Category Archives: Irregular Operations

The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth Ends

April 26, 1865 – Federal authorities finally tracked down John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice on a farm in Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit: cj-worldnews.com

After nine agonizing days, Booth and David E. Herold were finally able to cross the Potomac River and land on Virginia soil on the 23rd. Before the men left Maryland, Confederate spy Thomas A. Jones had referred them to a Mrs. Quesenberry as someone who might be willing to help them escape once they reached Virginia. Booth, who was in severe pain from his broken leg, waited in the woods while Herold found the woman’s home.

Mrs. Quesenberry referred Herold to Confederate sympathizer Thomas Harbin, who agreed to help the fugitives after sundown. Harbin sent them to the home of a doctor so Booth could get medical attention, but the doctor wanted nothing to do with the man who killed Abraham Lincoln and turned them away. Booth and Herold finally forced their way into the home of a free black family and stayed there for the night.

On the 24th, the fugitives went to Port Conway, where a man named William Rollins agreed to take them across the Rappahannock River in his fishing boat. A group of Confederate cavalrymen joined them in the crossing, and Herold confessed to trooper Willie Jett, “We are the assassinators of the President. Yonder is J. Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln.”

Once across the Rappahannock, the group sought shelter and ended up at the farm of Richard H. Garrett, just south of Port Royal in Caroline County. Garrett welcomed the men, but only Booth stayed the night. Herold went with the Confederates into nearby Bowling Green to look for supplies. Meanwhile, a detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger landed at Belle Plain in pursuit of Booth and his accomplice.

The Garrett Farmhouse | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly; May 20, 1865; Vol. IX, No. 438

Herold returned to the Garrett farm on the 25th and learned that Garrett had left for the day, leaving his son John in charge. John had grown suspicious of these strangers and would not let them stay any longer. John’s suspicions seemed confirmed when the men frantically raced off after a rider announced that Federal cavalry was nearby.

Booth and Herold returned to the farm after the Federals passed, but John refused to let them in the house. John’s father returned that night and agreed to let the men stay in the barn. The barn had once been used to dry tobacco, but now the Garretts used it to store furniture. John feared that the men might be horse thieves, so he padlocked the barn to keep them inside until morning.

Meanwhile, the Federals questioned Rollins, who confirmed from photographs that he had taken Booth and Herold across the river. Rollins also divulged that Willie Jett, whom he knew, was courting a woman in Bowling Green. Conger and two of his troopers stormed into Jett’s room at the Star Hotel and demanded, “Where are the two men who came with you across the river?”

Herold had told Jett who they were, so Jett knew who Conger meant. Jett pulled one of the Federals aside and said, “I know who you want, and I will tell you where they can be found.” Jett told him that Booth and Herold “are on the road to Port Royal,” on the farm of “Mr. Garrett’s.” Jett offered to lead the Federals there, and they left Bowling Green around 12:30 a.m.

The Federals stormed through the gate of the Garrett farm about 90 minutes later. They summoned Garrett from his house and demanded, “Where are the two men who stopped here at your house?” Garrett answered, “Gone to the woods.” Conger said, “Bring me a lariat rope here, and I will put that man up to the top of one of those locust trees.” Garrett’s son interrupted, “Don’t hurt the old man; he is scared; I will tell you where the men are… in the barn.”

Meanwhile, the Garretts’ barking dogs woke Booth and Herold, who quickly discovered that they were locked in. Herold told Booth, “You had better give up.” Booth answered, “I will suffer death first.” John unlocked the barn as the Federal surrounded it. Conger announced that if the men did not come out and surrender, he would burn the barn down. Booth yelled back, “Let us have a little time to consider it.”

After some time, Booth called out, “I am a cripple. I have got one leg. If you will withdraw your men in line one hundred yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.” Conger replied, “We did not come here to fight you, we simply came to make you a prisoner. We do not want any fight with you.” Booth then proposed 50 yards, yelling, “Give me a chance for my life.” But this too was refused. Booth then announced theatrically, “Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me.”

