Category Archives: Irregular Operations

The Plot to Burn New York

November 25, 1864 – Lieutenant John W. Headley and seven Confederate agents attempted to burn New York City in retaliation for Federal depredations in Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley.

The Confederate Secret Service, based in Canada and led by Jacob Thompson (former U.S. interior secretary under President James Buchanan), had devised several plots to disrupt the Federal war effort and inspire northern Confederate sympathizers to join their cause. Most of these plots involved working with the Sons of Liberty, a Copperhead organization, to free Confederates from northern prison camps.

Prior to the Federal elections, a band of conspirators was formed to both overthrow Chicago leaders and burn New York. According to Headley:

“The tangible prospects were best for an uprising at Chicago and New York. The forces of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ were not only organized, but arms had been distributed. It had been deemed surest to rely upon the attempt to organize a Northwestern Confederacy with Chicago as the capital.”

The idea to burn New York had been introduced by Colonel Robert C. Martin and suggested to Thompson by Robert C. Kennedy, an escaped Confederate prisoner. They believed that the fires would inspire the vast Copperhead population in the city to rise up while they freed the Confederates imprisoned at Fort Lafayette.

The original plan was to set fire to New York just before the election. The eight conspirators arrived in New York at different times and lodged in different hotels. Headley stated, “It was determined that a number of fires should be started in different parts of the city, which would bring the population to the streets and prevent any sort of resistance to our movement.” The conspirators believed that New York Governor Horatio Seymour–

“… would not use the militia to suppress the insurrection in the city, but would leave that duty to the authorities at Washington. Indeed, we were to have the support of the Governor’s official neutrality. We were also told that upon the success of the revolution here a convention of delegates from New York, New Jersey, and the New England States would be held in New York City to form a Confederacy which would cooperate with the Confederates States and Northwestern Confederacy.”

However, Major General Benjamin F. Butler deployed 10,000 Federal troops in New York just before the election to maintain order. Headley wrote, “The leaders in our conspiracy were at once demoralized by this sudden advent of General Butler and his troops. They felt that he must be aware of their purposes and many of them began to fear arrest, while others were defiant.”

The plot to take Chicago was foiled as well. Nonetheless, Martin insisted that the conspirators go through with burning New York, regardless of the election results. But the Confederate Secret Service refused, and as Headley wrote, “This left us practically at sea.” The agents therefore resolved “to set the city on fire and give the people a scare if nothing else, and let the Government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

On the night of the 24th, the Confederates obtained 402 bottles of a highly flammable liquid called “Greek fire” from an elderly chemist. Headley stated, “None of the party knew anything about Greek fire, except that the moment it was exposed to the air it would blaze and burn everything it touched.” The conspirators planned to set fire to their hotel rooms, hoping that the flames would spread to other buildings until the entire city was burned in “one dazzling conflagration.”

The saboteurs set fire to 19 hotels, including the prominent Astor House. In addition, Kennedy set fire to Barnum’s Museum. City officials quickly determined that this was a Confederate plot, and just as quickly the fire department and private citizens extinguished the blazes. Their biggest challenge was to douse the flames at Barnum’s because the hay for the animals had caught fire.

New York’s prominent Astor House | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Failing to destroy New York, the conspirators accused the chemist of blending an impotent batch of Greek fire. However, most of the perpetrators had failed to leave the doors and windows open in their hotel rooms when they set the fires, thus minimizing the ventilation needed for the flames to spread. When investigators began closing in on them, the conspirators left New York and returned to their headquarters at Toronto.

Kennedy later tried returning to his army unit, but Federal authorities arrested him at Detroit. A military tribunal convicted him of masterminding the plot to burn New York, and he was hanged in March 1865. Headley confessed to his role in the plot after the war but was not arrested. Martin, who devised the scheme but was not directly involved, was arrested after the war but acquitted due to lack of evidence.

The plot made sensational headlines, as reported in the New York Times:

“The plan was excellently well conceived, and evidently prepared with great care, and had it been executed with one-half the ability with which it was drawn up, no human power could have saved this city from utter destruction… But fortunately, thanks to the Police, Fire Department, and the bungling manner in which the plan was executed by the conspirators, it proved a complete and miserable failure.”

However, this failed effort did little to either damage New York or affect the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 532; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 492; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15200-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 523; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 600-01; New York Times article of 27 Nov 1864; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62

The St. Albans Raid

October 19, 1864 – Raiders targeted a Vermont town just over the Canadian border in what became the northernmost Confederate attack on Federal soil.

