‘And Considerable Confusion Ensued’ – Kilpatrick’s Raid on Richmond Fails

March 1, 1864 (Tuesday)

General Judson Kilpatrick was on the road by 1am. He had learned through prisoners that a brigade of Rebel infantry was stationed at Ashland, west of Hanover Court House. He ordered 450 men to divert their attention while the main column crossed the South Anna River above Ashland at daylight. Kilpatrick’s column met with resistance from the Rebels here and there, but his progress toward Richmond was hardly slowed. Before 8pm, he would attack the unsuspecting city and free the Union prisoners of war at Libby and Belle Isle.

Kilpatrick will live up to his nickname today.
Kilpatrick will live up to his nickname today.

There was also another column of Federals. Being detached two days prior, Ulric Dahlgren and around 500 troopers had veered southwest. His men had been allowed some small rest at the plantation of Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon. Here, Dahlgren met with Mrs. Seddon, who had apparently dated his father when they were classmates together in Philadelphia. They talked of old times, mutual friends, and drank a little wine. Unbeknown to Dahlgren, Mrs. Seddon dispatched a messenger to warn Richmond of their coming troubles.

By the dawn, they were on the road. Still over twenty miles from Richmond, he detached about a quarter of his force to destroy the Kanawha Canal along the James. It was his ultimate plan to then hit Richmond from the south as Kilpatrick hit it from the north. Then, led by a former slave named Martin Robinson, Dahlgren with the remainder of his men made for a ford east of Goochland Court House. Robinson was from the area and knew the James River well. A bargain had been struck prior to leaving that the guide would bring them safely to a ford and then be paid. If, on the other hand, the guide failed, he would be executed.

But when Dahlgren and Robinson arrived on the north bank of the river, they found that the winter rains had swollen it. There was, it seemed, no place to cross. The guide was dumbfounded when asked if there might be another ford near by.

“When asked why he had misled us,” wrote one of Dahlgren’s staff officers after the war, “he did not, or could not give a satisfactory answer. The Colonel then told him he would have to carry out his part of the contract, to which the guide assented, and admitted that was the agreement and made no objection to his execution. He went along to the tree without any force and submitted to his fate without a murmur.”

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

The traitor, if Robinson was such a thing, was dead, but it still did not hand Dahlgren a way to cross the James. So he decided to improvise. Rather than attacking Richmond from the south, he would attack it from the west, staying on the north side of the James. They traveled slowly through much of the day, until they heard cannons booming to the northeast.

It was to the northeast that Kilpatrick was encountering the enemy. Around 1pm, as Dahlgren was making his way down the north bank of the James, Kirkpatrick gathered his entire force and looked upon the enemy position before him. He had battled Rebel pickets all the way down the Brook Pike until he was within one mile of the Confederate capital. There was infantry and artillery behind barricades, and seemed formidable – but Kilpatrick thought he might know better.

If the troops to his front were veterans, the whole plan would have to be called off. But, according to all information gathered from spies, scouts, enemy prisoners and slaves, Richmond was lightly defended by about 3,000 home guards. These citizens soldiers would scurry away after a few shots and he could enter the city at will.

After skirmishers were dismounted and sent forward. There was actually some success, which prompted Kilpatrick to unlimber his artillery and open fire.

Do not underestimate Col. Walter Stevens
Do not underestimate Col. Walter Stevens

“Soon after my arrival,” reported Col. Walter Stevens, commanding the Richmond defenses, “the enemy opened upon my position a rapid and tolerably accurate fire from five pieces of artillery, and his skirmishers advanced under cover of ditches and the neighboring houses to within 200 yards of our works and annoyed our artillerists….” Stevens ordered a countercharge, and soon the Federal skirmishers fell back. The firing continued for nearly two hours, as Kilpatrick’s troops faded back to avoid the shells.

Kirkpatrick could see Rebel reinforcements arriving and began to have serious second thoughts about his raid. Though he could not know it for sure, he also began to doubt Dahlgren’s success. Darkness was soon coming.

It was around 4pm, and Col. Dahlgren was in high spirits. The booming of artillery could be heard in the distance, but it was too early. The simultaneous assaults were to happen at 8pm. Something had clearly gone wrong and he began to worry that the whole affair would end it failure. This seemed to be confirmed when the firing grew more distant, indicating that Kilpatrick was in retreat. Still, thought Dahlgren, perhaps he would renew the attack after dark, realigning it with the original plan.

