Kilpatrick's Raid, Richmond, Virginia
February 28 - March 4, 1864
During the first half of March the regiment took part in Kilpatrick's famous raid against Richmond. The objects of this were the liberation of the Union prisoners in that city; the destruction of mills and army stores in Richmond; the capture of the reserve artillery at Frederick's Hall Station, on the Virginia Central railroad, and the distribution of President Lincoln's amnesty proclamation. Kilpatrick started with 4,000 mounted men, February 28th, at sundown, after a demonstration on Lee's left had been made by Custer to distract the enemy's attention. The First Vermont mounted that evening with three days' rations and one day's corn for the horses. The young and daring Colonel Dahlgren, who was Kilpatrick's second in this enterprise, started on in advance with a body of 500 men, comprising detachments from the First Vermont, Second and Fifth New York, First Maine and Fifth Michigan cavalry. The Vermont detachment consisted of a hundred men under Lieutenants Hall and Williamson. Dahlgren crossed the river at Ely's Ford, capturing a lieutenant and 14 men on picket at that point, and thus securing a safe passage for the main body. He proceeded thence rapidly in a southeasterly direction around the right of the Confederate army, and hurried on without halting until ten A. M., when the men stopped near Spottsylvania Court House to feed the horses. Then diverging from the route to be followed by the main body, he pushed on to the southwest by way of Fredericks Hall to the James river. The main column, going almost due south, marched steadily until five P. M., when it arrived at Beaver Dam Station. Here Kilpatrick remained until dark, destroying the railroad property and tearing up the tracks in both directions. Then starting again, in a heavy rain, he crossed the South Anna in the morning of March 1st, and shortly after noon crossed the south branch of the Chickahominy and halted before the fortifications of Richmond on the Brook turnpike, three and a half miles north of the city. A detachment had been sent to destroy the railroad bridge across the South Anna river; but it was found guarded by infantry with artillery, and after a slight skirmish the detachment withdrew. That evening Kilpatrick proposed to Preston to take his regiment, with a few other picked men, and to make a dash into Richmond in the early twilight of the next morning and break open the doors of Libby Prison. Preston accepted the desperate undertaking, and spent most of the night in arranging for it; but before he started, such information in regard to the strength of the enemy's infantry in the works was received by Kilpatrick, that he abandoned the enterprise. .If any man in the command could have accomplished the task it was Preston.
Hearing nothing from Dahlgren, and judging the capture of Richmond to be impossible, Kilpatrick decided to move around the city and join General Butler at Yorktown. At four A. M., the column started, and after destroying two miles of the Fredericksburg railroad, moved on to Mechanicsville, six miles from Richmond. Here, after destroying the depot building and cutting the track, the men got an hour's rest. At 10:30 P. M., the enemy began to shell the camp, and soon after the pickets were driven in and an attack was made on the part of the line held by the Seventh Michigan. This was easily repulsed, the Vermonters taking a part which entitled them to place this skirmish on the list of their engagements. The division then moved off to the east, and at three A. M. the men went into bivouac, and slept until nine. At that hour the Vermont cavalry was sent back to the relief of the rear guard, which had been attacked by a mounted force at Piping Tree. Here the regiment, under Preston, had a skirmish which constituted almost its only serious fighting during the raid. In this two men were wounded and three or four horses were killed. The enemy was soon dispersed, and after waiting half an hour for a renewal of the attack, the rear guard followed the column, which had moved in the direction of White House. Leaving White House on his left Kilpatrick proceeded to Tunstall's Station. Near here what was left of Dahlgren's' command overtook and joined the main body. Dahlgren had arrived at Fredericks Hall Station, where Lee's reserve artillery was parked at three P. M. on the 29th. Had he been there a little sooner he might have captured Lee, who had just passed over the road on his way back to his army, after a short visit to Richmond. Dahlgren found the artillery strongly guarded by an infantry brigade and did not dare to attempt its capture. Withdrawing from that dangerous locality after tearing up the railroad for a mile from Fredericks Hall, he resumed his march. The rain fell in torrents, rendering the roads almost impassable. Men and horses were suffering for food and rest. Moreover, Dahlgren was led astray by a guide, who through treachery or stupidity, guided him to Goochland, representing that the river was fordable at Dover Mills. No ford was found, and the false guide was hanged. An attack upon Richmond from the south side of the river being thus impossible, Dahlgren determined to try to enter the city from the north side. On his way thither he burned the flour-mills and saw-mills, the boats and locks of the canal and the iron works at Mannakin, with the barns of Confederate Secretary of State Seddon, on whose farm the command encamped. Hearing that General Wise was on his farm near by, a detachment was sent to capture hi, but he had fled. Dahlgren then proceeded down the Westham road, and about four miles from the city had a skirmish with the enemy's pickets and pursued them inside the outer lines of their fortifications. At the second line the enemy rallied in considerable force under cover of a wood. Skirmishers were deployed, who flanked the enemy and by successive charges, led by Colonel Dahlgren and Major Cook, the hostile infantry, comprising the Richmond City battalion, were driven across the fields nearly to the city. It was now dark and the city gas lights cold plainly be seen. But here a large force was encountered whose longer line it was impossible for Dahlgren's small force to turn. He accordingly decided to withdraw and seek the main column. On this march, the main body of Dahlgren's men, in which was the Vermont detachment, became separated from colonel Dahlgren, who fell into an ambush and met his death soon after. The larger body pushed on to the east and joined Kilpatrick at Tunstall's Station.