The Federals started placing kindling against the barn to burn the fugitives out. Herold begged Booth to let him surrender, and Booth replied, “You damned coward! Will you leave me now? Go, go! I would not have you stay with me!” Booth then called out to the Federals, “There’s a man who wants to come out. Upon the word and honor of a gentleman, he has no arms.” Herold came out willingly, and the troopers tied him to a tree. Booth refused to surrender once more, declaring, “I prefer to come out and fight.”

Conger reached into a crack in the barn wall and set fire to the hay, which quickly spread. Booth hobbled to the door on his splinted leg with a carbine in his arm. Sergeant Boston Corbett saw Booth and shot him in the neck. The Federals had orders to take Booth alive, but Corbett later asserted that he fired because he saw Booth raise his carbine to shoot. Corbett stated, “I took steady aim on my arm, and shot him through a large crack in the barn.”

Initially the Federals did not know that Corbett had shot Booth. They merely heard the gunshot and thought that Booth had attempted suicide. They rushed into the barn, saw the gunshot wound to his neck, and carried him onto the porch of the Garrett house. The bullet had traveled through the neck from right to left, pierced three vertebrae, and severed the spinal cord.

Booth lay paralyzed on the porch for three and a half hours. At one point he muttered, “Tell mother I die for my country.” He asked the Federals to kill him, but they hoped he would somehow recover so they could take him alive. At his request, troopers raised his hands so he could see them and say, “Useless, useless.” Booth died shortly after 7 a.m. In his confiscated diary, the last entry condemned Lincoln:

“Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 219; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-17, 132-39; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 562-63; Devine, Marty, “Lincoln’s Alexandria Legacy” (Alexandria Times, 15 Feb 2009, retrieved 12 Sep 2011); Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 597; 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 20987-1007; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 587; Goodrich, Thomas, The Darkest Dawn (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 2005), p. 195; Hanchett, William, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 140-41; John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis—A True Story of Their Capture (Boston: The Lincoln & Smith Press, 1914), p. 35-36; law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 681-83; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 391; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 210-13; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 440-41; Swanson, James, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Harper Collins, 2006); Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 391

The Booth Manhunt: Accomplices Arrested

April 20, 1865 – Federals arrested George Atzerodt for his connection to the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln and members of his administration. Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth waited to cross the Potomac River to sanctuary in Virginia.

Dr. Samuel Mudd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Booth manhunt intensified as Federal authorities worked tirelessly to track down anyone who may have played a role in the scheme to kill Lincoln, William H. Seward, and Andrew Johnson. On the 18th, a team of investigators led by Alexander Lovett reached the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Bryantown, Maryland, and interrogated the doctor.

Mudd stated that two men came to his house around 4 a.m. on the 15th. He said the men came inside, where Mudd set Booth’s broken leg. Mudd claimed to have given Booth a pair of wooden crutches and gone into town to find him a carriage. He told the investigators that Booth “was a stranger to him,” and he also claimed that the men left his home heading south when they actually went east.

Three days later, Lovett returned to search the doctor’s home. Mudd’s wife Sarah gave Lovett the left boot that Mudd had cut from Booth’s leg, and Lovett later stated that he “saw the name J. Wilkes written in it.” Lovett also declared that he knew Mudd and Booth had met last November. The doctor initially denied this but then finally admitted that he knew Booth. Mudd was arrested and taken to Washington. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles alerted all ships on the Potomac River that Booth had last been seen at Bryantown.

George Atzerodt | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the 20th, authorities arrested George Atzerodt in Germantown, about 25 miles northwest of Washington. Atzerodt had been assigned to kill Vice President Johnson at Johnson’s suite in the Kirkwood Hotel. Atzerodt attracted suspicion on the night of the 14th by asking the hotel bartender where Johnson was. He drank at the bar until he finally lost his nerve and left. The next day, a hotel employee told Federals that a “suspicious-looking man” in “a gray coat” had been at the hotel.