Somehow convinced of such a thing, Dahlgren and his men went into hiding until night had fallen. And then out they came, attacking a line of Rebel works on the northeastern end of the city. As in the works before Kilpatrick, the Confederates were reinforced, and Dahlgren had little choice but to sound the retreat, leaving sixty of his dead and dying men behind. Rather than turn around the return to the Union lines the way they came, they headed east to skirt the city to the north, looking for Kilpatrick.

“Feeling confident that Dahlgren had failed to cross the river,” wrote Kilpatrick, “and that an attempt to enter the city at that point would but end in a bloody failure, I reluctantly withdrew my command at dark.”

After fleeing north, Dahlgren’s column turned east and crossed the railroad at Hungary Station. When they reached the Brook Pike, which had been used by Kilpatrick’s force earlier in the day, they learned from a citizen that Kilpatrick had retreated down the Peninsula, apparently trying to reach General Benjamin Butler’s lines near Fortress Monroe. Dahlgren then determined that he would do the same. As they passed north of Richmond, many of the troops became separated, leaving Dahlgren but seventy-five men.

Hampton: Remember me?
Hampton: Remember me?

Turning northeast and away from Richmond, the column crossed the Pamunkey River near Hanovertown, and neared the Mattaponi River south of Dunkirk, where they rested for the night, twenty-five miles away from Richmond.

The information Dahlgren received from the Virginia citizen about Kilpatrick retreating down the Peninsula was anything but accurate. They had faded back to near Mechanicsville, but made a return around 10pm. In two small columns, they advanced south, but before anything could be done, Kilpatrick received word that Rebels were pushing in his pickets from the north. The fight in that direction grew in intensity, first with musketry and then with artillery. “The enemy charged,” Kilpatrick reported, “and drove back the Seventh Michigan, and considerable confusion ensued.”

The Rebels were those under Wade Hampton, who had caught wind of Kilpatrick’s ride two days before. He had contacted Jeb Stuart and Richmond, but on the morning of this date, still found himself with but 300 troopers. He had made his way south from Milford through Hanover Court House to Atley’s Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. The trek took all day and by the time he reached it, it was dark. Before him, hey could see the flickering camp fires of Kilpatrick’s resting men.

Quietly, he dismounted 100 of his number and ordered them to push in the Federal pickets through the dark, which was now thickened by a snow storm. “The attack was made with great gallantry,” he later wrote. “The enemy, a brigade strong here, with two other brigades immediately in their rear, made a stout resistance for a short time, but the advance of my men was never checked and they were soon in possession of the entire camp, in which horses, arms, rations, and clothing were scattered about in confusion.”

Kilpatrick retreated his men east toward Old Church, where he made a stand that cost him dearly – “with a loss of 2 officers, upwards of 50 men, and 100 horses” – he was living up to his moniker of “kill-cavalry.”

Now fleeing southeast, he finally encamped his men near Turnstall’s Station, twenty-five miles east of Richmond. The next morning, he would retreat down the Peninsula, hoping to reach General Butler. He had no idea of Dahlgren’s location or how his compatriot might manage the following day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p184-185, 201, 213; “Statement of Lieutenant Bartley, of the United States Signal Corps” concerning the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren Raid against Richmond as printed in the Detroit Free Press, March 11, 1882; The Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz. []
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2 thoughts on “‘And Considerable Confusion Ensued’ – Kilpatrick’s Raid on Richmond Fails

  1. Anyone else find appalling the execution of the slave guide Robinson? Unless I’m reading it wrong, it wasn’t his fault that the river was swollen and they couldn’t cross a normally ford-able area.

    1. You have to remember, they may have been Northerners, but racial prejudice was common everywhere at that time. Not only did North & South consider blacks sub-human, second-class citizens, they felt the same way about the million Irish immigrants from the potato famine of the 1840-50’s. You remember, the Irish who filled the Union Army or were paid by the wealthy to take their place. Remember when Sherman crossed the river with his Army on his march to the sea,leaving thousands of blacks/slaves stranded on the shore behind, telling them that barges would be sent back for them. Instances of brutal treatment such as in report above were common.

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