At the end of the last post we looked at Lincoln at the end of 1863 and the disappointments he faced. Even though he’s got the hard-fighting (and drinking) US Grant coming in for the 1864 spring campaign, the overall situation seems as gloomy as the Washington weather. No more could be expected from the armies, which were in winter quarters and would be until early May. There seemed little the president could do to further his plans.
Just about that time, however, a report came in from Richmond from the spy ring run by Elizabeth van Lew, a wealthy spinster who reported to General Ben Butler. “Crazy Bet” not only supplied military information but provided a look into the heart of the enemy capital. The report emphasized the weak defenses of Richmond and told Lincoln just what he wanted to hear—that there were many loyal Unionists in the city who would welcome their liberators; that Jeff Davis was the “head and front” of the rebellion and that his removal would participate a collapse of the government. The author of the report went on to suggest that a bold cavalry raid could ride right into the Confederate capital, capture Davis and free the thousands of Union prisoners incarcerated near the city. In the middle of winter there were not many other options available for striking a blow at the still-defiant Confederacy. A bold raid on Richmond might, just might, end the war at a stroke with the decapitation of the enemy government.
This, I think, fit right into Lincoln’s views and was just too good to resist. It had the additional advantage of being quite economical after the unprecedented bloodletting of the summer—only a few thousand men would be needed for this surgical strike on the enemy’s national command authority.
General Ben Butler was thinking along the same lines on the Peninsula, especially since he “ran” the Van Lew spy ring. In early February he tried a raid on Richmond along the lines recommended by Van Lew – a mixed force of infantry and cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. Isaac Wistar. Tipped off by a deserter, the Confederates easily repulsed the effort. Both Lincoln and Stanton were aware of the raid, whose objective was to free Union POWs. “What’s important about his excursion,” said Wittenberg in a blog post, “is that many of the operative details were the same as what ended up in the Dahlgren Papers. Wistar penned a report that was endorsed and sent on by Butler.”
Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick visited Washington and talked to both President Lincoln and Sec. of War Stanton in mid-February, 1864, about this very type of raid, although its ostensible purpose was to free the Union prisoners. As Wittenberg mentions, although the commander of the Army of Potomac was informed of it, the organization of the raid was done outside the AOPs chain of command. There is also some evidence of “mission creep” i.e. adding on additional tasks. The raid’s initial and ostensible purpose remained freeing the Union POWs at Richmond, but now the cavalry (which included a force under George Custer) was to cut communications between Richmond and Lee’s army.
Wittenberg also digs out another, unstated mission. Lieut. Col. Theodore Lyman recorded in his diary that the expedition was also supposed to “catch all the rebel [members of Congress] that are lying around loose”—presumably something the raid’s organizers in Washington had approved. What else had they contemplated?
More to come…
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