March 1, 1864 – A daring raid on Richmond led by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren ended when the city proved more heavily defended than expected.
As March began, Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry was conducting a mission to raid the Confederate capital, free Federal prisoners of war, and distribute President Abraham Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation. A detachment of 500 men under Dahlgren had split from Kilpatrick’s 3,000-man force to strike Richmond from the southwest. Kilpatrick continued moving to hit the city from the north. Kilpatrick and Dahlgren agreed to launch simultaneous attacks on Richmond at 8 p.m. on the 1st.
After a short rest, Kilpatrick’s Federals resumed their advance at 1 a.m. They crossed the South Anna River around daybreak, fending off small Confederate guard units along the way, and by 10 a.m. they had come to within five miles of Richmond.
Dahlgren’s troopers mobilized at dawn and rode toward the James River, slowed by Confederate guards and snow. They relied on a former slave to find a fordable point on the river, but when he failed, Dahlgren had him executed. With no way to cross the James, Dahlgren resolved to attack Richmond from the west instead.
Meanwhile, Richmond residents had been alerted to the Federal threat, and the 3,000 home guards defending the city were quickly reinforced by convalescing Confederate soldiers, government clerks, factory workers, and other able-bodied men. Kilpatrick, still confident he faced raw recruits, deployed skirmishers and unlimbered his guns. Colonel Walter Stevens, commanding the Richmond defenses, reported:
“Soon after my arrival, the enemy opened upon my position a rapid and tolerably accurate fire from five pieces of artillery, and his skirmishers advanced under cover of ditches and the neighboring houses to within 200 yards of our works and annoyed our artillerists…”
The defenders charged, knocking the skirmishers back to the main Federal line. Kilpatrick realized that the Confederates had been reinforced, and he also began considering the possibility that Dahlgren’s operation had failed. Kilpatrick reported, “Feeling confident that Dahlgren had failed to cross the river, and that an attempt to enter the city at that point would but end in a bloody failure, I reluctantly withdrew my command at dark.”
The sound of guns at 4 p.m. concerned Dahlgren because the attack was not supposed to start until 8. He became more concerned as the sound grew more distant because it indicated that Kilpatrick might be falling back. Nevertheless, Dahlgren waited until the scheduled time and then advanced toward the city. His Federals were met by reinforced defenders who easily held their ground. Dahlgren ordered a withdrawal, moving northeast around Richmond to try rejoining Kilpatrick.
Meanwhile, Kilpatrick’s Federals moved southeast around the capital. As they tried camping for the night, they were attacked by Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry brigade. Unbeknownst to Kilpatrick, Hampton had been pursuing him for two days. Kilpatrick wrote, “The enemy charged and drove back the 7th Michigan, and considerable confusion ensued.” Hampton reported:
“The attack was made with great gallantry. The enemy, a brigade strong here, with two other brigades immediately in their rear, made a stout resistance for a short time, but the advance of my men was never checked and they were soon in possession of the entire camp, in which horses, arms, rations, and clothing were scattered about in confusion.”
Kilpatrick reported “a loss of 2 officers, upwards of 50 men, and 100 horses.” His troopers fell back to Tunstall’s Station, 25 miles east of Richmond. Kilpatrick planned to move down the Virginia Peninsula the next day and join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals stationed at Fort Monroe.
As Dahlgren tried catching up to them, his command separated, with Dahlgren and 100 of his men stopping for the night south of Dunkirk, about 25 miles from Richmond. This ended the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, as they lacked both the numbers and the drive to accomplish their mission. The Federals lost 340 men and 583 horses in the operation, but the Confederates were not finished with them yet.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 910-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 404; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-36, 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 471; 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