Bennett H. Young | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederate government had authorized Lieutenant Bennett H. Young and 20 of his fellow escaped or exchanged prisoners of war to attack Federal towns from Canada. It was hoped that this would divert Federal attention from other theaters of war and inspire Confederate sympathizers to rise up against Federal authority in the North.

Over the course of several days, Young and his raiders arrived at the town of St. Albans, about 20 miles from Canada. Posing as vacationers and hunters, they were given lodging at various town hotels and boardinghouses. The raiders planned to burn the town and, if possible, rob the banks before attacking similar towns along the border.

They gathered on the village green at 3 p.m. on the 19th, where Young announced that he was seizing the town on behalf of the Confederacy. Residents ignored him, thinking it was a joke, until the raiders fired their pistols. Some people resisted, resulting in the killing of one resident (ironically a Confederate sympathizer) and the wounding of another.

Instead of burning the town first, the raiders broke off into groups of threes and robbed the town’s three banks. Armed villagers soon began firing at the raiders from the buildings ringing the square, wounding three. The Confederates burned several buildings with Greek fire, but no substantial damage was done. They then raced off to Canada with $200,000 from the banks.

A Federal captain on furlough quickly organized a civilian posse to hunt down Young and his men, who had broken off into small groups. The posse captured a few of these groups, but since they were in Canada, Canadian officials quickly took charge of the prisoners. Ultimately Young and 12 of his men were apprehended by Canadian authorities, and about $75,000 was recovered.

Federal officials requested that Canada extradite the raiders to the U.S. However, the Canadians put the men on trial and, after ruling that they were soldiers acting under orders, they were released on bond. They were never tried in the U.S. The St. Albans raid caused a sensation in the press, but it did nothing to divert Federal attention or inspire Confederate sympathizers.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 477; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12292-302; Fowler, Robert H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 651; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 510-11; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 780; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 585-86; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-61

Mosby’s “Greenback” Raid

October 12, 1864 – Lieutenant Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans returned to the Shenandoah Valley and recovered a large sum from a captured train.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah had cleared all organized Confederate resistance from the Valley following its victory at Fisher’s Hill in September. This left only raiders to wreak havoc on Sheridan’s supply lines, hoping to force him to fall back “down” the Valley to his supply base. Mosby was among the most prominent raiders in the region.

After reentering the Valley, Mosby and his 84 troopers hid near Winchester on the 13th, and then moved west after sundown. The Confederates stopped near Kearneysville, west of Harpers Ferry, and wrecked track on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad near Brown’s Crossing. They then waited for a train to approach.

Some time after 2 a.m., a westbound train derailed on the broken track and crashed into the bank. The conductor came out and promptly surrendered the train. Mosby called out, “Board her, boys!” and his men climbed aboard. They robbed the passengers and seized a satchel and a tin box from army paymasters that contained $173,000 in Federal greenbacks. The partisans pulled the passengers off the train before burning the cars and the locomotive.

Mosby’s troopers raced off into West Virginia, where they divided the loot into shares for each of the 84 men. Mosby refused to take a share, asserting that he was “fighting for glory, not for spoils.” His “greenback” raid temporarily halted traffic on the B&O Railroad and partially disrupted Sheridan’s main supply line. It also served as a forerunner to the famous train robberies that took place after the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 583; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 342

The City Point Explosion

August 9, 1864 – An explosion aboard an ammunition ship nearly killed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters on the James River.

City Point was situated on the south side of the James in Virginia. It served as the main supply depot for the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James, as well as headquarters for Grant, the overall Federal commander. On the morning of the 9th, Grant returned to City Point from Washington. That same morning, John Maxwell and R.K. Dillard of the Confederate Torpedo Corps slipped through the Federal lines. According to Maxwell’s report:

“We reached there before daybreak on the 9th of August last, with a small amount of provisions, having traveled mostly by night and crawled upon our knees to pass the east picket-line. Requesting my companion to remain behind about half a mile I approached cautiously the wharf, with my machine and powder covered by a small box. Finding the captain had come ashore from a barge then at the wharf, I seized the occasion to hurry forward with my box. Being halted by one of the wharf sentinels I succeeded in passing him by representing that the captain had ordered me to convey the box on board. Hailing a man from the barge I put the machine in motion and gave it in his charge. He carried it aboard. The magazine contained about 12 pounds of powder.”

