Thursday, February 18, 2016

Venter: "KILL JEFF DAVIS: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864"

[Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864 by Bruce M. Venter (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:292/377. ISBN:978-0-8061-5153-3. $29.95]

The February 28 - March 3, 1864 Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond had the lofty goal of quickly penetrating deep behind Confederate lines, capturing the capital and freeing the thousands of Union prisoners languishing at the Belle Isle and Libby prisons. Along the way, the raiders would wreak havoc on bridges, railroads, mills and the James River and Kanawha Canal. But it would be its most sinister directives, written orders that enjoined the troopers to burn the city and kill Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, that would make the failed operation infamous. The raid has been covered in book form before by Virgil Carrington Jones and Duane Schultz, as well as in the biographies of the main actors, but Bruce Venter's Kill Jeff Davis is the deepest dive into the available primary sources and clearly the most complete, scholarly, balanced and up to date treatment.

Venter begins with a brief overview of an earlier unsuccessful raid with a goal of capturing President Davis, one originating from a different direction in Ben Butler's Department of Virginia and North Carolina and led by General Isaac Wistar. The much better known Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid would be launched only weeks later. Before getting into the raid itself, Venter provides an excellent and rather dramatic account of George Armstrong Custer's brigade-sized diversionary raid on Charlottesville. Custer demonstrated uncharacteristic caution during the operation, allowing himself to be bluffed by a small force of civilians and soldiers and missing a golden opportunity to capture the entire horse artillery battalion of the Army of the Northern Virginia's cavalry corps (which was wintering in and around the town).

Composed of fewer than 4,000 picked men from several divisions, General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's all-mounted command stepped off from Stevensburg on February 28, looping south to Mt. Pleasant, where the force divided. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren's detachment (less than 500 men) veered southwest before heading directly south to the James, where his men inflicted significant damage to area plantations and mills as well as nearby canal equipment. Tasked with entering Richmond from the south side of the James, Dahlgren failed to secure a crossing (and in a fit of anger hanged a black guide). Already much behind schedule, he gave up on the original plan and instead entered the outer Richmond defenses from the west, his rather timid advance blocked by Local Defense Troops at the Intermediate Line. Falling back northeast in an attempt to link up with Kilpatrick, Dahlgren and around 90 of his men became separated from the rest of his command. While the larger group eventually rejoined the main body, Dahlgren was killed in an ambush that also resulted in the injury or capture of most of the men that remained with him.

Kilpatrick didn't do much better. After leaving Mt. Pleasant, the main body of raiders hit the Virginia Central Railroad at Beaver Dam Station and tore up the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Petersburg Railroad at Ashland before approaching Richmond from the north. On March 2, like Dahlgren would later in the day, Kilpatrick encountered determined resistance at the Intermediate Line, in this instance the heavy artillery battalions of the city defenses acting as infantry and backed by artillery. Failing to achieve a quick breakthrough, Kilpatrick broke off the action in the late afternoon and fell back. Not receiving the expected support from Benjamin Butler's department, Kilpatrick abandoned all hope of renewing the attack and continued his retreat down the York River to Yorktown.

Venter's well researched and comprehensive blow-by-blow account of the raid is a detailed one, yet very easy to follow. The military planning and execution of the operation are thoroughly explored, as is the significant degree of material destruction visited upon both private and government property. The raid's two key clashes of arms (Kilpatrick vs. the Virginia heavy artillery battalions and Dahlgren vs. the Richmond LDT) are also well described. The maps tracing the route of the raiders are fine and properly identify all the key points mentioned in the text, but the maps depicting the Dahlgren and Kilpatrick fights outside the city are pretty spare when it comes to detail. The narrative, very engagingly written but fairly riddled with typos and word usage errors, could also have used another pass through by the press editors.

The author's assessment of the raid's failure being due to "bad weather, command-and-control issues, ignorance of terrain, logistical mishaps and nearly total lack of secrecy" is convincing and well supported in the text. He is also justly critical of the decision to assemble an ad-hoc combat team with officers and men unfamiliar with each other for the raid instead of just using strong and cohesive existing formations, like Kilpatrick's own Third Division. It's unclear if Dahlgren was chosen by Kilpatrick or forced upon him by civilian or military superiors, but the young officer's inexperience, physical disability and poor overall health should have disqualified him from leading one of the raid's key elements. Venter's research also uncovered new information that led to fresh reinterpretation of numerous aspects of the operation both large and small, including the identity of the guide hanged by Dahlgren and the quality of the opposition (which in truth was far more numerous and capable than the clerks, factory workers, old men and young boys of legend).

Though he perhaps might have delved into wider detail on the "Dahlgren Affair" for the benefit of the uninitiated reader, Venter does devote a full chapter (and also an appendix containing transcriptions of all the documents) to the controversy regarding the authenticity and authorship of the scandalous papers found on Dahlgren's body by the Confederates. He finds no reason to question James O. Hall's work on the subject, which he considers exhaustive. After careful consideration of his own research and that of other historians, Venter comes to the reasonable conclusion that the original documents were indeed authentic and authored by Dahlgren himself. In terms of other possible sources of the controversial burn and kill order (including Secretary Stanton), the author discovered no direct evidence leading up the chain of command, only conjecture.

Raid histories are a popular sub-category of Civil War campaign and battle studies and, among these, Bruce Venter's contribution is qualitatively top shelf. Kill Jeff Davis is unquestionably the new standard treatment of the infamous 1864 Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid and is highly recommended.


More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 - 1866 (Arthur H. Clark)
* Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit
* The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861
* Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

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