Following his meeting in Washington with President Abraham Lincoln two weeks before, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick had returned to his headquarters at Rose Hill, near Stevensburg in Culpeper County, and begun laying plans for a raid on Richmond to free the Union prisoners of war in the lightly defended Confederate capital.
He had with him Col. Ulric Dahlgren; the one-legged colonel was the son of Adm. John Dahlgren, a close Lincoln family friend, and well placed in the army. Together they hand-picked 3,500 cavalrymen and set out on the raid from Stevensburg on Sunday evening, Feb. 28, under clear, cold skies.
A minor engagement drove off Confederate pickets at the Rapidan River crossing at Ely’s Ford, but what the Union commanders didn’t know is that three Confederate soldier-spies fell in at the rear with the Union columns and shadowed them for more than 24 hours, relaying information about troop strengths, destination and objectives to Confederate authorities at Ashland and in Richmond.
As a diversion, a Union division under Maj. Gen. David Birney marched to Madison Courthouse in full view of Confederate signalmen on Pony Mountain, while Brig. Gen. George Custer took his cavalry division on a raid west to Charlottesville.
South of Spotsylvania, Gen. Kilpatrick sent Col. Dahlgren and 460 troopers to the west and south, to enter the Confederate capital from south of the James River, while Gen. Kilpatrick kept the balance of the troopers with him and headed south. The weather on Feb. 29 turned bitterly cold with sheets of rain, sleet, freezing rain and snow continuing for the rest of the raid. Communications between both columns were lost and never regained.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, heading back by train to his headquarters at Orange Courthouse following meetings in Richmond with President Jefferson Davis, narrowly missed being captured by Col. Dahlgren’s men at Fredericks Hall; the Union troopers were concerned about taking on a train they suspected of being a troop train, and compromising the secrecy of the raid. In reality, to avoid arousing suspicion, Gen. Lee was traveling with only two staff members and no military escort.
On Tuesday, March 1, Gen. Kilpatrick’s column arrived north of Richmond at the Intermediate Defenses, and encountered strong resistance from the Confederate defenders of wounded veterans — soldiers home on furlough, schoolboys, office and factory workers and home guards. After two unsuccessful attacks, Gen. Kilpatrick apparently lost his nerve and took his column east and then south, in an effort to join Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at Yorktown.
At the same time, approaching Richmond from the west and having been unable to cross to the south side of the rain-swollen James River at Jude’s Ferry, Col. Dahlgren’s column encountered strong resistance at Green’s Farm on the approaches to the city. After several sharp engagements, the Union troops fled, attempting to rejoin Gen. Kilpatrick’s column.
Lt. James Pollard and the 9th Virginia Cavalry pursued Col. Dahlgren’s column and caught up with them in an ambush at 11 p.m. on March 2. More than 100 Union troops were captured, and Col. Dahlgren was killed; on his body were incriminating papers outlining orders not only to free the Union prisoners at Libby Prison and Belle Isle, but also to burn Richmond to the ground and kill President Davis and most of the members of his cabinet.
The papers were published in newspapers throughout the Confederacy, resulting in anger and condemnation of such barbaric activities. Like Brig. Gen. Isaac Wistar’s raid on Richmond at the beginning of February, this raid on Richmond also had failed, resulting in more than 340 Union casualties, almost 600 horses and a considerable amount of military equipment and supplies.
The murder of the Confederate president and his cabinet and the burning of Richmond to the ground was “black flag warfare” (classified as terrorism today) at its worst. In the ensuing weeks, in correspondence between Union and Confederate authorities, the Federal military authorities denied knowing or ordering the black flag warfare, though the Lincoln administration remained strangely silent on the issue. In time, the “civilized” war had turned ugly, with the Confederate authorities considering retaliation.
In light of the murder of President Lincoln in April 1865, the attempt Secretary of State William Seward’s life and the consideration of killing vice-president Andrew Johnson, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, it could be argued that the telegram President Lincoln sent on the evening of Feb. 11, 1864, requesting Gen. Kilpatrick to come to Washington for unspecified discussions, might well have been his own death warrant.