John Lee and his investigators searched Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood; the suspect had not stayed there the night before but he left many of his belongings behind. Lee’s team found a loaded revolver under the pillow, a large knife, a map of Virginia, and Booth’s bank book. They ultimately traced Atzerodt to Germantown, where he was staying on his cousin’s farm. Others who were arrested included:

  • Louis J. Weichmann, a boarder in the Washington home of Mrs. Mary Surratt
  • Booth’s brother Junius, an actor performing in Cincinnati who had been nearly killed by an enraged mob just because he was related to the assassin
  • John T. Ford, owner of Ford’s Theatre
  • James Pumphrey, a livery stable owner who had rented Booth a horse
  • John M. Lloyd, the manager of Mrs. Surratt’s tavern in Surrattsville where Booth and David E. Herold had stopped for weapons and supplies after the assassination
  • Lewis Paine (or Powell), who had attempted to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward
  • Samuel Arnold, who had written a suspicious letter to Booth
  • Michael O’Laughlen, who was believed to have been involved in a plot to kidnap Lincoln
  • Edward “Ned” Spangler, a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre who had opened the back door for Booth and allegedly arranged to have a horse waiting for him

Meanwhile, Booth and Herold remained in the woods on the property of Samuel Cox near Port Tobacco, Maryland. They were waiting for the right time to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. Cox kept the men fed and hidden, while Confederate spy Thomas A. Jones tried to arrange transportation for them. Jones went into Port Tobacco and learned that the Federals patrolling nearby were offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who knew Booth’s whereabouts. Jones later wrote that he was tempted to take the offer:

“But it seems to me that, had I, for money, betrayed the man whose hand I had taken, whose confidence I had won, and to whom I had promised succor, I would have been, of all traitors, the most abject and despicable. Money won by such vile means would have been accursed and the pale face of the man whose life I had sold, would have haunted me to the grave.”

Jones returned to town on the 21st and learned that the Federal patrols had rode off to follow a tip in St. Mary’s County, 40 miles away. This was his chance to get Booth and Herold across the river undetected. On that foggy night, Jones led the men out of the woods and down to the river where he had a flat-bottomed boat. Jones referred them to a Mrs. Quesenberry for help once they got across. Booth offered Jones money, but he only accepted $18 for the cost of the boat.

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit: cj-worldnews.com

Booth was in agonizing pain from his broken leg, so Herold had to row. After rowing for five hours, he spotted land that he knew belonged to a friend and Confederate sympathizer named John J. Hughes. But it was still in Maryland. Exhausted, the men stopped and met with Hughes, who recognized them and welcomed them into his home.

By this time, Hughes was well aware that Booth had killed Lincoln. He told the men that he would keep them sheltered and hidden from Federal authorities, but he would not help in any other way. Hughes also warned them of nearby Federal patrols, so they would have to wait until the night of the 22nd to continue on to Virginia.

During his stay with Hughes, Booth read the newspapers and seethed about being condemned for killing Lincoln. He wrote, “With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for… And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

Booth and Herold were given a fishing skiff, and according to Herold’s later testimony: “That night at sundown, we crossed the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek, passed within 300 yards of a gunboat, and landed at Mathias Point.” They finally landed on the Virginia shore on the 23rd. But the Federals were closing in fast.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-17; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 561; 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 20987-1007; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 586; Kimmel, Stanley, The Mad Booths of Maryland (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 238-40; Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve and Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip B., Twenty Days (Castle Books, 1965); law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 678, 680; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 197-98, 203-04; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516; Steers, Edward, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)

The Nation Reacts to Lincoln’s Death

April 15, 1865 – Northerners mourned the loss of Abraham Lincoln while rumors quickly spread that the assassination attempts had been plotted by a desperate Confederate government.

Almost immediately after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and Lewis Paine stabbed William H. Seward, Washington officials accused high-ranking Confederates of orchestrating the attacks. As such, northern sentiment quickly turned from sorrow to rage against the South. Francis Lieber, the political scientist who had developed the codes of ethics that Federal armies were supposed to follow, wrote a frantic letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“My God! That even this should befall us! It is Slavery, Slavery! Can I do anything? Dispose, my friend, wholly of me, if there be aught I can help to do. The draft ought to go on again, or volunteers be called, to sweep, literally to sweep the South. No coquetting! Drive the fiends from our soil and let Grant be a stern uncompromising man of the sword, and the sword alone, until the masses in the States rise against their own fiends, and hang them or drive them out, and until the masses offer themselves, re-revolutionized, back to the Union, freed from slavery and assassins and secret society… The murder of poor, good Lincoln is no isolated fact. It is all, all one fiendish barbarism.”

