Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864

Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864

by Bruce M. Venter Ph.D

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  The ostensible goal of the controversial Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond (February 28–March 3, 1864) was to free some 13,000 Union prisoners of war held in the Confederate capital. But orders found on the dead body of the raid’s subordinate commander, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, point instead to a plot to capture or kill Confederate president Jefferson Davis and set Richmond ablaze. What really happened, and how and why, are debated to this day. Kill Jeff Davis offers a fresh look at the failed raid and mines newly discovered documents and little-known sources to provide definitive answers.

In this detailed and deeply researched account of the most famous cavalry raid of the Civil War, author Bruce M. Venter describes an expedition that was carefully planned but poorly executed. A host of factors foiled the raid: bad weather, poor logistics, inadequate command and control, ignorance of the terrain, the failures of supporting forces, and the leaders’ personal and professional shortcomings. Venter delves into the background and consequences of the debacle, beginning with the political maneuvering orchestrated by commanding brigadier general Judson Kilpatrick to persuade President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to approve the raid. Venter’s examination of the relationship between Kilpatrick and Brigadier General George A. Custer illuminates the reasons why the flamboyant Custer was excluded from the Richmond raid.

In a lively narrative describing the multiple problems that beset the raiders, Kill Jeff Davis uncovers new details about the African American guide whom Dahlgren ordered hanged; the defenders of the Confederate capital, who were not just the “old men and young boys” of popular lore; and General Benjamin F. Butler’s expedition to capture Davis, as well as Custer’s diversionary raid on Charlottesville.

Venter’s thoughtful reinterpretations and well-reasoned observations put to rest many myths and misperceptions. He tells, at last, the full story of this hotly contested moment in Civil War history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806155494
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/22/2016
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #51
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 766,942
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Bruce M. Venter is an independent historian and the author of The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action That Saved America.

Read an Excerpt

Kill Jeff Davis

The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864

By Bruce M. Venter


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5549-4



A column of blue-coated horsemen trotted down a sloppy road in Culpeper County, Virginia, the horses' hooves splashing mud on every animal's belly and each rider's stirrups, boots, and uniform trousers. Several score in number, they were mostly officers with the Army of the Potomac's Third Cavalry Division.

Sunday morning, April 17, 1864, was a rather "cold and unpleasant day," especially for the staff officers in the vanguard. Severe rain the previous evening had left the region's narrow country lanes in wretched shape, worsening conditions brought on by two weeks of miserable weather. But the young aides were unsettled less by the weather than by the reason for the ride. The men were making their way a brief distance — four and a half miles — along the Carolina Road, traveling between the outlying hamlet of Stevensburg and Brandy Station, the nearest stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Circumstances and emotions made it seem a much longer trip to the depot, where they would give a handshake and one final salute to a man they had come to admire.

At the head of the column was a diminutive figure in officer's livery who bore himself with assurance beyond his twenty-six years, though he felt only despair now. He had led the Third Cavalry Division in "many a hard fight" the last eleven months and, as one trooper put it, "for dash his equal is not in this army." But as the winter was ending, Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick's storied career had lurched to an abrupt halt. His failed raid on Richmond had placed any idea of promotion on the backburner for another year.

Kilpatrick's musings as he rode to the train depot went unrecorded, but perhaps he reflected on his army career in a war that had seemed tailor made for a dashing cavalry officer and aspiring politician. Back in New Jersey as a youth, he had stumped for his local congressman, who handily won the election. The grateful politician returned the favor by providing an appointment for the young man to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was here that "Little Kil," the nickname his classmates bestowed on him, developed his oratorical skills, giving his class's valedictory address on graduation day in May 1861. His eloquence with words, so essential for nineteenth-century politicians, would serve him well in the army. As one officer recalled, Kilpatrick was "a ready and fluent speaker — an orator, in fact — and had the gift of charming an audience with his insinuating tongue." No doubt Lincoln appreciated the young officer's talent at turning a phrase when they sat together in the Executive Mansion in mid-February 1864.

