The plan was Kilpatrick's. Known as "Kill-Cavalry"—a nickname intended to suggest his daring but also his recklessness—the general hoped to build on the tactical success of his raids around Richmond the previous spring. (The raids had alarmed Richmonders but did little to support Union general Joseph Hooker, who, during the Chancellorsville Campaign, had charged his cavalry with cutting Robert E. Lee's supply line. They failed.) Kilpatrick's proposal would also right the wrongs of several abortive attempts to rescue Union prisoners who, by all accounts, were suffering terribly at Belle Isle and Libby Prison.
Kilpatrick and Dahlgren set out from Stevensburg, Virginia, on the evening of February 28. The following afternoon, Kilpatrick and his detachment of 3,500 men reached Beaver Dam Station and began ripping up rails and destroying Confederate property. They failed, however, to prevent an approaching train from reaching Richmond and spreading the alarm. Confederate home guard units mobilized around the capital, and late that evening Confederate cavalrymen under Major General Wade Hampton set off in pursuit of the raiders. By March 2, after slow progress through sleet, snow, and rain, Kilpatrick reached the inner defensive lines of Richmond. But with no sign of Dahlgren inside the city, Kilpatrick retreated eastward. On the night of March 2, Kilpatrick considered another attack on Richmond, but the arrival of Hampton's troopers foiled these plans. Some historians have also pointed out that Kilpatrick had made no arrangements for arming, feeding, or transporting the freed prisoners, a fact which may have given him pause. Kilpatrick finally reached the safety of Union lines at Yorktown on March 4.
The raid accomplished nothing except minor damage to railroads and buildings. The death of Dahlgren, however, led to one of the most controversial episodes of the war. A thirteen-year-old member of Richmond's home guard discovered on the Union colonel's body handwritten orders for the burning of Richmond and the assassination of Davis and his cabinet. Outraged Confederate authorities published them in the press, catching Union generals and politicians off guard. Dahlgren's father, among many others in the North, insisted they were fabrications, while the Richmond Examiner waxed indignant: "The depredations of the last Yankee raiders, and the wantonness of their devastation equal anything heretofore committed during the war."
Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew assumed Dahlgren's innocence and, disturbed at what she perceived to be the Confederates' mistreatment of his corpse, set herself to finding it. Acting on a tip from an African American who witnessed Dahlgren's secret burial in Oakwood Cemetery, Van Lew and the Richmond underground managed to unearth the body and rebury it in what was, by their lights, a more proper manner. When Confederates agreed to transfer Dahlgren's remains north to his father, they found the grave empty. "Dahlgren had risen," exclaimed the Richmond Examiner, "or been resurrected."
April 16, 1864 - In response to a query from Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Union general George G. Meade questions Union general H. Judson Kilpatrick as to the authenticity of the so-called Dahlgren Papers. Kilpatrick tells Meade that he had no knowledge of the incendiary orders.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: January 30, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011