Richardson was reassigned to Fort Niobrara, NE, a post tasked with reining in the last elements of the Sioux nation still roaming the west. The young officer again, served as a staff member until October 1889, when he became the 8th Infantry’s regimental adjutant. His promotion to first lieutenant came December 16, 1889.[4]

First Lieutenant Richardson soon found himself acting as the aide-de-camp to the commanding general, Department of the Columbia, Brig. Gen. A.V. Kautz. This district’s responsibilities covered a massive area, including Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and most importantly for Richardson, Alaska. Lieutenant Richardson found he relished the time he spent in the wilds of Alaska. But then, his next assignment was as an instructor of tactics at West Point. Wilds Richardson, now promoted to captain and teaching at the Academy, longed to return to that far-northern state. Happily, in August 1897, Cpt. Richardson’s dream became reality; he was assigned to duty in Alaska. Richardson declared, “In Alaska, [I] found [my] niche.”[5]

Though the American military had a small presence in Alaska in 1897 this inadequate force was being forced to function in a multitude of missions far exceeding its capabilities, especially in light of the rapid turn of events created by the discovery of gold in the Klondike. Captain Richardson, as a member of a small detachment from the 8th Infantry, along with fellow officer Cpt. Patrick H. Ray, was instructed, “to make a full and complete investigation of the conditions in Alaska … to determine … whether the residents of the Territory were law-abiding ... [and to find out] whether the food supply … was sufficient to subsist the population through the coming winter; [plus, to investigate] whether the employment of troops would be required to enforce law and order.”[6] Richardson and Ray arrived in St. Michael, near the mouth of the Yukon River and discovered the situation was critical; the officers learned, “The transportation companies [had] forwarded large quantities of liquor during the past summer [but] the food supply was limited.” Ray and Richardson determined there were close to one thousand people in the area who were stranded and destitute, and with the winter closing in, the possibility of starvation threatened to be a serious problem. Captains Ray and Richardson immediately worked to solve this problem. They soon found a solution; there was a military post at Fort Yukon that was manned by a small number of soldiers. Fortunately though, it possessed large quantities of supplies—600 tons of food. Ray and Richardson decided to draw from these supplies, and knowing the Yukon River was now frozen over by the advancing winter season, organized dog-team-driven sleds to move the foodstuffs to the hungry miners. Captain Richardson also, “for the betterment of law and order … directed that all saloons, dance halls, and gambling places,” would have their hours limited.[7]

Once the food situation was solved, and in view of the behaviors of the Klondike miners, Captains Ray and Richardson concluded the territorial civil government was totally inadequate, with Cpt. Ray writing, “the lawless element has become so strong that in my opinion it would be extremely difficult to enforce a civil writ.”[8] The only solution was to bring in more troops, a difficult solution for the military as so much of its focus was directed towards managing the Spanish-American War. None-the-less, troops were scraped together and sent to Alaska, and in 1899 two new military posts were built; Fort Gibbon and Fort Egbert. Patrick Ray was promoted to major and he assumed command at Fort Egbert, which became the headquarters for the District of North Alaska. Captain Wilds Richardson though, was reassigned to Fort Snelling, MN, and from there to Washington D.C.

Captain Wilds Richardson returned to Alaska during the summer of 1902, now tasked with directing the construction of Fort William H. Seward, as well as being in charge of the creation of a system of trails and roads. One of these trails he took part in creating would eventually become a section of what is now the Iditarod race. Richardson, in April 1904, was promoted to the rank of major, giving him greater authority to carry out his construction projects. His efforts as a road commissioner facilitated easier transportation between towns, and as gold discoveries created mining camps almost overnight, the need for more roads had to be met. Major Richardson worked feverishly to solve these problems and in time, his efforts were recognized by some of Alaska’s citizens; a newly formed town in 1907 was given the name—Richardson—and the 365-mile highway between Valdez and Fairbanks became known as the Richardson Highway.[9]