Instead, the recent raid on Richmond, while thrilling, had brought disaster. The regimental historian of the 3rd Indiana obviously was engaging in understatement when he later wrote: "The raid was not a success, and perhaps never should have been undertaken, but it showed the desperate bravery of the men who took part in it, and no doubt changed the military career of the man who conceived it." A Baltimore newspaper presaged the soldier-scribe's sentiments when, with the raid's outcome still up in the air, its editor wrote: "The enterprise is a bold and daring one, and would need for its success a combination of fortunate circumstances as well as great dash, pluck and expedition. Gen. Kilpatrick may be relied upon for the exhibition of the latter qualities, but we still do not regard success in the affair as more than barely possible." Moreover, Union army brass were not pleased by the debacle; despite the outcome, the "plucky" general was lucky to still wear a star on his shoulder straps.

In the weeks since the raid, speculation had abounded in camp that Kilpatrick was in line for promotion to command of the Cavalry Corps itself, but as always rank-and-file chatter was just that, absurd rumor. A new general in chief of all the Federal armies, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, had plans for the Army of the Potomac's cavalry all right, but these did not include the man some called "Kill-Cavalry," a sobriquet the young general likely earned for riding his men and his horses equally hard. As his mount cantered down the slushy road, Kilpatrick knew he was no longer destined for a cavalryman's glory. No doubt he was considering his options, as he always had and always would. A Union trooper called him "one of those restless, nervous, energetic and self-reliant spirits who believe in themselves thoroughly, [and] make up in activity what they lack in method."

Nevertheless, the New Jersey native's momentum had degenerated with alarming speed. Three months earlier the New York Herald had quoted inside sources hailing his prowess and his prospects. The newspaper claimed that mention of his name in "Washington dispatches" to the U.S. Senate foreshadowed his promotion to major general. A member of the Kilpatrick claque, the editor declared that the general's "fitness of the appointment is not to be questioned." In wartime, editorial puffery was a daily ration, but the Herald seemingly had battlefield facts behind its hoopla. Kilpatrick's "record for the last year is a series of bold, skillful and successful operations of cavalry," the newspaperman trilled, "[a]ll won by personal merit entirely, and not obtained through political influence." Such hyperbole irked one army staff officer; in a skeptical letter home, he told his family that the general "gets all his reputation by newspapers and political influence."

As the Yankee column continued its soggy jaunt toward the train depot, the riders may have considered their first impressions of their commander, particularly his unusual appearance. Perhaps they agreed with a civilian visitor to the army's winter encampment who months earlier described Kilpatrick as "a little man, with loud, swaggering voice, full of fun and profanity, florid face, square, prognathous jaw, firm, large mouth, prominent Roman nose, quick, deep-set, piercing, fearless gray eyes, full square forehead, large round head, large ears, [and] dark, thin, and short hair." In addition, Little Kil's trademark Dundreary whiskers at all times beetled from his face. He stood about five feet seven inches tall, his right shoulder slightly stooped, and had small hands and feet. But his eyes were what caught most people's attention. After the war an artist who interviewed Kilpatrick observed that he "partially closes his china blue eyes and draws down the corners of his mouth which then gives him a peculiar wicked appearance."

A Michigan officer who had served in Kilpatrick's division since the summer of 1863 recalled the general's "face was a marked one, showing his individuality in every line," with a "countenance that once seen, was never forgotten." This same Wolverine remembered that he "was not especially refined in manners and in conversation" but possessed "an intellect that would at times emit flashes so brilliant as to blind those who knew him best to his faults." But Little Kil had several other traits, such as the horsemanship familiar to the men riding behind him that dreary spring day. A Union captain remembered him riding "as though he had been made for the saddle. ... His well-trained steeds understand him perfectly." On horseback the general's compact frame gave the impression that his bones were made of "iron and his sinews steel."

Staff officers knew most of the enlisted men held Kilpatrick in high regard. His men thought him approachable but "not inclined to be much of a disciplinarian." One soldier said the general "would frequently harangue the men, but his good-natured dash and personal magnetism made him popular." He "had a capacity for rallying his soldiers and getting them into a charge." Indeed, the charge seemed to be his favorite tactic. Another trooper said, "Sometimes this was very successful, and at other times it was not so much so and very costly of men." A more generous officer from New York later wrote that his commander "has undoubtedly his faults, but his men fail to see them, so that to them he is as good as perfect," an attribute sure to win him plaudits from any soldier. But the general's penchant for hurling troopers headlong into assaults on the enemy virtually assured him the nickname "Kill-Cavalry," according to one veteran.