"No one," says Major Merritt of the Fifth New York, "engaged in that night's march, will ever forget its difficulties. The storm had set in with renewed fury. The fierce wind drove the rain, snow and sleet. The darkness was rendered more intense by the thick pines that overgrew the road and dashed into our faces almost an avalanche of water at every step. Being on unfrequented wood roads, we were halted frequently to remove trees fallen across the path, and to trace the course with our hands, for even the sagacity of the horses was often at fault. Tired and exhausted, the men fell asleep on their horses. It became necessary to march by file, and at every turn of the path to pass the word to turn to the right or keep to the left of the tree. It was utterly impossible to see a yard in advance. Slowly and laboriously we thus toiled through to Hungary Station."
Among the wounded and captured were:
At eight A. M. of the 3d, the entire command resumed the march, the First Vermont acting as rear guard. That night it bivouacked within twelve miles of Williamsburg, and reached Yorktown March 4th. Here the entire force remained a week resting. On the 11th the First Vermont embarked for Alexandria; arrived there on the 13th; moving thence marched by way of Fairfax Court House on the 16th to Warrenton Junction; and arrived in camp at Stevensburg on the 18th. The loss of the regiment in this expedition was 12 wounded, seven of whom were captured, and 59 missing, most of whom were lost in the night marches.
For the next two weeks the regiment remained at Stevensburg, picketing the line of the Rapidan, and in camp near Grove Church. On the return from Richmond, the Seventh Michigan being without field officers, its lieutenant colonel having been captured, Major Wells was detached from the regiment, and commanded the Seventh Michigan for the month following.
The month of April brought great changes in the organization of the Cavalry Corps. One of General Grant's first measures as Commander in Chief was to relieve General Pleasonton and give the command of the corps to Brigadier General Philip Henry Sheridan. Aware that he had been an infantry division commander, the cavalry looked hard at him at first; but it was not long before they all owned that Grant knew his man, and that the man was equal to the place. Of the three division commanders of the corps but one now remained. The gallant Buford was dead and was replaced by Brigadier General Torbert, who had previously commanded a New Jersey infantry brigade. General Gregg retained the Second division. Kilpatrick was sent to join Sherman in the west, and the command of the Third division, to which the Vermont cavalry belonged was given to Brigadier General James H. Wilson, who had been recently taken from staff duty. The brigades were re-arranged. Custer's brigade was transferred to the First division, and the First Vermont with it. This arrangement , however, only last for eight days, and as finally arranged the Vermont cavalry became the first regiment of the Second brigade of the Third division, the other regiments brigaded with it being the Eighth New York,, Third Indiana and Eighth Illinois. The brigade commander was Colonel George H. Chapman of the Third Indiana. April 28th, Colonel Sawyer resigned, and the command of the regiment devolved on Lieut. colonel Preston, to whom this was no new responsibility. He was at once promoted to the colonelcy; but he did not live to see his commission.
At this time the regiment lost Assistant Surgeon Edson, whose professional skill, high spirit, and fidelity had been of the greatest service, by his promotion to the surgeoncy of the Seventeenth Vermont. He was succeeded by Dr. Edward B. Nims of Burlington.
The period of arduous service now about to open with the opening of Grant's overland campaign, was preceded by a review of the division, on the 3d of May, by General Wilson. That night at midnight the men were aroused by marching orders, and two hours later they were on their way to Germanna Ford, where they crossed with the division without much opposition. It was Wilson's duty to lead the way for the Fifth Corps, and when that corps arrived at the ford, he moved on nearly to the Old Wilderness Tavern and thence across the fields to the Orange Plank Road, and along this to Parker's store, where the division bivouacked. The regiment reached Parker's store at three P. M. A battalion was sent out on the road under Major Bennett, went several miles and had a slight skirmish wit a party of the enemy, and returned at dark.
George G. Benedict, "Vermont in the Civil War, 1861-5," (Free Press Association, Burlington, 1888), pp. 627-33.