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Page 16(Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid)Next Page

Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid

All wars have political objectives, but in civil wars political and military objectives are more closely entwined.  Where the 1863 campaigns had won the North substantial military advantages, Lincoln spent the winter of 1863-64 (the quiet time for the armies) pursuing political initiatives.  He always considered there was a strong Unionist element in the South that had been led astray or coerced by the politically-powerful planter class, and he decided to appeal to this group now that he could deal from a position of military strength.

He issued a Declaration of Amnesty and Reconstruction, allowing almost everyone in the South full civil liberties as long as they swore loyalty to the United States and promised to uphold the Emancipation Proclamation and laws stemming from it.  He also established a threshold for states to re-enter the Union: if 10% of their voters swore loyalty, they could return.  It was deliberately mild, and it evoked sharp criticism from the Radical wing of the Republican party.  But would it appeal in the South?  The first problem was getting the message out.  There was no way the newspapers and politicians in the Confederacy would report it favorably to the people - they were precisely the group Lincoln felt had led the mass of Southerners astray.  So how then to get the message out?

 There were various answers in various places.  The FLORIDA EXPEDITION was one way: invade a rebellious state and spread the news.  In Tennessee it was much easier, since the US Army controlled most of the state.  In Louisiana the news could be spread much less widely, but there was still hope of establishing a Reconstructed state government.  But what about the key parts of the Confederacy, still strongly controlled by the grey-clad armies?  Here the military would have to play a different role.

If the main armies mainly rested during the winter months, the cavalry was usually busier, whether patrolling, foraging, or raiding.  Here was a partial answer to Lincoln's problem: cavalry raiders could spread the good news as they moved through enemy countryside.  (It was an open question how well a farmer would receive the news that he could rejoin a US that had just burned his barns, but the idea was no worse than others.)  And cavalry raids were one of the few things that were happening in Virginia over the winter of 1863-64.  Sometimes the raids involved diversions, as at MORTON'S FORD when two corps of the Army of the Potomac marched around to distract attention from an abortive raid up the James-York Peninsula.

Lincoln's Proclamation chimed with plans the aggressive Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick was already harboring.  He knew how weak the Confederate lines of communication were; Lee had concentrated most of his forces in northern Virginia, leaving mostly Home Guards and militia to defend Richmond and the vital railroads.  Kilpatrick reckoned a quick strike could break through the part-time soldiers and into Richmond.  For good measure, he (for who better to lead this raid than the designer, Kilpatrick?) would liberate the Union prisoners in Richmond and capture most of the Confederate hierarchy, utterly wreck the rail roads and bridges in Richmond, and pull out.  The political effect in the South would be tremendous, and the military effect in the east hardly less.  Kilpatrick would be a hero, for sure.  To this scheme he merely added the idea of spreading Lincoln's leaflets.

By going to some of his political contacts (rather than stuffy generals who might object to the risks) Kilpatrick made sure the plan was accepted.  His superiors did doubt the whole thing, but Kilpatrick was insulated from that by Lincoln's direct patronage.

The operation had three parts.  Kilpatrick had the main body, 3,500 men, of which 500 under the 21-year old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren would split off and circle to the west and hit the Richmond defenses in the flank.  Meanwhile, while the Army of the Potomac feinted again to draw the Rebels attention, another cavalry raid (1,500 men under George Custer) would ride much further to the west.

Custer's operation was a complete success.  He threatened Charlottesville, captured about 50 prisoners and 500 horses, and returned in three days with only a handful of wounded.  But that was the only part of the operation that was going well.

Kilpatrick and Dahlgren had started well; there was no Confederate opposition and they moved quickly on February 28.  Dahlgren's picked 500 swung away, while Kilpatrick moved straight south.  On the 29th his men tore up some railway track and moved to easy striking distance of Richmond.

On March 1 Kilpatrick was looking at the Richmond defenses, almost as he had predicted them.  The defenders were few, ill-equipped (Lee needed all the modern guns in the army), and reservists.  Kilpatrick deployed his battery of horse artillery and commenced shelling.  But that is as far as he went - he never sent his men forward, either on horseback or on foot.  He'd lost his nerve only five miles from the center of Richmond.  The cannonade continued until mid-afternoon, by which time the Confederates had reinforced, and Dahlgren still hadn't turned up.  So, as he later reported, Kilpatrick 'reluctantly withdrew.'

He rested his men, and recovered some of his boldness.  Now, even with the alarm raised, he would launch a night attack and burst through the defenses - except that he was attacked first.  Wade Hampton's Confederate cavalry had moved down and came on Kilpatrick's rear, which convinced him to head for safety rather than trying anything bold.  He headed east, sparring with Hampton's men and local militia until he was convinced that Dahlgren's men had failed, and he pulled back where the US Navy could protect (and evacuate) his force.

Dahlgren had the worst problems.  Things had gone fine until he reached the James, which he was supposed to cross upstream of Richmond.  But the ford he was shown (by a young slave, Martin Robinson) was too deep because the river was in flood.  Dahlgren wasn't accustomed to independent command, and panicked a bit - he thought this was a deliberate deception by Martin and hanged him.  He got over the river later, but the delay (and some other incidental raiding that was just as foolish) meant he was too late when he heard Kilpatrick's guns booming to the north.  Furthermore, there were enough Home Guards to stymie Dahlgren; he couldn't get to the city defenses before Kilpatrick withdrew.

Dahlgren knew what to do; there were contingency plans in case things went wrong.  He headed for Fredericksburg in the gathering gloom of the winter night.  Exhausted by the trek, the force split, with 300 separating and heading east (although ambushed, most of them would make it through to Kilpatrick with the news).  Dahlgren was down to about 200 men when and WALKERTON they ran into Fitz Lee's cavalry.  Dahlgren was killed in the first volley and most of the remnant of his men killed or rounded up - some flushed out of hiding by bloodhounds.

For Kilpatrick the results were minimal.  About 300 men and over 1,000 horses were lost; none of the objectives of the raid were achieved - except for the leaflets.  Even this was a disappointment, because most of them were dumped, still baled, rather than being spread around to do some good.  Their impact was minimal, largely because of papers that Dahlgren was carrying.  On breaking into Richmond he intended to halt his men and whip them to a frenzy: 'burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape. … once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed.  Pioneers will go along with combustible material.'

If Lincoln had been hoping to appeal to moderates, this gave fuel to Southern hardliners, who paid little attention to Northern claims that it was only Dahlgren's opinion, not government policy.  The Dahlgren Papers were one of the many small steps towards harsher war, regardless of the sometimes gentle intentions of men at the top.


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