Bruce M. Venter, CEO of America's History, LLC, has spent several years guiding groups of interested tourists across Virginia and the East and has written about the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. In Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864, Venter steps out of his frequented area of study to provide an in-depth examination of the failed 1864 Kilpatrick-Dahlgren cavalry raid on Richmond. In this work, the author uncovers previously overlooked information, analyzes the reasons for the raid's failure, provides compelling evidence about the most controversial aspects of the action, and opens new ground in areas that other historians have overlooked.
According to Venter, Brigadier General Judson "Kill-Cavalry" Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren were chosen to lead a February 1864 raid on the [End Page 438] Confederate capital for the purpose of burning the city, freeing the Union prisoners at the infamous Libby and Belle Isle prisons, and capturing President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. However, once defending home guardsmen killed a retreating Dahlgren in an ambush, a young gray-clad volunteer found paperwork on the colonel's body that included the planned assassination of Davis and his officials. This discovery, of course, created a firestorm. Southern firebrands frothed into a frenzy about the plot, threatening to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and have all the cavalry prisoners who participated in the raid hanged. Kilpatrick publicly denied ordering anything more than the capture of Confederate officials, and his commanders denied ever knowing even that much about the plan. Weaving together an investigation about the players in this complex tale, Venter concludes that Lincoln, with whom both Kilpatrick and Dahlgren had discussed the raid, had no knowledge of the assassination order. Neither did Kilpatrick or any other Union officer. Instead, Venter believes that only two individuals knew of the murderous plot: Colonel Ulric Dahlgren and Secretary of War Edwin M. S tan ton.
Venter argues that the raid failed for several reasons. Primarily, the secrecy that such a raid commanded was not maintained, and Dahlgren proved a poor choice for such an important component of the mission because he remained in extreme pain from a recent leg amputation. Beyond those factors, Venter identifies a lack of adequate guides, misrepresentative intelligence about the Richmond defensive force, lack of enough troops, bad weather, poor planning, unfamiliarity among officers and enlisted men (the force contained a mix of different cavalry units from different brigades), resentment among the officer corps, and confusing topography. Kilpatrick blamed the failure squarely on Major General Benjamin F. Butler's not marching his men to Richmond (as previously planned) from the southeast while Kilpatrick attacked from the north.
Kill Jeff Davis also includes an examination into the authenticity of the Dahlgren papers, which Venter declares genuine based on his evidence. Furthermore, the author delves into the true identity of the African American guide that Dahlgren ordered hanged. However, evidence indicates that the guide was simply lost, not sabotaging the mission.
This monograph is meticulously researched and well written, and it paints a clear portrait of a confusing and oftentimes intentionally misleading series of events. It should be on any Civil War scholar's shelf.