Major Richardson’s ideas for improving Alaska’s infrastructure seemed endless. He supported the construction of the Alaska railway, and advocated for the building of a highway stretching far into the region’s interior. Personally though, he appeared to be working on his own body-building program; in 1907 while at his routine military physical, his weight was recorded at over 280 pounds, and his body was compared to that of William Taft, the prospective United States presidential candidate. The physician who examined him remarked, “[He had] a little more fat than is necessary.”[10] Fortunately for Richardson, he passed his physical, enabling him to launch into his next series of expansions; more road improvements, bridge construction, and a system of taxation plans to fund these public works. Richardson was promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1911, and to colonel in April 1914. He also was selected as president of the Board of Road Commissioners for Alaska, a position he held until late 1917.[11]

Wilds ‘Dick’ Richardson earned his brigadier general’s star on August 5, 1917, and with the American military beginning to ramp up for the nation’s entry into the Great War, he was relieved of his duties in Alaska and sent to Camp Lee, VA. Here, he assumed command of a Depot Brigade. Richardson held this position only for a couple months before, in March 1918 he was given command of the 78th Brigade of the 39th Infantry Division. He led his brigade in training at Camp Beauregard, LA until, in late August 1918, his formation was ordered to Europe. The 78th Brigade landed at Brest, France, September 3, 1918. From here, Brig. Gen. Richardson directed his doughboys to the 39th Division’s staging area near St. Florent, France.[12] Then, frustratingly for the ambitious general, the brigade did nothing. Richardson was exasperated as he watched his men sit idly. He complained, “The men [had] begun to learn how to loaf and avoid doing things, and to neglect instructions.”[13] Brigadier General Richardson was also aggravated by the army’s decision to remove officers and men from his brigade, as these troops were being sent off to replace losses in other American combat units.

By mid October 1918, his brigade had been stripped of so many of its soldiers it was but a shell of a combat formation. On October 14, 1918, Brig. Gen. Richardson was given orders to proceed to the 7th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, a unit involved in the fighting around St. Mihiel. A week later, Richardson reached Bois d’Rappes, where after thirty-four years in the military, he heard his shots fired by an enemy’s weapon. Wilds Richardson recorded, “[I] was close enough to the Germans that the ‘cook house’ near [my] quarters was hit by a shell.” But Richardson’s abilities were needed elsewhere; he was ordered to report to the headquarters of the 90th Infantry Division. He arrived just in time to see the division march off to fight. Brigadier General Richardson had little to do, and later wrote, “[I] missed the greatest battle yet fought by the United States Army.” This [battle] became known by America as the Champagne-Marne offensive.

General Richardson did not have a command on November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed. The general had been assigned to the 55th Brigade 28th Infantry Division, but he existed as nothing more than a name on a roster sheet. He languished in this perplexing position until March 10, 1919, when General Pershing ordered him to U. S. Army headquarters. Here, Pershing informed Richardson, he had been selected to take over the American command in northern Russia; Richardson’s vast experiences in the wilds of Alaska had earned him a job while other one-star officers were being relieved of duty and sent home. Richardson traveled to Paris, where he met President Woodrow Wilson, who was there as part of the Paris Peace conference. President Wilson told Richardson his mission would be; to act independently of the British high command, get the American troops out of Russia, and to do so with as few casualties as possible.

Brigadier General Dick Richardson arrived in Murmansk on April 8, 1919 and almost immediately was informed of Company ‘I’s mutiny. Richardson, who had brought along an entire staff of experienced assistants, had them investigate this incident. General Richardson stated, “This incident was given wide circulation in the States, and I am satisfied from my investigation that an exaggerated impression was created as to its seriousness.” He added, “The so-called mutiny [was] a temporary disaffection of one of the companies … Every soldier connected with the incident performed his duty as a soldier. And as far as I think the matter should be closed.”[14]

