Lieutenant Rueben Bartley


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Southern Historical Society Papers.

Secretary Southern Historical Society.

The expedition of General Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to Richmond in the spring of 1864 is, perhaps, less understood by the general public than any event of the late war of the same magnitude and importance, more especially the part Dahlgren's column played in that singularly unfortunate move. This comes from two causes; one that Colonel Dahlgren was killed and the rest of us captured and lay in prison till the following year, and no report of our doings was ever sent to the War Department; and the next was the disposition on the part of General Kilpatrick to keep as quiet as possible on the subject, as there was a desire on the part of some to hold him responsible for the sacrifice of Colonel Dahlgren and his command.

I will now try and give your readers a short account of that memorable raid as I saw it. I was the signal officer with Dahlgren—had all his plans—was to carry out the details in regard to the destruction of public property—had the torpedoes, turpentine, signal rockets, etc., all in my charge, with orders how and when to use them. Being the only staff officer he had, I feel pretty certain I knew what he intended to do, and how it was to be done.

The expedition started from Stevensburg, near Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia, on the night of February 28th, 1864, at seven o'clock. It was composed of details from the First Maine, First Vermont, Second New York, Fifth New York, and Fifth Michigan cavalry regiments—in all four hundred men—Major E. F. Cook, Second New York Cavalry, in command. I was sent from army headquarters as signal officer, to act in conjunction with Captain Gloskoski, who was General Kilpatrick's signal officer.

We proceeded to Ely's Ford on the Rapidan, where we captured a commissioned officer and thirteen men, who were on guard at the ford. This was done by Lieutenant H. A. D. Merritt, Fifth New York Cavalry, who had been put in command of the advance guard. It was done so quickly that there was no alarm, and we passed into General Lee's lines and left the gate open for the main body under

General Kilpatrick, who was in our rear but not united to our column. As soon as we were safe in Lee's rear, we took the road to Chancellorsville, and thence to Spotsylvania Courthouse. Keeping to the right we struck the road leading to Frederickshall station, on the Virginia Central Railroad, where we intended to make the first strike, as there were at that time sixty-eight pieces of artillery parked around the station, and only guarded by artillerymen armed with sabres.

About two miles from the station we met an intelligent (?) contraband who had just left it, and learned from him that there had been troops sent from the front to guard the guns and commissary stores. The Colonel concluded not to risk a fight, for it might prevent him from carrying out the main object of the expedition, which was to get in the rear of Richmond and make an attack at the same time Kilpatrick was to make an attack on the Brooke pike, enter the city, liberate the prisoners in Libby, Castle Thunder, and Belle Isle, capture as many of the officers as possible, destroy the arsenal, commissary, and quartermaster stores, and all endeavor to escape down the peninsula to General Butler's lines.

The Colonel found another contraband who said he could take us on a by-road about two miles south of the station, where we could cross the railroad and get on one that would take us into Goochland county. We took him along, and while going through the woods captured a four horse wagon and seven men getting wood. We had them throw off the wood and climb on the wagon and turn into line. We had not gone more than a mile when our attention was called to a number of horses hitched around a log cabin. Lieutenant Merritt was ordered to make a dash with the advance guard and see what was going on. The result was the capture of eight commissioned officers and a few privates, being the sudden adjournment of a court-martial. In the number was one colonel and two majors. We soon after came to the railroad and set to work tearing it up, which we did for a considerable distance, also the telegraph—but time was of as much importance to us as the railroad, so we did not stay long but struck across the country for Dover Mills on the James river. We travelled as fast as our horses could carry us and by night the rain began to fall, but we had a long ride yet to the river, which we wanted to cross at daylight next morning. So on we plodded through mud, rain, and darkness, such as I never experienced, guided by a contraband sent from Washington city to take us through to Dover Mills and show us a ford where we could cross to the south side of the James. We finally had to stop, as we were losing men in the darkness, and about 2 A. M., March 1, we halted at a small country store, fed our horses, and cooked some rations.

As soon as it was light we were on the way, and by 8 A. M. we came out on the hill at Dover Mills, on the farm of John A. Seddon, who was then Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America.

Up to this, our success had been remarkable—two nights and one day in the Confederate lines and not a shot had been fired at us. We were beginning to think we would go right through with the whole programme, but now things took a turn that looked rather bad for us.

It was now necessary to make the final arrangements for the assault on the city which was to be made that night at about eight o'clock. Our column was to divide, one part to cross the river and go as far as the Appomattox bridge, where the Richmond and Danville Railroad crosses, destroy that, then turn and strike toward Richmond, coming into Manchester opposite Belle Isle, secure the bridge, liberate our men on the island, cross them over and unite with the other prisoners from Libby and Castle Thunder. But, when all the arrangements were made and all had received their final instructions, we found our guide had sold us out. There was no ford at the place at all, but a steam ferry, with the boat at the opposite side of the river, and no ford short of twenty miles up the river. This is the most mysterious case I ever heard of. This man came down from Washington city, sent by Stanton, who was a personal friend of the Colonel. He made a bargain with Kilpatrick and Dahlgren to take them to a ford at Dover Mills and take them over, when his services would cease, and in case of any mistake or treachery on his part he was to be hanged, and if it came out all right he was to receive a large sum of money. He took charge on those terms, took us safe through and had plenty of chances to make his escape, but still kept on with us. When asked why he had misled us, he did not, or could not give a satisfactory answer. The Colonel then told him he would have to carry out his part of the contract, to which the guide assented, and admitted that was the agreement and made no objection to his execution. He went along to the tree without any force and submitted to his fate without a murmur.

