‘It Will Be the Grandest Thing on Record’ – Kilpatrick and Dahlgren Prepare for a Raid

February 26, 1864 (Friday)

Kilpatrick
Kilpatrick

“Your command,” wrote General Alfred Pleasonton, “increased to 4,000 men with one battery, will be placed in readiness to move on a raid to Richmond for the purpose of liberating our prisoners at that place.” Head of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, Pleasonton issued orders to Judson Kilpatrick, who commanded their Third Division. He was to leave his camp at Stevensburg, Virginia on the evening of the 28th. This gave him two days to prepare.

This was not, of course, the first time General Kilpatrick heard of the idea. In fact, it was his idea. With the help of a friendly politician, he had been invited to the White House on February 12th to discuss whatever it was that the daring cavalry officer had rattling around in his head. When he met with Lincoln, the three objectives were mulled over. The first, to free the Union prisoners held at Belle Isle and Libby Prison, was approved. Kilpatrick was also to disrupt the lines of communication between Richmond and General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lastly, Kilpatrick was to distribute Lincoln’s proclamation granting amnesty to states with a loyal population higher than 10%.

Though a bit more daring than your usual cavalry raid, such a stunt might not need the personal approval of the President, especially considering that Kilpatrick jumped the chain of command, hurtling over both Generals Pleasanton and George Meade, as well as General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, to get to Lincoln.

To plan the details, Lincoln took a back seat, sending Kilpatrick to Stanton’s office. There, the raid took shape, incorporating the rest of the cavalry, as well as a large chunk of Meade’s infantry. Meade learned of the plan while in Washington, and was further briefed by Kilpatrick on the 17th.

For one, General Pleasonton was against it. He had no real problem with the raid itself, even offering to distribute the President’s amnesty proclamation, but of Kilpatrick’s overall plan, there was a problem. “General Kilpatrick might succeed in cutting the telegraph from Lee’s army and from Fredericksburg to Richmond,” he wrote to Meade, “but the telegraph by way of Gordonsville and Lynchburg would soon notify the rebels in Richmond that our cavalry was out, and before Kilpatrick could do much damage their vulnerable points would be secured.”

Lincoln approves!
Lincoln approves!

Pleasonton failed to mention anything about freeing the prisoners, which was, in Lincoln’s mind, paramount and the only reason to risk such as raid as this. Meade would approve the plan regardless of Pleasonton’s misgivings, though that was hardly important since Lincoln had signed off on it.

And so it was set. The troopers included under Kilpatrick’s command were made ready, the units to divert and screen for the raid were selected, and everyone who had a role in the affair knew their part – except one.

On February 22nd, there was a grand ball thrown by the Second Corps. According to General Meade, who was even in attendance, 300 ladies from Washington came down for the occasion. The general, who did not return until 4am, reported to his wife that “everything was in fine style.” Also at the ball was twenty-one year old Col. Ulric Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral John Dahlgren. The younger Dahlgren had proven himself a brave cavalry commander through the campaigns of 1862 and 1863, and was wounded during the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg, losing a leg.

Col. Dahlgren
Col. Dahlgren

The amputation put him out of commission for some time, but by autumn, he was more than ready to get back in the saddle. He had been with his father’s fleet for a while, but found his way back to Washington for the winter. On the 1st of February, he met with President Lincoln, though the details of the meeting were never divulged.

Washington’s rumor mill churned our the scant details of Kilpatrick’s raid and, upon hearing of it, Dahlgren wanted a piece of the action. By the 18th, he was at Brandy Station, and four days later, he had a fine time at the Second Corps’ ball. Staying after, he met with Kilpatrick and asked if he could accompany him on the expedition. Kilpatrick agreed, giving Dahlgren 460 men. He was to lead the column.

On this date, General Pleasonton echoed his approval of Dahlgren. “Col. Ulric Dahlgren is authorized to accompany you,” he wrote, “and will render valuable assistance from his knowledge of the country and his well-known gallantry, intelligence, and energy.” Pleasonton also assured him that he would “not be confined to any specific instructions” when it came to the expedition itself. It was Kilpatrick’s plan, Lincoln approved it, and there was nothing more anyone could do. It was happening and Pleasonton’s only duty was to wish it all the best.

And with that, Kilpatrick’s plan was finalized. He would move from Stevensburg late on the 28th, crossing the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford with Dahlgren in the lead. Together, they would move south to Spotsylvania Court House, where they would divide. While Kilpatrick’s main column would continue south to cross the North Anna River, a regiment would be sent southeast to the railroad connecting Richmond to Fredericksburg where they would cut lines of communication. Meanwhile, Dahlgren’s column would move southwesterly to tear up the railroad to Gordonsville before continuing to Goochland Court House, where they’d cross the James River. The main column, would continue to Hanover Court House, and then move south to hit Richmond from the north. Hopefully, Dahlgren’s column would move along the south bank of the James to fall upon Richmond from the west. Kilpatrick held out additional hope that a force dispatched from West Point, east of Richmond, would join in. The plan was complex, but with Richmond lightly defended, Kilpatrick was certain it would work.

Approximate map of Kilpatrick's plan.
Approximate map of Kilpatrick’s plan.

Dahlgren was understandably excited about the raid. This would be his first since returning to the service. That it was daring and under Kilpatrick made it all the more exciting. But was there something more to it? On this date, Dahlgren wrote to his father, divulging little:

“I have not returned to the fleet, because there is a grand raid to be made, and I am to have a very important command. If successful, it will be the grandest thing on record; and if it fails, many of us will ‘go up.’ I may be captured, or I may be ‘tumbled over’; but it is an undertaking that if I were no in, I should be ashamed to show my face again. With such an important command, I am afraid to mention it, for fear that this letter might fall into the wrong hands before reaching you.”

And so while Kilpatrick readied his men and Dahlgren prepared “the grandest thing on record,” General Meade tinkered with the outskirts of the plan. He ordered Pleasonton to send a column of cavalry under George Armstrong Custer in the direction of Charlottesville “in order to facilitate other operations of this army.” Orders would go out the following day for two corps to move against Lee’s left flank as a diversion for Kilpatrick to slip around Lee’s right.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p170, 172, 173, 183, 598; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 2; The Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz. []
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