Prominent northerners quickly joined Lieber in calling for Federal forces to destroy the South once and for all. In Boston, Reverend W.S. Studley called for hanging Confederates in his Sunday service, adding, “In dealing with traitors, Andrew Johnson’s little finger will be thicker than Abraham Lincoln’s loins. If the old president chastised them with whips, the new president will chastise them with scorpions.”

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton halted southbound passenger trains from Washington, prohibited boats from crossing the Potomac to Virginia, posted guards outside the homes of cabinet members, mobilized the fire brigade, and closed Ford’s Theatre. He also issued a declaration alleging that Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials had sanctioned Lincoln’s assassination.

Stanton authorized Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to use “adequate force and vigilance” against “the large number of Rebel officers and privates, prisoners of war, and Rebel refugees and deserters that are among us.” Stanton added, “I feel it my duty to ask you to consider yourself specially charged with all matters pertaining to the security and defense of this national capital.”

Grant ordered Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Federal occupation forces in Richmond, to arrest Mayor Joseph Mayo and high-ranking Confederate John A. Campbell, who had worked with Lincoln to help bring Virginia back into the Union. Ord balked at the order, writing, “The two citizens I have seen. They are old, nearly helpless, and I think incapable of harm.”

Ord stated that Campbell and Robert Hunter, another Confederate working with Federal authorities, had recently asked him “to send them to Washington to see the President. Would they have done so, if guilty?” Grant answered: “On reflection I will withdraw my dispatch of this date directing the arrest of Campbell, Mayo and others so far as it may be regarded as an order, and leave it in the light of a suggestion, to be executed only so far as you may judge the good of the service demands.”

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, a corps commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and now a prisoner of war at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, spoke for most clear-minded southerners in a letter to Grant:

“You will appreciate, I am sure, the sentiment which prompts me to drop you these lines. Of all the misfortunes which could befall the Southern people, or any Southern man, by far the greatest, in my judgment, would be the prevalence of the idea that they could entertain any other than feelings of unqualified abhorrence and indignation for the assassination of the President of the United States and the attempt to assassinate the Secretary of State. No language can adequately express the shock produced upon myself, in common with all the other general officers confined here with me, by the occurrence of this appalling crime, and by the seeming tendency in the public mind to connect the South and Southern men with it. Need we say that we are not assassins, nor the allies of assassins, be they from the North or from the South, and that coming as we do from most of the states of the South we would be ashamed of our own people were we not assured that they will reprobate this crime.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln was mourned throughout the North. Church bells tolled, and ministers compared the late president to Jesus Christ in their Easter sermons. Even Lincoln’s political opponents acknowledged that his death was a national tragedy. As the nation grieved, officials prepared an elaborate funeral to bid a final farewell to Abraham Lincoln.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 475, 478; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 559; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 677-78; 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), Q265

More Assassination Attempts, Washington in Turmoil

April 14, 1865 – As President Abraham Lincoln was shot, both Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward were targeted for assassination as well.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Around the same time that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Booth’s co-conspirator Lewis Paine (or Powell) attempted to assassinate Seward. Paine went to the secretary’s home on Lafayette Square, having been brought there by fellow accomplice David E. Herold. Paine approached the door alone and told a servant that he was delivering medicine to Seward, who had suffered a broken arm and jaw in a recent carriage accident. When the servant hesitated to let him in, Paine forced his way inside and rushed upstairs toward sounds he assumed were coming from Seward’s bedroom.

Seward’s son Frederick tried to stop Paine at the top of the stairs. Paine pulled out a revolver and, when it failed to fire, broke Frederick’s skull with the heavy weapon and charged into the bedroom. Paine cut the nurse with a Bowie knife, then jumped on Seward’s bed and slashed at the secretary’s neck and face. A soldier on duty and Seward’s other son Augustus pulled Paine off, and the assailant raced out of the house.

