March 2, 1864 (Wednesday)
Lt. James Pollard commanded only twenty-five men, and was more of a scout than a lieutenant in the 9th Virginia Cavalry. The regiment had been with the Army of Northern Virginia through the Gettysburg Campaign, but had been, since the start of the year, in and around Richmond. When Judson Kilpatrick’s raid upon Richmond was uncovered by Wade Hampton, the 9th was hurried north from the capital to Ashland, only to discover that the whole ordeal was apparently over. The troops defending Richmond had repulsed the Federals and General Hampton sealed the deal by shooing them off to the east and, by all information that could be gathered, down the Virginia Peninsula.
However, rumor held that a group might still be in the vicinity of Old Church, about twenty-five miles northeast of Richmond. Upon arriving at Old Church, they were told that the enemy had fled to Hanover Court House. Once more they took flight, racing to battle. But when they reached it, the same fate awaited them – the enemy was gone. Exasperated, they decided to go into bivouac.
Lt. Pollard was in command of Company H, Lee’s Rangers, as they were known, and had not been part of this wild goose chase. They had been detached from the rest of the 9th, patrolling King and Queen County. Through the morning, Rebel scouts, guerrillas, and citizens brought word to Pollard of a small band of Yankees moving east through the county. The main Federal column under Kilpatrick was thought to have escaped down the Peninsula, but soon there was word of another – the command of Col. Ulric Dahlgren, who had been operating under Kilpatrick, but detached.
Throughout the day, more and more word came in, and before long, Pollard believed he knew exactly where Dahlgren’s band were headed. Messages received told of the Federals riding for the Mattaponi River, and Pollard figured they would cross at Aylett’s Landing. He sent scout ahead to hide the ferry boat Dahlgren would need, and planned to throw up an ambuscade in Dunkirk, across the river.
Pollard’s Company H had been dispersed throughout, searching for the Federals, but along the way, he picked up others from the 42nd Battalion, as well as a number of home guards, until his strength reached as many as sixty.
It was around 3pm when Lt. Pollard received word of Dahlgren’s exact location. A band of home guards had snared his small column, which numbered, perhaps, eighty exhausted men, as they neared the Mattaponi. Dahlgren had reached the river two hours earlier, but could find no ferry boat to whisk him across. He sent several detachments up and down the river in search of a skiff, and finally found one suspiciously covered in tree branches. It would have to do.
After about half of his command had crossed, a smattering of musket fire peppered the air. Dahlgren and his remaining men returned fire, holding off the enemy until every man was across. The home guard sent a message to Pollard, who was then at Dunkirk.
About an hour later, Pollard caught up. “I overtook the enemy about 4pm,” he reported, “and attacked his rear, skirmishing with him for several miles.” But Pollard knew that this game could have continued until dark, when he might easily lose his prey. Somehow, he would have to find a way to get in front of Dahlgren. Fortunately, Pollard knew the ground well, and found a side road short cut that would allow him the advantage if the detachment he left behind would keep the Federals in check.
The road Pollard used eventually wound its way back to the main road. When he emerged, he discovered that his plan had worked. He had beaten Dahlgren to the intersection. With perhaps thirty additional men gathered along the way, he took up a position and waited. As the hours slid slowly by, he was joined by even more Rebels who had been on furlough. Deciding that their holiday needed a bit more excitement, fifteen or so elected to join in the coming fray. More arrived through the dark, brining his number to 150. The waiting must have been agonizing. Had Dahlgren given them the slip? Had the Yankee discovered their position and avoided them in the dark?
Dahlgren and his men did not tarry so much as they simply went into camp. The locals probably discovered them and ran back to inform Pollard, whose position was but a mile away. But the waiting was long, and there was no telling how long the Federals would remain encamped before them. Joining with Pollard was Captain Edward Fox, who outranked him. Some discussion arose between the two just how to handle the situation. Pollard wished to wait, while Fox wanted to attack the Yankees in their camp. It would soon be decided for them. Before long, they could hear a column of troops riding toward them through the night.
He must have sensed something and called his men to a halt. Waiting in the silence, a Yankee private called out “Who are you?” There was no reply. Dahlgren drew his revolver and rode to the front of the column.
“Surrender you damned rebels,” he called, “or we will charge you!” The Rebels replied with a similar plea for capitulation, which prompted Dahlgren to discharge his weapon. The piece misfired, perhaps damp from the rain, but the click was heard through the darkness. Then before them, and all around them, the orange-yellow light exploded, and a volley tore through their ranks.
“This stampeded us for about one hundred yards,” remembered one of the Federals after the war, “every horse in our column turning to the rear.”
Another soldier recalled:
“The next instant a heavy volley was poured in upon us. The flash of the pieces afforded us a momentary glimpse of their position stretching parallel with the road about fifteen paces from us. Every tree was occupied, and the bushes poured forth a sheet of fire. A bullet grazing my leg and probably struck my horse somewhere in the neck, caused him to make a violent swing sideways.”
Col. Dahlgren’s horse was not hit, but wheeled toward the rear as five bullets tore through the rider’s body. It dropped off the saddle, hitting the wet and muddy road with a lifeless thud. Inside the breast pocket of his blood-stained uniform remained the speech he wanted to read to his men before the start of the raid. Its words remained unspoken, but so too did the series of papers which accompanied it.
Pollard and Fox both ordered their men to remain in their positions until dawn, when they would tend to the enemy wounded and round up whatever stragglers might still be about. But one, a thirteen year old school boy named William Littlepage, was hardly under their command. With the stealth only youth can bring, he crept up to the body, rifled through its pockets and returned to the lines with a cigar case and papers, including the silent speech Dahlgren had written.
When Littlepage returned, he asked his schoolmaster, who had joined the party, if he would like a cigar. The teacher declined, asking where a boy such as this might have procured cigars in these hard times. Littlepage told of his dark exploits and handed over the cigar case along with the papers. It was well after midnight and too dim to read. They would wait until morning to discover what dark secrets this dead officer could tell.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p185, 205-206, 209; The Lost Cause by Edward A. Pollard; History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry by Richard Lee Tuberville; “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. [↩]