The wooden candle box that Maxwell handed the Federal worker contained a “horological torpedo,” or a time-bomb. The box and device were placed on a ship holding 20,000 artillery projectiles.

Grant was sitting in front of his tent while George Sharpe, his head of espionage, explained his plans to capture suspected Confederate spies within the army. According to Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff:

“He had just left the general when, at 20 minutes to 12, a terrific explosion shook the earth, accompanied by a sound which vividly recalled the Petersburg mine, still fresh in the memory of every one present. Then there rained down upon the party a terrific shower of shells, bullets, boards, and fragments of timber. The general was surrounded by splinters and various kinds of ammunition, but fortunately was not touched by any of the missiles.”

The City Point explosion | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The gunpowder ignited the projectiles and caused destruction within a quarter-mile radius. The blast killed 43 men, including one of Grant’s orderlies, and wounded 126. Grant reported the explosion to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“Five minutes ago an ordnance boat exploded, carrying lumber, grape, canister, and all kinds of shot over this point. Every part of the yard used as my headquarters is filled with splinters and fragments of shell. I do not know yet what the casualties are beyond my own headquarters. Colonel (Orville) Babcock is slightly wounded in hand and 1 mounted orderly is killed and 2 or 3 wounded and several horses killed. The damage at the wharf must be considerable both in life and property. As soon as the smoke clears away I will ascertain and telegraph you.”

Porter recalled:

“Much damage was done to the wharf, the boat was entirely destroyed, all the laborers employed on it were killed, and a number of men and horses near the landing were fatally injured… The general was the only one of the party who remained unmoved; he did not even leave his seat to run to the bluff with the others to see what had happened.”

A message soon came from the headquarters of Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, “Was that explosion at City Point? What was it?” The response:

“A barge laden with ordnance stores was accidentally blown up just now while lying at the wharf. There has been considerable destruction of property and loss of life. No officers were killed. The shock was terrific, and of course unlooked for. It is probable we shall never know how the accident occurred. One of your office wagon horses was killed. We are clearing away the ruins at the river.”

Maxwell reported:

“I may be permitted, captain, here to remark that in the enemy’s statement a party of ladies, it seems, were killed by this explosion. It is saddening to me to realize the fact that the terrible effects of war induce such consequence; but when I remember the ordeal to which our own women have been subjected, and the barbarities of the enemy’s crusade against us and them, my feelings are relieved by the reflection that while this catastrophe was not intended by us, it amounts only, in the providence of God, to just retaliation.”

Porter wrote:

“No one could surmise the cause of the explosion, and the general (Grant) appointed me president of a board of officers to investigate the matter. We spent several days in taking the testimony of all the people who were in sight of the occurrence, and used every possible means to probe the matter; but as all the men aboard the boat had been killed, we could obtain no satisfactory evidence. It was attributed by most of those present to the careless handling of the ammunition by the laborers who were engaged in unloading it; but there was a suspicion in the minds of many of us that it was the work of some emissaries of the enemy sent into the lines.”

Only after the war was it revealed that Confederate saboteurs had planted a bomb.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11382-403; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 483; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553-54; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 382-83; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81-82; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 141-42

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid: Confederates Ponder Retaliation

March 5, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis held a cabinet meeting at Richmond to discuss what measures should be taken in response to the controversial Federal raid on Richmond.

Two days after Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was killed in the failed raid on Richmond, his father, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, came to Washington to ask his personal friend President Abraham Lincoln for information about his son.

Lincoln was aware that Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal command had fled to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal army at Fort Monroe after the raid, but nobody at Washington knew of Dahlgren’s death yet. Lincoln wrote Butler, “Admiral Dahlgren is here, and of course is very anxious about this son. Please send me at once all you know or can learn of his fate.”

Meanwhile, the South seethed with rage upon learning that papers on Dahlgren’s body called for liberated Federal prisoners of war to burn Richmond and kill top Confederate government officials. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, sent the photographic copies of these documents to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, and asked if he or his superiors had any prior knowledge of this plot.

Meade assured Lee that neither he nor the Lincoln administration “had authorized, sanctioned, or approved the burning of the city of Richmond and the killing of Mr. Davis and Cabinet.” Meade also forwarded Kilpatrick’s statement on the matter, which asserted that nobody higher in rank than Dahlgren knew of the plot.

There was no evidence to disprove Meade’s claim. However, Lincoln’s approval of the raid (without necessarily approving the raid’s specific objectives) indicated his urgency to end the war by any means necessary. As news of the raid spread across the North, the northern press took a much different view than the South. The New York Times called the raid a “complete success, resulting in the destruction of millions of dollars of public property.” But the paper either did not know or willfully omitted Dahlgren’s controversial intentions.