Kilpatrick had a salty way with words too. According to Libbie Custer, the enamoring wife of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, Little Kil "used an oath with every sentence he uttered." She might have bridled at the habit, but not his soldiers, who had grown accustomed to officers' imprecation-laden barking. A general able to curse with the best of them had a leg up with the men. An Ohio officer later remembered that Kilpatrick was "energetic and ambitious, a great talker, with a vocabulary which he did not learn at Sunday School, but was a dashing officer whose enthusiasm inspired his men."

The Third Cavalry Division's officers and men knew Kilpatrick best, which made them more forgiving than others in the Army of the Potomac. An officer on Major General George G. Meade's staff scoffed that Little Kil was "certainly an odd looking specimen. His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable. ... I don't believe he is worth a fig as a general." He was "hard to look at without laughing," this critic added. The staff officer credited Kilpatrick for being "a brave, vigorous man," but one who was "apparently deficient in judgment, a fault in which his two Brigadiers, Davis [sic] and Custer do not much help him."

As his horse splashed across Mountain Run, "a vicious little stream" according to Union cavalry general John Buford, Kilpatrick must have been thinking of his future, which looked bleak. As a New York trooper told a relative back home, "Genl Kilpatrick, yes, our daring, fearless, indefatigable leader — 'our little Kil' has been relieved and ere thus is on his way to the West to take a new command." Kill-Cavalry's destiny now rested with Major General William T. Sherman, Grant's choice to lead the western armies. The year before at Vicksburg, Grant had split the South with skill and brute force. Sherman, his favorite subordinate, was poised to splinter the Confederacy again with a plan to march deep into Georgia, breaking the Rebel backbone. Perhaps in this incipient campaign Kilpatrick would find a good fit for his military predilictions. "If you have got him you will have to do something this summer for he is a fighting man," a Michigan trooper told his brother, one of Sherman's cavalrymen.

But Kilpatrick's prospects seemed to match Culpeper's sodden war- and winter-stripped landscape. After crossing Mountain Run, his column passed Glen Ella, a plantation house where Major General Gouverneur K. Warren was packing his belongings for a move to new headquarters in Culpeper. Warren, who had temporarily commanded the army's II Corps in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's absence, had taught Little Kil at West Point.

To understand why the Richmond raid had failed so miserably, it is important to measure the character of its instigator and understand his background, which sheds light on who the man was and why he acted the way he did. Three years earlier, nearly to the day, Cadet Kilpatrick, fired up by the secessionists' attack on Fort Sumter, had petitioned to graduate early from West Point to join the war effort. He thereafter sought a commission in the 5th New York Infantry, popularly known as Duryee's Zouaves. One of the era's fabulously costumed military units, its men dressed in baggy red trousers, dark blue short jackets, and turban headgear. To get his way, Kilpatrick hitched his star to the Davies family of New York City. Judge Henry Davies endorsed Little Kil as captain of Company H. His own son, Henry, Jr., a lawyer, would also be a captain, while a nephew, J. Mansfield Davies was to be the regiment's major. Kilpatrick's West Point mathematics teacher, Warren, would be lieutenant colonel of the 5th New York.

Once at the 5th New York's camp near Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula, Captain Kilpatrick began to make a name for himself. A sergeant vividly remembered the young officer as "popular in the regiment. ... [H]e was a pony but not a runt. The little fellow was every inch a man, and the man every inch a soldier. Boldness, fearlessness, activity, firmness and confidence were stamped as plainly in his countenance that everybody predicted a successful military career and they were right. ... He loved excitement and adventure and the whole Confederacy was none too big for him." During this time, Kilpatrick undoubtedly crossed paths with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who on June 10, 1861, had ordered the 5th New York forward against Confederate forces entrenched near Big Bethel. During this attack, Kilpatrick took a bullet in the upper thigh, becoming the first regular-army officer wounded in combat.

