The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid

February 28, 1864 – Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick led a Federal cavalry force on a mission to raid the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Gen Hugh Judson Kilpatrick | Image Credit:

Kilpatrick, commanding a division of the cavalry corps within Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, had proposed leading a raid on Richmond in early February. The purpose would be to wreck lines of communication and supply between the capital and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, to scatter the Confederate government, and to free Federal prisoners of war.

When word of this proposal reached President Abraham Lincoln, he wrote Meade, “Unless there be strong reasons to the contrary, please send Gen. Kilpatrick to us here, for two or three days.” Kilpatrick met privately with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the next day and described his plan in detail. Stanton approved, adding that each horseman should distribute 100 copies of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction to citizens in the Confederate capital.

Kilpatrick next met with Lincoln, who learned that the plan had been devised by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the 22-year-old son of Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren. Lincoln and John Dahlgren were good friends, and Kilpatrick hoped that Ulric’s “well-known gallantry, intelligence, and energy” would enhance publicity. Both Meade and Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the army’s cavalry corps, opposed the plan. But Lincoln, hopeful that this daring gamble might break the frustrating stalemate in northern Virginia, approved.

Kilpatrick and Dahlgren spent much of the second half of February planning and preparing for the raid. During that time, a woman attending a ball held by the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps learned of the plan and informed Lee, whose army was camped around Orange Court House. Lee instructed his cavalrymen to be on high alert for any Federal attempt to threaten Richmond.

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick assembled a force of about 3,500 troopers. The plan called for Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade to take a diversionary ride around the Confederate left toward Charlottesville. Kilpatrick and Dahlgren would then ride around the Confederate right; Dahlgren would lead 500 troopers across the James River to attack Richmond from the southwest, while Kilpatrick led the remaining Federals in an attack on the city from the north. Dahlgren wrote an address that he intended to read to his troopers before attacking Richmond:

“You have been selected from brigades and regiments as a picked command to attempt a desperate undertaking–an undertaking which, if successful, will write your names on the hearts of your countrymen in letters that can never be erased, and which will cause the prayers of our fellow-soldiers now confined in loathsome prisons to follow you and yours wherever you may go.

“We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first, and having seen them fairly started, we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us and exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape…”

“Many of you may fall; but if there is any man here not willing to sacrifice his life in such a great and glorious undertaking, or who does not feel capable of meeting the enemy in such a desperate fight as will follow, let him step out, and he may go hence to the arms of his sweetheart and read of the braves who swept through the city of Richmond.”

Custer’s brigade, along with infantry from VI Corps, began the diversion from Brandy Station on the 27th. Lee, believing that this might be the raid he had been warned about, directed Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, to confront the enemy forces. Kilpatrick’s troopers crossed the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford at 10 p.m. the next evening, capturing the small Confederate force guarding the crossing. Kilpatrick’s signal officer, Captain Joseph Gloskoski, reported:

“The first night of our march was beautiful. Myriads of stars twinkled in heaven, looking at us as if in wonder why should we break the laws of God and wander at night instead of seeking repose and sleep. The moon threw its silvery light upon Rapidan waters when we forded it, and it seemed as if the Almighty Judge was looking silently upon our doings. We moved as fast as our horses could walk, making halts of 15 minutes twice every 24 hours. Thus we reached Spotsylvania Court-House. There Colonel Dahlgren with his command took the direct road toward Frederick’s Hall, while we moved to Beaver Dam Station.”

The Federals did not know that troopers from Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry brigade had spotted their movement. Kilpatrick’s force arrived at Spotsylvania Court House near dawn on the 29th. As planned, Dahlgren detached his 500 men and veered slightly southwest toward Goochland Court House while the main force continued south toward Richmond along the Virginia Central Railroad. The weather turned cold, with rain turning into sleet and snow. Gloskoski recalled:

“Now it stormed in earnest. Sharp wind and sleet forced men to close their eyes. The night was so dark that even the river in front could not be seen and trees on the roadside could not be distinguished. So complete darkness I never saw. Men depended entirely on the instinct of their horses, and the whole command on a negro to guide them.”

But Kilpatrick continued forward, crossing the North Anna River around noon and arriving at the South Anna by nightfall. The Federals cut telegraph wires and destroyed property as they went. Dahlgren met little resistance, but Kilpatrick’s men were opposed by hostile citizens and guerrillas. Meanwhile, Hampton’s 300 Confederates hurried to pursue the Federals from the east but had not quite reached them by the end of the 29th. The drive toward Richmond continued into March, as the city defenders learned of the Federal approach and prepared defenses.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20016-24; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 379; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 907-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397, 403-04; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-35, 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464, 469-70; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 417

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