A change was now necessary, so Dahlgren then determined to go down on the other side of the river and make the attack on the upper part of the city with his whole force, and trusted to circumstances to get the men off Belle Isle. This shortened our route considerably, and gave us plenty of time to get under cover and rest before making the attempt to enter the city. We went down the pike within about three miles of the city and captured three pickets guarding the road. We then went into a thicket and kept out of sight, letting no one pass into the city. Everything still looked hopeful, and we were in high spirits, when just about 4 P. M. we heard cannon on the Brooke pike, and knew at once that Kilpatrick had made his attack four hours before the time agreed upon with Dahlgren. This seemed to be something the Colonel could not comprehend, and he feared the whole thing would now be a failure, as his own force was too small to uncover in daylight, and he did not think Kilpatrick could possibly gain an entrance through the fortifications before night. But soon the firing began to get farther off; then we knew it was defeat with Kilpatrick. Dahlgren reasoned that General Kilpatrick might make a stand near the city and at night renew the attack, when he would hear our guns or see our signals, for Captain Gloskoski and myself had arranged a special code of rocket signals, so as to communicate at night and bring all the forces together in case of defeat. But Kilpatrick did not make a stand—did not return at night, and never had one rocket sent up to let us know how to get out of the scrape. He made a rather precipitate, and, as one of his officers told me in Libby, demoralized run, with Hampton on his rear.

Dahlgren waited till dark, and then came out and formed his men and made the attack on the north side, and drove the enemy (who had no artillery) back to the inner line of works, when, reinforcements coming up, it soon got too hot, and he sounded the retreat, leaving forty men on the field, but getting closer to the city than any of our troops ever did up to the day of the surrender. Our column was then turned east, and we came round and crossed the railroad at Hungary Station, from there to the Brooke pike, and finding from a citizen that Kilpatrick was in retreat down the Peninsula, he determined to cross through King William county and King and Queen county, and try and reach Butler's lines at Gloucester Point. We crossed the Pamunkey at Hanovertown Ferry. The Mattaponi at Dabney's (Walkerton) Ferry, having at this place a little skirmish with bushwhackers. I would here state that coming round the city part of our column got separated from the advance, and never got with us again, but, by good fortune, got in with Kilpatrick's forces and escaped. We were not so fortunate. When daylight came, we had Colonel Dahlgren, Major Cook, Lieutenant Merrit and myself, commissioned officers, and seventy-five men, besides about fifty contrabands and a number of extra horses.

After leaving Dabney's Ferry, we took the road to Stevensville ; when on a hill between the ferry and Aseamancock Creek we saw a company of infantry in the road, but a charge sent them to the woods. We went on with all the speed we could, and at dark crossed the creek and stopped to feed and rest for about half an hour—then off again, and had not gone but a short distance when Lieutenant Merritt, who was still in advance, came back and told Dahlgren he would have to have more men, as the road was stopped with mounted troops, who seemed determined to make a stand.

At this, the Colonel, Major Cook and myself hurried forward, sending an order back along the line to hurry up the men. When we came up, Dahlgren took the lead, and with his revolver in hand rode close up to the men in the road and demanded their surrender. This was answered by a defiant demand on their part for us to surrender. At this Dahlgren attempted to shoot the officer in charge of the Confederates, but the weapon hung fire. Almost instantly a volley was fired into our left flank along our line by the enemy who lay in ambush not over twenty feet from the road. This stampeded us for about one hundred yards, every horse in our column turning to the rear. When we pulled up we found that Dahlgren was killed (this some knew before, having seen him fall). Major Cook had lost his horse, but all the balance were all right. We then moved out into a field on our right and waited their coming, but they did not come. We then held a council, and determined to abandon the horses, and all try and make their escape. We succeeded in getting away that night, but on the next were captured.

Colonel Dahlgren's body was mutilated to the extent of cutting off a finger to get a ring he wore. I can name the man who did it, and I was the means of his sister, Miss M. M., getting it after the war. But the worst indignity was having his body taken up after we had him decently coffined and buried at Stevensville and taken to Richmond, and then taken out of the city and buried in an unknown grave so he could never be found His sister did find him, however, and he is now lying north of Mason and Dixon's line. This was done on their part on account of the papers said to have been found on his dead body. As to the papers, I don't believe he had any such, as has been claimed by the Confederates. The unfortunate raid cost me and others over five months' close confinement, and treatment such as no brutes should receive.

If M. Quad's query, " Who sacrificed Dahlgren ?" has not been satisfactorily answered yet, let some one else try his hand.

R. BARTLEY, Signal Officer United States Army.