Southerners branded Colonel Dahlgren a war criminal, and his body, which had been buried in a shallow grave in Richmond, was unearthed and put on display. A correspondent from the Richmond Examiner reported that the body was–

“Stripped, robbed of every valuable, the fingers cut off for the sake of the diamond rings that encircled them. When the body was found by those sent to take charge of it, it was lying in a field stark naked, with the exception of the stocking. Some humane persons had lifted the corpse from the pike and thrown it over into the field, to save it from the hogs. The artificial leg worn by Dahlgren (who lost his leg at Gettysburg) was removed, and is now at General Elzey’s headquarters. It is of most beautiful design and finish.

“Yesterday afternoon, the body was removed from the car that brought it to the York River railroad depot, and given to the spot of earth selected to receive it. Where that spot is no one but those concerned in its burial know or care to tell. It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friend and relative at the North need inquire no further; this is all they will know–he is buried a burial that befitted the mission upon which he came. He ‘swept through the city of Richmond’ on a pine bier, and ‘written his name’ on the scroll of infamy, instead of ‘on the hearts of his countrymen,’ never to be erased. He ‘asked the blessing of Almighty God’ and his mission of rapine, murder and blood, and the Almighty cursed him instead.”

Lieutenant Colonel John Atkinson led the burial party, with instructions from Davis not to reveal the burial site. Kilpatrick’s Federal troopers destroyed property, including a grain mill, in King and Queen County near Carlton’s Store, in retaliation for Dahlgren’s death.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederate press called for retribution, and Davis met with his cabinet on the 5th to discuss what the administration should do about it. Most members present favored executing the prisoners taken from Dahlgren’s command, but Davis was firmly opposed. According to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin:

“A discussion ensued which became so heated as almost to create unfriendly feeling, by reason of the unshaken firmness of Mr. Davis, in maintaining that although these men merited a refusal to grant them quarter in the heat of battle, they had been received to mercy by their captors as prisoners of war, and such were sacred; and that we should be dishonored if harm should overtake them after their surrender, the acceptance of which constituted, in his judgment, a pledge that they should receive the treatment of prisoners of war.”

Secretary of War James A. Seddon asked Lee for advice since he had greater experience in dealing with prisoners. Seddon wrote in part, “My own inclinations are toward the execution of at least a portion of those captured at the time Colonel Dahlgren was killed. The question of what is best to be done is a grave and important one, and I desire to have the benefit of your views and any suggestions you may make.” Lee responded:

“I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands. Assuming that the address and special orders of Colonel Dahlgren correctly state his designs and intentions, they were not executed, and I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute a crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, and he killed. I do not think it, therefore, to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions. I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.”

Davis ultimately agreed, and Dahlgren’s men were not executed.

On Sunday the 6th, a copy of the previous day’s Richmond Sentinel was delivered to Meade’s Army of the Potomac headquarters. From this, Meade received the first definitive news that Dahlgren was dead. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“The Richmond Sentinel of March 5 has been received, which announces the capturing at King and queen (county) of a part of Dahlgren’s party, reported 90 men, and that Colonel Dahlgren was killed in the skirmish. I fear the account is true.”

Meade wrote his wife, “You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.” When Admiral Dahlgren learned of his son’s death, he lamented in his diary, “How busy is death–oh, how busy indeed!”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-81; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6593; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid Takes a Sinister Turn

March 2, 1864 – Confederates continued pursuing the Federal raiders led by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, uncovering controversial documentation in the process.

Two Federal forces had unsuccessfully tried to raid Richmond. The main force under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick rode through Kent Court House on the way to joining Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Fort Monroe, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Dahlgren’s 500-man detachment split in two, with Dahlgren leading about 100 men southeast to rejoin Kilpatrick.

Col Ulric Dahlgren | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Fitzhugh Lee, commanding Confederate cavalry in the area, soon learned of Dahlgren’s presence. His Confederates fired on Dahlgren’s men as they crossed the Mattaponi River, but the Federals held them off long enough to get across. The Confederate pursuers used an alternate road to get in front of Dahlgren’s column as it approached Mantapike Hill, between King and Queen County and King William County.