Richardson and his staff climbed aboard the ice breaker, Kanada, and then the ship slowly crushed its way through the frozen waters of the Barents Sea, and arrived in Archangel April 17, 1919, and within a short period of time met with Col. George Stewart. Richardson’s first impression of Stewart was striking. Richardson recalled, “[Stewart] was a tired officer … in bad health … [and] rather beaten down by the British leaders.”[15] And Richardson’s intuition was correct; 1st Lt. Albert May (Co. I) noted, “[Stewart] told me that he was beset with stomach ulcers, [and] that he should have been hospitalized.”[16] General Richardson faced Col. Stewart and declared, “I am now in charge of all American troops in northern Russia … You are relieved of your command.”[17] The new 339th commander dismissed Col. Stewart, moved his staff into a suite of nearby rooms, and assumed control of the regiment. Though Col. Stewart remained in the building Dick Richardson did not spend much time with him, and ultimately decided, “he would not recommend Stewart for meritorious service in the Russian campaign.”[18]

General Edmund Ironside heard of the American general’s presence and sent a colonel to greet him, as wells as convey a set of orders for Richardson to carry out. An American staff worker reported what happened; “The British General Ironside, he sent [a] British colonel with [an] order to Gen. Richardson to send [a] platoon with trench mortars someplace. Richardson took that note [and] put it down [saying] ‘I’m going to call him up’.” The staffer continued, “The general took one shot of whiskey [then] another shot [and] picked up the telephone [and] called Ironside. He said, ‘General, I’m telling you, my men ain’t going out’ … Ironside got mad [and replied] ‘Well General, I am higher in command than you’ … Richardson says, ‘Yeah, I know you are higher in command, but I’m going to tell you something straight. [The] war is over. I don’t have to take orders from you ... [or any] foreign officer’.” The observer noted, “And [then] he said, ‘[Gen.] Ironside … I am going to give you an order. I give you three weeks’ time to get your connection with your government [and you will] relieve my men by [the] fifth of May. If my men don’t get relief by [the] fifth of May, I’m pulling out!’ Ironside said, ‘No you can’t do [that]! You’re going to find out!’ And he slammed [down] the telephone.”[19] The two generals, both men with bear-sized bodies and mammoth-sized egos, soon met face-to-face. Though Ironside towered over Richardson, the American outweighed him by forty or more pounds, and had a vast experience in dealing with Alaska’s wild and wooly miners, cheats, and ruffians. The American military publication, The Sentinelnoted, “Richardson met with Ironside in the afternoon, and said he had nothing more to say than what was sent by Pershing.”[20]The two senior officers would work together for the next six months, but their relationship was purely professional, and Siberian-like frosty.

Brigadier Gen. Dick Richardson traveled south to Obozerskaya, and made his way to verst 455. Captains Moore and Winslow mustered their companies for the general to inspect. Moore wrote, “General Richardson … assembled [the troops] at Verst 455.” The general spoke to the troops, saying, “He regretted not being with them during the winter combat.” This brought quite a shout of laughter.”[21] Richardson ignored the laughter and plowed on with more to say. Moore noted Richardson, who said, “Remember, you are Americans in a foreign country taking part in a great game, making history which will be written and talked of for generations … Your people are pleased and proud of you. They have not forgotten you … They want to see you come home as soon as you can.”[22] The veteran riflemen studied their new commander, struggling to figure out if he would help them get home, or be as ineffective as Col. Stewart had been. One private examined their new leader and mused, “[Richardson was] inclined to obesity, and of medium height. His long pointed nose, red, flushed face, mustache, and brutal mouth were outstanding. He was neatly dressed, and as he faced us, I saw a silver star on each shoulder.”[23] Captain Moore and Winslow’s soldiers did like one of the last things Richardson said; “The 339th infantry would be the first of all the troops to be evacuated, … [and] he would see that our British allies put nothing further on us.”[24] Lieutenant Clarence Primm, on April 26, 1919, wrote, “Our new American General commander has been down to the front, looked us over, and given us a short talk. We like him.”[25]

