On this day in 1864, a major Union cavalry raid begins when General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick leads 3,500 troopers south from Stevensburg, Virginia. Aimed at Richmond, the raid sought to free Federal prisoners and spread word of President Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in hopes of convincing Confederates to lay down their arms.
The president's proclamation of December 1863 offered a pardon and restoration of property (except slaves, who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation) to all Confederates. Kilpatrick took with him Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren to conduct the prisoner release while Kilpatrick covered him with the main force. To distract attention, Union infantry under General John Sedgwick and another cavalry detachment under General George Custer would feign an attack towards western Virginia.
The forces split after crossing the Rappahannock River. Kilpatrick began tearing up the Virginia Central Railroad while Dahlgren approached Richmond from the west. They were to rendezvous on the outskirts of the city. Kilpatrick arrived there on March 1 with Confederate General Wade Hampton's cavalry in hot pursuit. Dahlgren was delayed when a guide led him to a deep section of the James River. Finding no possibility to cross, Dahlgren hanged the guide on the spot. Kilpatrick had to leave for the North before Dahlgren's arrival, so Dahlgren and his men were cut off. The colonel and about 100 of his men were ambushed as they tried to rejoin Kilpatrick. Dahlgren was killed, and his body fell into Confederate hands. He was allegedly carrying papers that included instructions to burn Richmond and kill Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The papers were published in the Richmond Daily Examiner, but it is not clear where the orders had come from or if they were even authentic. Some historians have suggested that they were forged by the Confederates to stir morale in Virginia.
Kilpatrick suffered about 335 men killed, captured, or wounded. The raid accomplished little for the Union and the Confederate victory lifted Southern morale.