While recuperating in New York City, Kilpatrick got wind of a new cavalry regiment being raised under the auspices of Senator Ira Harris. Again the Davies family stepped up, helping the young officer land an assignment as lieutenant colonel in the 2nd New York Cavalry, popularly known as the Harris Light Cavalry in honor of its benefactor. The Davies cousins came along with Kilpatrick: J. Mansfield ostensibly commanded the regiment but was often absent; Henry, Jr., served as major.

Neither of the Davies was a West Pointer, so Little Kil often found himself training and leading the Harris Light, a role he used to great advantage. His brigade commander, Brigadier General George Bayard, took note of Kilpatrick's ability. After Mansfield Davies resigned in December 1862, Kilpatrick was promoted to colonel and commander of the regiment. Still a colonel the following spring, he nonetheless was leading a brigade; by June 1863 he had won his first star. On the eve of the Gettysburg Campaign, Kilpatrick was given a division in the Army of the Potomac's expanded Cavalry Corps. But now here he was, three brief years later, on a muddy Culpeper County road with barely the traction to keep his mount and his career moving forward.

Toward evening the previous day General Kilpatrick stepped out onto the small portico of his headquarters, a stately Greek Revival structure of two-and-a-half stories dubbed Rose Hill by its owners, the Alfred Ashby family. The requisitioned residence, a white-pine plantation house that dated to about 1810, stood a quarter mile south of Stevensburg. Prior to Kilpatrick's commandeering the house, a cannonball had hit the roof, furrowing through the ceiling of an upstairs bedroom and leaving a hole that the Ashbys had stuffed with newspapers. War often makes strange partnerships. The family was relegated to the cellar during the general's occupancy, but at least got to stay in their home. Throughout the Union army's winter encampment, they had enjoyed or endured the byproduct of their tenant's notoriety as politicians and persons of influence, real or imagined, crossed the threshold into the white plastered rooms for meetings, parties, and shenanigans. Legend has the general riding his horse through the front doorway, down the center hallway, out the rear door, and back again just to demonstrate his equestrian skill. As one officer recalled long after the incident, "Kilpatrick rode like a Commache."

Despite the wet weather, the general stepped off the porch; he owed his regiments a last farewell. As he approached, the hard-bitten troopers shuffled into ranks in the muddy fields nearby and gathered around in a "drenching rain." Kilpatrick removed his now-famous slouched hat, distinctively worn cocked to the left side of his head. Holding his right shoulder lower than his left as always and partially closing his "china blue eyes," he began to speak. "His voice had a peculiar, piercing quality, though it was not unmusical in sound," remembered a Michigan Brigade officer. A corporal in the 2nd New York wrote a day later that he felt Kilpatrick expressed himself with the "tenderness of a woman — in that peculiar magnetic, love inspiring voice — clear & musical despite his emotion." The general stiffened as he called them "comrades & soldiers." He told stories of battlefields they had ridden, recalling how their valor not only had won him promotion but also had given them a claim to history. One horse soldier later scribbled in a letter that Kilpatrick was "the type of a cavalry officer who though a 'Star' ornaments the shoulder still holds and treats his men as men." Another New Yorker felt truly sorry to see his commander depart.


Excerpted from Kill Jeff Davis by Bruce M. Venter. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Little Kil Departs,
2. "Nothing So Delights a Cavalryman As ... a Raid",
3. Butler's Raid to Grab Jeff Davis,
4. The Winter Encampment,
5. Kilpatrick's Raid Begins,
6. Custer's Side Show,
7. Riding to Richmond,
8. Dahlgren Invades Goochland County,
9. The Mystery of Dahlgren's Guide,
10. Kilpatrick Attacks Richmond,
11. Richmond's Local Defense Troops Answer the Call,
12. Kilpatrick on the Move,
13. Dahlgren Attempts an Escape,
14. Unintended Consequences,
15. Aftermath,
16. The Dahlgren Papers Reconsidered,
Appendix: The Dahlgren Papers,

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