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