The Confederates waited in ambush as the Federals approached on the night of the 2nd. Dahlgren saw them in the woods and yelled, “Surrender you damned rebels, or we will charge you!” The Confederates instead demanded Dahlgren’s surrender. Dahlgren drew his revolver but it misfired. The Confederates opened fire, and a Federal trooper recalled, “This stampeded us for about 100 yards, every horse in our column turning to the rear.” Another wrote:

“The next instant a heavy volley was poured in upon us. The flash of the pieces afforded us a momentary glimpse of their position stretching parallel with the road about 15 paces from us. Every tree was occupied, and the bushes poured forth a sheet of fire. A bullet grazing my leg and probably struck my horse somewhere in the neck, caused him to make a violent swing sideways.”

Dahlgren was shot five times and killed. The Federals left him behind as they rode off, and the Confederates eventually rounded up about 100 of his men. Most of the survivors from Dahlgren’s force met up with Kilpatrick that night, while some found refuge on the U.S.S. Morse, near Brick House Farm on the York River.

William Littlepage, a 13-year-old boy accompanying the Confederates, searched Dahlgren’s body and found a bundle of papers in his coat pocket. He turned them over to the troopers, who read them the next morning. The three documents included the speech that Dahlgren had planned to give to his men upon entering Richmond, a list of instructions, and a memorandum book.

The instructions included the Federals’ plan to break some 15,000 Federal prisoners of war out of Belle Island and Libby Prison. They also directed the men to disguise themselves in Confederate uniforms, gather “combustible material,” and burn Richmond. And if President Jefferson Davis was found, he must be “killed on the spot.” Dahlgren wrote, “The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed.”

Some historians alleged that the papers had been forged by Confederates, but a handwriting expert verified Dahlgren’s writing a century later. Several prisoners were captured in Confederate uniform carrying turpentine and other material needed to set fires. This made them saboteurs under Articles of War, subject to execution.

The discovery of these incriminating papers and the capture of Federals verifying their authenticity put a sinister twist on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid. Fitz Lee delivered the papers to Davis at Richmond, who shared them with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Davis tried downplaying the issue, showing the secretary the order to kill him and his cabinet and saying, “That means you, Mr. Benjamin.” Davis asked Fitz to file the papers away. But General Braxton Bragg, Davis’s military advisor, recommended to Secretary of War James A. Seddon:

“It has occurred to me that the papers just captured from the enemy are of such an extraordinary and diabolical character that some more formal method should be adopted of giving them to the public than simply sending them to the press. My own conviction is for an execution of the prisoners and a publication as justification; but in any event the publication should go forth with official sanction from the highest authority, calling the attention of our people and the civilized world to the fiendish and atrocious conduct of our enemies.”

Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas agreed with Bragg. But Seddon, along with Davis and General Robert E. Lee, were reluctant to take punitive action against the prisoners. Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper had the documents photographed and sent to the Richmond newspapers; their publication sent waves of shock, panic, and outrage throughout the South. Editors alleged that the plot went all the way up the chain of command to President Abraham Lincoln himself. An article in the Richmond Inquirer declared:

“Should our army again go into the enemy’s country, will not these papers relieve them from their restraints of a chivalry that would be proper with a civilized army, but which only brings upon them the contempt of our savage foe? Decidedly, we think that these Dahlgren papers will destroy, during the rest of the war, all rosewater chivalry, and that the Confederate armies will make war afar and upon the rules selected by the enemy.”

The Richmond Whig asked:

“Are these (Dahlgren’s) men warriors? Are they soldiers, taken in the performance of duties recognized as legitimate by the loosest construction in the code of civilized warfare? Or are they assassins, barbarians, thugs who have forfeited (and expect to lose) their lives? Are they not barbarians redolent with more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen?”

The Richmond Daily Examiner recommended:

“Our soldiers should in every instance where they capture officers engaged in raids characterized by such acts of incendiarism and wanton devastation and plunder, as this last raid has been, hang them immediately. If they are handed over as prisoners of war, they at once come under the laws of regular warfare and are subject to exchange… therefore we hope that our soldiers will take the law in their own hands… by hanging those they capture.”

Dahlgren’s body was brought to Richmond and buried in a shallow grave after being examined by Davis. An editor wrote:

“And they came and the Almighty blessed them not, and Dahlgren is dead and gone to answer for his crimes and several hundred of his partners in the plot concocted so deliberately are now our prisoners. They every one richly merit death…”

The controversy would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20051; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-82; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 913, 915; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 405; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6593; 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; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid Ends

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.

Gen Hugh Judson Kilpatrick | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.

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References

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