…After they left I sat down to Romola – and I was absorbed in it. How hardened we grow “to war and war’s alarms.” The enemies’ cannon or our own are thundering in my ears – and I was dreadfully afraid some infatuated and frightened friend would come in to cheer, to comfort, and interrupt me. Am I the same poor soul who fell on her knees and prayed and wept and fainted as the first guns boomed from Fort Sumter?
Once more we have repulsed the enemy. But it is humiliating indeed that he can come and threaten us at our very gates whenever he so pleases… Surely there is horrid neglect or mismanagement somewhere!
Hampton with N.C. [North Carolina] troops beat up their quarters in quarters in a night attack. There were several thousand troops under Kilpatrick.
Mrs. Randolph saw the mounted prisoners as they were brought in, she told me…
March 4, 1864.
Enemy reinforced and on us again. Met Wade Hampton who told me J.C. was to join him with some volunteer troops, so I hurried home. Such a cavalcade rode up to luncheon – Captain Smith Lee and Preston Hampton, the handsomest, the oldest and youngest of the party.
This was at the Prestons’. Smith Lee walked home with me. Alarm bells ringing – horsemen galloping – wagons rattling. Dr. H stopped us to say Beast Butler was on us with 15 thousand men. How scared the doctor looked. And after all, it was only a notice to the militia to turn out and drill…
March 5, 1864.
Tom Ferguson walked home with me. He told me of Colonel Dahlgren’s death and the horrid tablets found in his pocket. He came with secret orders to destroy this devoted city, hand the president and his cabinet, and burn the town.
Fitzhugh Lee was proud that the Ninth Virginia captured him…
Found Mrs. Semmes covering her lettuce and radishes as calmly as if Yankee raiders were a myth.
This last affair has left [us] sore and disheartened. We have shown our weakness and the imbecility of our arrangements…
And to think – here I sat reading Romola at my ease. I might have been roused at any moment by fire and fury – rapine, murder – &c.&c.&c.
While Beast Butler holds Fortress Monroe he will make things lively for us. On the alert must we be now.
Mary Chesnut, Journal Entry excerpts March 3-5, 1864.
(Source: Mary Chesnut’s Civil War; C. Vann Woodward, Editor, 1981, pages 577-579)
Mrs. Chesnut’s writings recorded Kilpatrick-Dahlgren’s Raid, though at the time she did not seem much concerned about the cavalry raid and spent the afternoon reading.
Union cavalryman, General Judson Kilpatrick, devised a bold plan and got it cleared by his superiors. Aware that Richmond’s defenses were minimal, he proposed a raid on the Confederate capital and destroy communications and transportation lines and try to free prisoners…and maybe more. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren led one of the columns, coming in on the city from northwest while Kilpatrick approached from the north. With a total of about 4,000 men, the officers set off on February 28, 1864.
Confederate cavalry under General Wade Hampton galloped off to oppose the Union endeavor. The weather sided with the Southerners, and rain, sleet, and snow slowed Kilpatrick and Dahlgren.
When the Yankee horsemen arrived at the outerworks of Richmond, Dahlgren’s force got routed and Kilpatrick decided to turn back after skirmishing. Both cavalry detachments headed east, toward Union lines on the Peninsula. Kilpatrick reached safety on March 4, but Confederates surprised Dahlgren, killing him and taking his body to Richmond.
Then the drama of the “horrid tablets” began. The Confederates found papers on Colonel Dahlgren’s body that included details about burning the city and assassinating Jefferson Davis (Confederate president) and other leaders. The Richmond press got hold of the papers and printed them. Dahlgren became the villain of the hour in the South, and even the North was shocked by the revelations of the papers in his pocket. Had someone in the North authorized assassination? Southerners believed so, and some used this incident to justify their secretive operations and plots against Union leaders, including President Lincoln.
As for Dahlgren, a Union supporter (and spy) in Richmond – Elizabeth Van Lew – and her friends stole his body from the Confederates and reburied him with honor. The raid had far reaching effects, even if Kilpatrick and Dahlgren did not accomplish their ultimate objectives.
“Beast Butler” On The Peninsula
Fort Monroe sat at the end of the Virginia Peninsula, southeast of Richmond, and the fortification stayed in Union hands for the duration of the war. General Benjamin Butler had a reputation. He had encouraged slaves to seek freedom with Union lines and issued his infamous order in New Orleans – earning lasting condemnation from Confederates.
At the beginning of March 1864, Butler started gathering an army and formed ideas for the coming campaign. Butler had political ambitions and wondered if a successful military campaign could help him win nomination and the presidential election. In the coming weeks, he would begin to follow orders from General Grant to conduct the Bermuda Hundred Campaign which was supposed to tie up Confederate troops and keep them from joining Robert E. Lee.
Mary Chesnut correct assumed that “Beast Butler” would threaten Richmond and provide plenty of excitement in the coming months.
She sat reading a novel by George Eliot, published in 1862-63 while Union cavalry approached the city. The cannons thundered, but she scarcely noticed them now. Instead, Mary needed a distraction. The war still worried her, but it had also become routinely tiresome. Two days later, she revives her interest in the conflict, realizing that her current home city might be caught in real crossfire in the coming weeks.
Mrs. Chesnut’s words provide a question often found in journals of the Civil War. How could they come to grips with the last years? Were they the same people? How would they recover from their war experiences? The woman who witnessed Fort Sumter’s firing with fears and tears had become frightening calm and unconcerned by 1864.