February 28 & 29, 1864 (Sunday & Monday)
The year 1864, unlike 2014, was a leap year. Here, we shall combine two days of action into one.
Only the best men were selected, and many of them handpicked by their own commanders. The horses, as well, had to be able to make a long and rapid journey of five days – the amount of time General Judson Kilpatrick believed it would take to ride into Richmond, free the Union prisoners at Libby Prison and Belle Isle, and return to the Union lines. All was, at first, chaotic. The men forming his new unit had been pulled from myriad cavalry regiments, and thought hey understood their duty, it wasn’t a simple thing to do so under a new commander.
The day previous began the diversion. A long column from the Sixth Corps, as well as cavalry under George Armstrong Custer, set out from near Brandy Station, Virginia with the purpose of convincing the Rebels under General Lee that a move of some sort was taking place on his left. Meanwhile, on the night this date, Kilpatrick’s column would slip past Lee’s right.
Word had come to Lee from a spy (dressed as a woman in attendance of the Second Corps’ grand ball on the 22nd) that a raid upon Richmond was in the works. Believing that this move on his left might be that raid, Lee dispatched JEB Stuart westward towards Charlotte to nip it in the bud. His right, however, remained open.
Leading Kilpatrick’s column were just less than 500 men under Col. Ulric Dahlgren. According to the plan, they were to separate from the main column, which would descend upon Richmond from the north, and enter Richmond from the unsuspecting west. Prior to their departure, Dahlgren approached Kilpatrick showing him the speech that he wanted to read to his men.
Being a feisty twenty-two year old officer, Dahlgren’s prose were as bombastic as one might expect:
You have been selected from brigades and regiments as a picked command to attempt a desperate undertaking–an undertaking which, if successful, will write your names on the hearts of your countrymen in letters that can never be erased, and which will cause the prayers of our fellow-soldiers now confined in loathsome prisons to follow you and yours wherever you may go.
He was also surprisingly candid.
We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first, and having seen them fairly started, we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us and exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.
After admonishing his men to do their duty or risk death at the hands of Southern civilians, he concluded:
Many of you may fall; but if there is any man here not willing to sacrifice his life in such a great and glorious undertaking, or who does not feel capable of meeting the enemy in such a desperate fight as will follow, let him step out, and he may go hence to the arms of his sweetheart and read of the braves who swept through the city of Richmond.
Though the speech was approved by Kilpatrick, Dahlgren ever got the chance to read it. As Lee was looking left, Dahlgren led Kilpatrick’s column past his right. Through the dark, they galloped, and by 10pm they were ready to cross the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford, guarded only by but eighteen Rebels, who were quickly captured.
Capt. Joseph Gloskoski, Kilpatrick’s signal officer, set the scene in his official report:
The first night of our march was beautiful. Myriads of stars twinkled in heaven, looking at us as if in wonder why should we break the laws of God and wander at night instead of seeking repose and sleep. The moon threw its silvery light upon Rapidan waters when we forded it, and it seemed as if the Almighty Judge was looking silently upon our doings. We moved as fast as our horses could walk, making halts of fifteen minutes twice every twenty-four hours. Thus we reached Spotsylvania Court-House. There Colonel Dahlgren with his command took direct road toward Frederick’s Hall, while we moved to Beaver Dam Station.
On they road to Spottsylvania Court House, with Kilpatrick’s main column two hours behind them. “The enemy does not anticipate our movement,” wrote Kilpatrick to General Meade. But that wasn’t so. Two cavalrymen from Wade Hampton’s Confederate division had spotted Dahlgren’s party, riding with them for a spell, before breaking off and riding back to their camp.
By dawn of the 29th, Hampton had scrambled his 300 men in Milford, east of Kilpatrick’s line, and rode hard to intercept the Yankees, never bothering to tell General Lee, who was in Richmond. Lee was becoming more and more concerned about the diversion happening on his left and decided to hop the nearest train north to hurry back to his troops. Wade Hampton was the only Confederate commander who had some inkling of the true raid on Richmond.
While Hampton’s troopers spurred on, Dahlgren and Kilpatrick gained ground. Just south of Spotsylvania Court House, the columns parted. Kilpatrick’s went south, another went east, and Dahlgren’s moved southwest. The latter column cut telegraph wires along the Virginia Central Railroad, even tearing up some track.
Kilpatrick’s column, too, was closing in on Beaver Dam Station along the Virginia Central. “Twenty wooden buildings were at once set on fire,” wrote Gloskoski, the signal officer, “forming one sheet of flame, rising high above the surrounding woods, and the black forms of our soldiers jumping around it seemed from a distance like demons on some hellish sport.”
Meanwhile, in the town of Frederick Station, Dahlgren stumbled upon a Confederate court martial in progress. From his new prisoners, he learned of a cache of artillery not far away. All among them, however, claimed it was guarded by a brigade of cavalry. Having not even 500 troops, even the dashing Dahlgren thought it too risky. While a smart move, it was based upon a lie – everyone he talked to, including slaves, gave the same story. Empty-handed, but for the prisoners, he continued south meeting no further organized enemy troops. They would rest for two hours and some supper at a crossroads south of Frederick Station.
Through the day (the 29th), the weather had turned sour. First came the looming clouds, and then the rain. The temperatures dropped with the gray sunset and there was snow. “Now it stormed in earnest,” continued Gloskoski. “Sharp wind and sleet forced men to close their eyes. The night was so dark that even the river in front could not be seen and trees on the roadside could not be distinguished. So complete darkness I never saw. Men depended entirely on the instinct of their horses, and the whole command on a negro to guide them.”
There had been little rest for Kilpatrick’s column, and the men had been riding for nearly twenty-four hours straight. While Dahlgren’s band faced little resistance, Kilpatrick’s was harassed by guerrillas and locals nearly the entire way. The weariness had spread his column out, and the stragglers took hours to catch up when he finally halted for rest.
Wade Hampton may have failed to inform General Lee of Kilpatrick’s column, but he had wired Jeb Stuart just after noon. Stuart never replied, probably too busy chasing down the Yankee diversion on the Confederate left. Late that night, he again wired Stuart again, telling him that he sent a brigade to pursuit. Hampton would personally join the chase the following morning, moving them to Hanover Court House.
Kilpatrick would resume his ride at 1am, intending to cross the South Anna River at Ground Squirrel Bridge. Originally, he had contemplated stopping over at Hanover Court House, but was by this time figuring on a more direct approach to Richmond. And so through yet another night, the cavalry would ride, until dawn brought them closer to their quarry.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p184, 189, 194, 201; The Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz; The Dahlgren Papers, as reprinted in the Richmond Sentinel, March 5, 1864. [↩]