February 28, 1864: Beginning of the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren Raid


Portrait of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren

One of the more hare-brained schemes of the Civil War, a cavalry raid towards Richmond with 4,000 Union troopers under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a reckless blustering officer fully deserving of his nickname “Kill-Cavalry”, began on February 28, 1864.  Colonel Ulric Dahlgren’s brigade was detailed to penetrate the Richmond defenses, ostensibly to free Union prisoners.  The raid ended in a complete fiasco on March 2, with 324 of the raiders killed or wounded, and 1000 taken prisoner.

Among the dead was Dahlgren.  The Confederates found two interesting documents on his body, including one that contained this sentence:

“The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

The sentence was part of two pages written by Dahlgren, which appear to be instructions for his men.  The other document was a speech to his men which contained this sentence:

‘We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy & burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.’

The Confederates made huge propaganda hay out of this and were justifiably outraged.  Calls went out to hang the raiders, a call successfully resisted by General Robert E. Lee.  The Union denounced the alleged documents as  forgeries, but after the fall of Richmond, Secretary of War Stanton made certain that the documents were brought to him, and they were never seen again, although the Confederates had made photographs of them, so we know their contents.

Since the Civil War a controversy has raged about whether the documents were authentic.  Based upon Stanton’s conduct in destroying them, I have little doubt that they were authentic, and probably based upon verbal instructions of Stanton, who tended to be bloody minded and had a weakness for fantastic schemes and plots.  (The idea that in a city swarming with enemy troops and militia Dahlgren was going to be able to find, let alone kill, Davis and his cabinet, demonstrates just how absurd the plan was.)  Ironically the publicity surrounding the Dahlgren affair helped inspire the assassination plot of John Wilkes Booth that led to the death of Abraham Lincoln.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. It wasn’t until late 1864 that the Union cavalry could best the Confederates on a consistent basis. Wilson’s Raid in 1865 showed how devastating repeater-armed cavalry could be. A modern historian called it “the Yankee blitzkrieg.”

  2. I rode with old Jeb Stuart, and his band of Southern horse,
    And there never were no Yankees, who could meet us force to force.
    No they never did defeat us, but we never could evade,
    Their dirty foreign politics, and cowardly blockade.

    Well we hadn’t any powder, and we hadn’t any shot,
    And we hadn’t any money to buy what we ain’t got.
    So we rode our worn-out horses, and we ate on plain cornmeal,
    And we licked em where we caught em, with Southern guts and steel.

    We sunk the ship at Sumter, and we broke her plumb in two.
    We showed them bully Yankees, just what we aimed to do.
    At a little creek called Bull Run, we took their starry rag,
    To wipe our horses down with, and I ain’t here to brag.

    Well there aren’t as many left of us as rode out at the start,
    And then there are the weary, weak, and body sad of heart.
    We fought a fight to tell about and I am here to say,
    I’d climb my horse and follow Marse to hell come any day.

  3. A common quip among Union infantry was, “I never saw a dead cavalryman.”

    Until Gettysburg. There, B/G’s Custer’s and Gregg’s cav stopped cold Wade Hampton’s cav behind the Union south/center on the third day. Meanwhile, Kill-cavalry mounted disastrous charges against the Rebels in the east/front. Thereafter, despite Kill-cavalry and a few other cav maniacs, the Union cavalry became an effective combat arm. The book, Custer Victorious, is an excellent read and details Union cav successes (mainly Custer, who fortuitously was not ordered on the Richmond raid) from Gettysburg to Appomatox.

    Coincidently, my son served in a cav outfuit in Afghanistan. They still have stetsons, sdatble calls and officers earn (unofficial) spurs (made from shell casings) in addition to their CIB’s. The officers are infantry or armor MOS. The enlisted soldiers are cavalry scouts. The org is reg’t, squadron (= batt.) and troop (= company), and platoon. A platoon is four up-armored Humvees, two with .50 cal MG; one an automatic grenade lauincher and one a TOW missile.

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