Two nations are locked in a bitter war with no immediate end in sight. A plan is conceived for a daring raid, a mission, that could change the course of the war, possibly even bringing it to a quick end. It will entail sending elite troops on a daring venture deep into the heart of enemy territory, penetrating to the very capital city.
But what will the soldiers do when they get inside the enemy’s capital? The first part of the plan will be freeing thousands of prisoners of war. The second part involves capturing the president of the enemy power. As the plot thickens, the story emerges that the goal is not merely capturing the president, but killing him and his cabinet.
Factors, such as weather, personal conflicts, and bad intelligence complicate the plot. Plans never go as smoothly in reality as they do on paper. Expectations fall short. Disaster looms. The raid fails.
But what if it had succeeded? “What if” is the question that historians employ when the research gets wearisome and imagination takes over.
These features described above would work well for the plot of a thriller novel, a “what if” alternative history novel, or an adventure movie. But the plot details mentioned above did not grow out of reading Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, or Harry Turtledove. Instead, they came out of a scholarly work, produced by a university press, overseen by a team of academic historians.
The book in question is Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864. It is written by Bruce Venter and was published this year by the University of Oklahoma Press as part of the Campaigns and Commanders series.
The story centers around two Union officers, Judson Kilpatrick and Ulric Dahlgren. Kilpatrick, nicknamed “Kill-Cavalry” for his hard-driving manner, was a West Pointer whose military skills were exceeded only by his oratorical skills and political ambitions. He was described as “a little man, with loud, swaggering voice, full of fun and profanity.” But other observers noted his brilliant mind, his appearance on horseback as though “he had been made for the saddle,” a man of personal magnetism, a leader whose men saw him “as good as perfect,” and an officer who was “daring, fearless, indefatigable.”
The war years had cost him plenty. His wife and only son both died after the war started. Kilpatrick was wounded in the upper thigh early in the war. Neither setback stopped him. His political connections opened doors in Washington, even the door to the Oval Office of President Lincoln. His speaking skills, honed during his West Point days, persuaded people in power to listen and go along with his wishes.
The Union cavalry became his field of expertise at a time when Union cavalry was beginning to match its Confederate counterparts. Early in the war Confederate General Jeb Stuart grabbed headlines for riding completely around the Union forces. Cavalry raids were designed to disrupt communications, capture or destroy supplies, and gather intelligence. There was always a sense of dash and panache associated with cavalry.
Perhaps it was Southerners’ habits of riding horses for fun, sport, and labor that gave them the initial advantage. Attrition on the Southern side and learning by doing on the Northern side created equality to the cavalry arms of the opposing armies. The excitement of raiding on horseback always trumped the drudgery of infantry slogging along through miles of marching. As one Union officer wrote, “Nothing so delights the heart of a cavalryman as to go on a scout or a raid.”
It was a raid when Kilpatrick discovered what he thought was the major vulnerability of the Confederate capital of Richmond. With Confederate forces stretched thinly on a variety of fronts, Richmond would be lightly guarded by poorly trained soldiers. Libby Prison in Richmond had as many as 13,000 Union prisoners of war who, if freed, would be able to help fight their way out. The possibility also existed that key Confederate leaders could be captured as a bonus prize for such a raid.
After winning approval from higher ups for the raid, Kilpatrick began assembling the men who would participate. The risks, long days of hard riding, and unexpected conditions called for dedicated, willing soldiers. Volunteers were not lacking.
To serve under his overall command, Kilpatrick had access to some emerging Union talent. One such young officer was George Custer. Best known now for his final disastrous battle at Little Big Horn, Custer was a promising cavalryman in the Civil War. His skills in battle were relegated to a minor role in this raid—a clash of personalities set Kilpatrick and Custer at odds.
Another officer with promise was Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. Described by a Confederate officer as handsome and dashing, Dahlgren was youthful but already the victim of a severe wound earlier in the war. Dahlgren’s prior wounding, which led to the amputation of his right leg at the knee, should have disqualified him from the arduous raid. Political connections put him back in the saddle, however, since Dahlgren’s father was an admiral with political clout.
Early in the book, Bruce Venter said, “Unfortunately, raids that looked great on paper inevitably took a different form in reality, often devolving into chaotic improvisation demanded by the weather, the enemy’s response, lapses in communication, and other conditions.” The rest of the book and story highlights how each of those conditions caused this raid to turn into a disaster.
During most of the raid, the weather was freezing cold with rain and snow. Confederate forces, although surprised in some cases, were generally able to respond to the raiding party with force. The defense of Richmond itself was the major setback. As Kilpatrick encountered the resistance near Richmond, he dropped his entire attack plan. Those around him whispered that Kilpatrick had apparently lost his nerve for battle. To make matters worse, coordination between Kilpatrick and Dahlgren largely did not happen.
Kilpatrick got his men through the raid and back to Union lines. The raid became a retreat and the loss of men and supplies offset any small gains. When someone asked a sergeant whether the raid had succeeded in freeing any prisoners, he wryly responded, “No, but we reinforced them.”
But what about the plan to kill Jeff Davis? A controversy arose about that issue after the raid. Dahlgren was killed as his unit attempted to get back to Federal lines. It was the last of a series of mishaps on his part of the mission. One previous bad judgment was his order to hang a guide, a black man, after he failed to find a ford across a river. It was Dahlgren’s intent, based on what others remember him saying, not only to capture but to execute Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Those words could easily have perished with him.
Instead, those words created a battle of words and charges after the failed raid. Papers found on Dahlgrens’ corpse got picked up and passed on to the Confederate higher ups. Those papers, the Confederates contended, revealed the planned executions. Soon the story hit the presses in Richmond. Protests were lodged by Confederate officials to their Union counterparts. It was certainly a different time from our own: capturing and executing civilian leaders was considered a violation of a moral code and due process of law.
While Confederates decried the perfidious plan, some on the Union side suggested that the Confederates had manufactured the story. The prime witness for the truth, Col. Dahlgren, was dead, and his body was buried and reburied several times as friends and foes fought over it. Gen. Kilpatrick was dismissed from his command in the East and sent west.
Jefferson Davis’s reaction to this plot against his life was quite surprising. When the documents found on Dahlgren were given to General Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E.’s nephew), Lee went to Davis’s house with the information. Davis was meeting with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Davis read the sentence saying, “Jeff. Davis and cabinet killed.” Davis laughed and said to Benjamin, “That means you, Mr. Benjamin.”
Bruce Venter almost succeeded in writing an outstanding spy-espionage-adventure novel. The only problem with it is that it actually all happened.