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.


  1. There is a small Navy station on the Potomac called Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory. The military, around 100 of us, was far outnumbered by ‘sand fleas’ (derogatory term for civilian employees). The food was outstanding. Because we were so small as I understand it, they mixed the enlisted and officer food budgets. I about cried when I got orders to return to Quantico. The crappie fishing was awesome and we had plenty of time to do so. It was miles and miles to where any girls would be. ha! I am pretty sure it was named after that “hero”.

  2. Probably it was named after his Dad Dennis, Admiral Dahlgren, who invented the Dahlgren cannon. The old sea dog was broken up by his son’s death and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. I do not blame the son, who was only 21 years old, for the sinister elements in this raid. He was only carrying out orders and he did not have the experience to realize that he was being asked to cross a line that should never be crossed by any soldier. I do blame Stanton and Kilpatrick who fully knew what they were asking Dahlgren to attempt to do.

    • Now that you said that I am sure you are correct. I agree too with your views on Stanton

  3. In times of war, the enemy commander is fully a target. The reason why the execution of Mussolini was an outrage is not that they killed him – he had actually met the partisan leaders on the morning of April 25 and refused to surrender, so he was twice fair game – but the execution of all the Italian prisoners taken with him. To target enemy leaders and commanders is otherwise a natural path, which means that the Southern indignation at this plan was ridiculous. Of course, that does not deny that the plan was an idiocy – a thousand troopers and a lot of tired, hungry and poorly armed (at best) released prisoners, penetrating an enemy city and taking prominent prisoners? Don’t make me laugh.

    • I disagree Fabio. I think targeting enemy political leaders for assassination is bad policy in general and should only be utilized if the enemy leader has descended to the moral level of a Hitler or a Mussolini. There are practical as well as moral reasons for this. Union forces murdering the civilian leadership of the Confederacy might well have rendered the reunification of the country an impossibility short of permanent military occupation of the South, and such a “Union” would not have been worth having.

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