On May 5, 1919, Gen. Wilds Richardson returned to Obozerskaya and verst 455, had the Americans formed again for inspection, and then handed out medals. First Sergeant Walter Dundon wrote, “Decorations bestowed on the men today in the presence of General Richardson.”[26] The General also traveled south as far as the American defenses had been extended. There, at verst 445, Gen. Richardson walked among the trenches and blockhouses. He also studied the Bolo defenses with binoculars. Richardson also inspected the White Russians who had replaced the Americans. He shook his head in dismay and recorded, “If anyone suspected [the White Russians] lacked proficiency, the morning’s performance proved it.”[27]

The American troops were transported out of Russia once the ice had been conquered, their ships taking them to France. General Wilds Richardson, along with a small contingent of officers and men remained. Then, he closed down the American Expedition’s headquarters and turned it over to the British. Clarence Primm, who would be one of the last to leave Russia, wrote, “We moved our office into another building not far from the former headquarters. Less rent, and a British General wanted our larger place anyway. We only use three rooms now for office space, instead of a whole floor.”[28] General Richardson called Lt. Primm into his office and praised the young officer, saying, “I wish to express to you my appreciation of the efficient services rendered … by you … [and] your voluntary offer to remain behind to assist in completing the work of transfer of the American soldiers and sailor dead from North Russian soil to their home country.”[29] C.J. Primm came away from the meeting, recalling, “he asked me to stick around town because of the numerous little things that I have to look out for.”[30]

General Wilds Richardson and his staff boarded the transport ship, Kalyan, and on August 23, 1919, left Archangel. The General, considering what Primm had to accomplish, wrote, “It was a tragic business to bring back the alive and the dead.”[31]Richardson returned to the United States in October 1919 and was sent to Camp Gordon, GA, where he commanded until March 15, 1920. Then, his rank was reduced to his pre-war commission of Colonel and he was put in charge of the 61st Infantry Regiment. Colonel Richardson led that unit until October 31, 1920, when he retired. He moved into the Army and Navy Club, a prestigious home located in Washington, D.C., established for ranking officers. Here, he lived among other retired officers and their families until his death May 20, 1929. Wilds P. Richardson was buried at West Point, NY.

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[1] Steely, Skipper. Allied Intervention in Russia, 1918-1920: General Richardson and His Role in the Withdrawal of American Troops from Northern Russia. The Wright Press, 2013. [2] Williamson, William H. (ed.), Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy. West Point, NY: U.S. Army. Vol. VIII, 1920. [3] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [4] Williamson, William H. (ed.), Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates, 1920. [5] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [6] “Building Alaska with the U.S. Army, 1867 – 1965,” Headquarters, U.S. Army, Alaska, 1 Oct 1965, 28. [7] “Building Alaska with the U.S. Army, 1867 – 1965,” 1 Oct 1965, 42-3. [8] “Building Alaska with the U.S. Army, 1867 – 1965,” 1 Oct 1965, 31. [9] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [10] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [11] Williamson, William H. (ed.), Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates, 1920. [12] Williamson, William H. (ed.), Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates, 1920. [13] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [14] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [15] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [16] May, Albert, in Gordon, Dennis, Quartered in Hell, 1982, 173. [17] Steely, Skipper, General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [18] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [19] Sarisiek, Jan, in Ward, William, Well Kept Secret, 2010. [20] The Sentinel, 19 Apr 1919. [21] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [22] Moore, Joel, Et al., History of the American Expedition, 1920, 199. [23] Carey, Donald, in Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [24] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [25] Primm, Clarence, Letters, 26 Apr 1919. [26] Dundon, Walter, in Moore, Joel, “M Company,” 1920. [27] Steely, Skipper. General Richardson and His Role, 2013. [28] Steely, Skipper, Allied Intervention in Russia, 2013. Primm, Clarence, Letters, 15 Aug 1919. [29] Richardson, W. P., “American Expeditionary Force, North Russia,” 5 Aug 1919. [30] Primm, Clarence, Letters, 15 Aug 1919. [31] Steely, Skipper, Allied Intervention in Russia, 2013.

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