Judson Kilpatrick’s failed raid on Richmond opened the way for a new and decidedly nasty kind of warfare.
By Phil Noblitt
In the winter of 1864, Union cavalry commander Hugh Judson Kilpatrick visited the White House to propose a daring raid on Richmond, Virginia. Well-placed and reliable Union spies had sent word that the Rebel capital was vulnerable to a quick strike. The brash brigadier general assured Abraham Lincoln that with the proper force he could descend on the city and free the Union prisoners at Belle Isle and Libby Prison.
The president believed that such a bold venture would offer the opportunity to distribute amnesty proclamations that he hoped would further undermine Confederate morale, which was already ebbing from battlefield reversals, mounting casualties and growing food shortages. Lincoln also surmised that freeing the prisoners would boost his own sagging popularity, a major concern with national elections looming ahead. Convinced that the New Jersey cavalryman had the resourcefulness to succeed, Lincoln gave his blessing to what would become one of the most controversial and bitterly disputed episodes of the entire Civil War.
In his fast-paced and entertaining new book The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, $25.95), author Duane Schultz vividly describes the ill-fated raid that began with such great promise. On the night of February 28, 1864, Kilpatrick’s 4,000 handpicked cavalrymen left Stevensburg, Va., on their 60-mile foray toward Richmond. In the lead rode a 500-man detachment commanded by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the 21-year-old son of Rear Adm. John Dahlgren. The youthful officer was an ardent Unionist and a battlefield veteran of far greater courage and tenacity than his thin frame and delicate features suggested. His aggressive pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s army during the retreat from Gettysburg had netted him a nasty ankle wound that ultimately resulted in the amputation of his right leg and nearly cost him his life. Now back in the saddle, the frail officer was eager to strike a blow at the heart of the Confederacy.
Alarmed citizens and Confederate home guards quickly sent word that Union horsemen were galloping toward Richmond, but Lee and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart were preoccupied with Maj. Gen. George Custer’s Michigan cavalrymen, who where riding toward Charlottesville. In fact, Custer’s move was only a ruse, and Richmond was left dangerously vulnerable. On the morning of March 1, Kilpatrick’s 3,500 weary but eager horsemen (Dahlgren’s command had split off from the main column) wheeled up in front of Richmond’s woefully undermanned breastworks, ready to assail the city and release Northern prisoners. Incredibly, the normally brash Kilpatrick–so reckless in combat that he had earned the nickname “Kill-Cavalry”–now got cold feet. Instead of attacking, he hesitated, hoping to hear from Dahlgren, whose detachment was supposed to enter the city from the west.
By evening, Kilpatrick decided to abort the raid, and his dejected troops began riding toward friendly lines to the east. Unaware of Kilpatrick’s decision, the late-arriving Dahlgren pressed on toward Richmond. He attacked a hastily assembled local defense brigade, whose factory workers and clerks fought with surprising courage and discipline, leaving Dahlgren little choice but to try to escape and reunite with Kilpatrick. That was not to be.
Pelted by sleet and rain and harried by bushwhackers, the divided and isolated Union forces soon found difficult going while trying to find their way through the dark and unfamiliar Virginia countryside. To add insult to injury, Confederate Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton and 360 of his cavalrymen surprised and scattered Kilpatrick’s force, which had paused for a few hours of much-needed sleep. Still, most of the main Union force escaped.
Dahlgren was not so lucky. Many of his men became lost, and a number of them were captured and ultimately incarcerated, as Schultz notes with irony, in the very prisons they had intended to liberate. In a nighttime ambush near King and Queen Courthouse, the young colonel was shot dead. Papers allegedly found in his possession included a two-page address to the citizens of Richmond and a set of instructions that directed his men to destroy Richmond and “kill Jeff Davis and cabinet…on the spot.”
Confederate authorities expressed outrage. A cavalry raid to release prisoners was one thing, but the wholesale destruction of their city, coupled with cold-blooded political assassination, seemed beyond the bounds of civilized warfare. Richmond newspapers dubbed Dahlgren “Ulric the Hun” and accurately predicted that the incendiary papers would destroy “all rosewater chivalry.”
Confederates seized the Dahlgren affair as an opportunity to initiate their own brand of conspiracy. Within weeks, Southern agents operating out of Canada began planning and carrying out a number of retaliatory actions. The most ambitious and potentially destructive was the so-called Northwest Conspiracy, promoted and led by shadowy Thomas Henry Hines, a former captain in Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry. Hines, who possessed nerves of steel, was certain that he could mobilize thousands of anti-war Copperheads in the Midwest, free Confederate prisoners at Chicago’s Camp Douglas and at Rock Island, Ill., assassinate government officials and foment general insurrection. In the end, his bold schemes fizzled. Copperhead leaders could not mobilize even 200 men to raid the prison at Rock Island, and Hines, in desperation, could do little more than destroy a few warehouses and set 10 ships afire at St. Louis.
In some of his most entertaining chapters, Schultz introduces other Confederate saboteurs and the conspiracies that followed, including bank robberies at St. Albans, Vt., which netted the Confederates $175,000 in gold, cash and securities, and Robert Martin’s efforts to use “Greek fire” to burn New York City. While such tactics did little to prolong the war or materially affect its outcome, Schultz correctly notes that these attacks on civilian property and populations represented a new, dark and altogether different kind of warfare.
The author argues that the Dahlgren affair led directly to Confederate retaliation, but this seems questionable. By 1864, Davis and his lieutenants may well have been desperate enough to implement their own conspiracies without needing the convenient justification provided by the Dahlgren papers. Furthermore, their covert operations lacked the trappings and official sanction of military actions. Kilpatrick’s raid was carried out by Union officers and soldiers, while Hines, Martin and other Southern agents acted as saboteurs, a notable distinction that Schultz fails to give full weight.
More controversially, Schultz questions whether the Dahlgren papers were authentic. Blank sheets of official army stationery found on the dead colonel, he alleges, “provided the opportunity for the South to fabricate a set of orders that would demonstrate that the North had been the first side to resort to a new, barbaric style of warfare.” At best, he writes, “there remain unexplained happenings, coincidences, and questions that challenge the Confederate contention that the papers were genuine.”
Disappointingly, the author offers no new evidence that would support his contention or that would overturn historian Virgil C. Jones’ assessment, made some 40 years ago, that Dahlgren unquestionably wrote the papers. It is too bad that Schultz revisits arguments that have been so thoroughly discredited. He is a talented writer with a keen eye for color and detail, and he has woven a fascinating story of terror and conspiracy in the Civil War.
While historians familiar with the Dahlgren affair will no doubt question the author’s exculpatory analysis, Schultz’s book still stands as one of the most exciting and comprehensive narratives yet on the fascinating and provocative subject of the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raid.