Judson Kilpatrick’s thwarted raid on Richmond had a sinister motive behind it–nothing less than coldblooded murder.
When Major General William T. Sherman called his new cavalry chief, Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, “a hell of a damned fool” in a letter to Kilpatrick’s erstwhile commander, Major General George Meade, he was openly alluding to Kilpatrick’s leading role in the infamous Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid a few months earlier. For that raid–and, more important, its controversial aftermath–was still a hot topic around the campfires of both Union and Confederate armies, as well as political capitals as far away as London and Paris. In a war that did not want for drama and controversy, the raid was an instantaneous sensation, and its sordid revelations of a plot to murder Southern President Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet may have led–indirectly at least–to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln one year later.
The raid was the brainchild of Kilpatrick, a man not unduly noted for intellectual accomplishments (see more on Kilpatrick, P. 42). In the wake of a daring escape by Union prisoners from Richmond’s Libby Prison in February 1864, Kilpatrick approached Lincoln with a scheme to lead 4,000 Northern cavalrymen into the Rebel capital under cover of darkness, free the remaining prisoners and cut communications lines to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Lincoln personally endorsed the scheme and sent Kilpatrick to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to finalize preparations. Stanton, unlike the president, demanded a written statement of Kilpatrick’s intent. In it, Kilpatrick outlined his plan to cross the Rapidan River and enter Richmond from the north, while a smaller contingent would penetrate the city from the south. This smaller contingent, to be led by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, would then “act as circumstances may require.” This last, bland phrase meant nothing to Stanton, but it contained the seeds for a controversy that has continued, in one form or another, to the present day.
The ambitious raid got underway as scheduled on February 28. From the start, bad weather and worse luck plagued the venture. Sleety rain reduced visibility to a few feet. Unfortunately for the Federals, a pair of freelancing Confederate scouts could see well enough to recognize enemy troopers when they saw them, and they quickly notified Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton of the incursion.
Kilpatrick, commanding the larger of the two cavalry contingents, managed to reach the outskirts of Richmond ahead of the pursuing Rebel cavalry. But faced with a skeleton force of home guards and militia, he abruptly lost his nerve and withdrew.
Meanwhile, Dahlgren, unaware of Kilpatrick’s failure, continued on toward Richmond, stopping only to hang a free black man whom he believed–erroneously–had led him into an ambush. He never made it to Richmond. Confederate horsemen from the 9th Virginia Cavalry set a predawn ambush outside Stevensville, and killed Dahlgren instantly with five bullets fired from close range.
A 13-year-old onlooker, William Littlepage, rifled through Dahlgren’s clothing, looking for a pocket watch to replace the one that Yankees had stolen from his schoolmaster a few days earlier. Littlepage did not find a watch, but what he did find–a cigar case, some scattered pages and a notebook–created an immediate sensation. The papers, when read, contained Dahlgren’s personal notes on the expedition, along with instructions the colonel apparently planned to give to Union prisoners after he liberated them. The instructions read, in part: “Jeff Davis and his Cabinet must be killed on the spot. The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and Cabinet killed.”
The incriminating papers were turned over to Davis himself, and were later made public through the local press. A formal protest was passed from Lee to Meade, demanding to know if the killing of civilian politicians was a new policy of the United States government. Meade (who probably knew more than he let on about the original plot), simply conveyed Kilpatrick’s bland denial that any such assassination plan had been discussed or sanctioned before the raid.
Copies of the notorious papers were quickly distributed in European capitals to illustrate the depth to which Union war efforts apparently had fallen. Meanwhile, Southern newspapers such as the Richmond Sentinel expressed the widespread sentiment that the raid had opened a pitiless new chapter in the conduct of the war, and that “stern vengeance” might overtake Lincoln himself. A little more than a year later, at Ford’s Theatre, it did.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War
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