Seward was badly wounded, but his plaster arm cast and the splint fitted to his broken jaw had fended off enough slashes for him to survive. Herold ran off when he heard screams coming from the house, leaving Paine to fend for himself. Unfamiliar with Washington, he wandered the streets for two days before finally arriving at the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt, where Booth and his conspirators had hatched their plot.

Another Booth conspirator, George Atzerodt, had been tasked with killing Vice President Johnson, who was living at the Kirkwood Hotel. Atzerodt drank at the Kirkwood bar and contemplated his assignment until he finally lost his nerve and left. Authorities arrived soon afterward to notify Johnson of the assassination attempts on Lincoln and Seward, and to guard him from a similar fate.

Meanwhile, Lincoln had been carried out of Ford’s Theatre and brought across the street to a rear bedroom in the boardinghouse of William Petersen. He was arranged diagonally across a bed that was too small for his six foot-four inch frame. Having already concluded that Lincoln could not survive, the doctors focused mainly on making him as comfortable as possible.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia had been advertised to go to Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns, but they had taken a train to see their children in New Jersey instead. They stopped at Bloodgood’s Hotel in Philadelphia for the night, and around midnight Grant received a telegram from Major Thomas Eckert, head of the War Department telegraph office:

“The President was assassinated at Ford’s Theater at 10:30 tonight and cannot live. The wound is a pistol shot through the head. Secretary Seward and his son Frederick were also assassinated at their residence and are in a dangerous condition. The Secretary of War desires that you return to Washington immediately. Please answer on receipt of this.”

Grant sent word that he was on his way back. Then, around 12:50 a.m., he received a telegram from Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana: “Permit me to suggest to you to keep close watch on all persons who come near you in the cars or otherwise; also, that an engine be sent in front of the train to guard against anything being on the track.” When Grant shared the news with Julia, she wept and asked, “This will make Andy Johnson president, will it not?” Grant said, “Yes, and… I dread the change.”

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

News of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward sparked hysterical rumors of a citywide Confederate killing spree. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arrived at the Petersen house and became de facto president by stopping traffic on the Potomac River bridges, authorizing Grant to take command of capital defenses, and alerting border authorities to watch for suspicious crossings. When witnesses identified Booth as Lincoln’s assassin, Stanton directed Federal troops to track down both him and anyone who may have conspired with him.

First Lady Mary Lincoln was at her husband’s bedside, but grief eventually overwhelmed her. She moaned, “How can it be so? Do speak to me!” She then began screaming hysterically until Stanton ordered, “Take that woman out of here and do not let her in here again!” The Lincolns’ oldest son Robert arrived after midnight; he took his mother aside and they grieved together.

People shuffled in and out of the little bedroom throughout the night as the president’s breathing grew steadily fainter. Dozens of physicians took turns caring for Lincoln, but they all agreed that he could not recover.

Finally, at 7:22:10 on the morning of April 15, a doctor pronounced, “He is gone. He is dead.” The men who had crowded into the small room knelt around the bed in silent prayer, and Stanton declared, “Now he belongs to the angels.” Several men carried Lincoln’s body out, and army medical illustrator Hermann Faber was brought in to sketch the boardinghouse bedroom for posterity.

The Lincoln Deathbed

Lincoln became the first president to ever be murdered, and he died exactly four years after calling for the Federal invasion of the Confederacy. The telegraph quickly spread the news of Lincoln’s death throughout both North and South. Northern celebrations that had been taking place ever since the fall of Richmond suddenly stopped as the joy turned into mourning and grief. In Washington, bells tolled as Lincoln’s body was wrapped in a flag and taken by guarded hearse back to the White House. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“There was a cheerless cold rain and everything seemed gloomy. On the Avenue in front of the White House were several hundred colored people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss. This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, wet day; they seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 217-19; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 474-75; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-104, 118-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 559; 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 20690-700, 20760-70; Heintjes, Tom, “Drawing on History, ‘Hogan’s Alley’ #8, 2000” (Cartoonician.com, retrieved 28 Sep 2012); Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 165; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 675-77; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 224-25; Steers, Edward, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001); Townsend, George Alfred, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1865); Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 384-86; 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), Q265

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