Book Review: Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864


by Bruce M. Venter

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Pp. xxxii, 356. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0806151536

A Union Attempt to “Decapitate” the Confederacy?

In this book, independent historian Venter, author of The Battle of Hubbardton, who is noted for conducting historical tours, tackles one of the most curious and controversial incidents of the Civil War.

On March 2, 1863, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful Union raid on Richmond, 21-year old Col. Ulric Dahlgren was killed northeast of the city. On his body were found orders, in his own hand, indicating that his troops were to kill Jefferson Davis and as many other high ranking Confederate officials that they could, touching off a controversy that still rages.

Venter’s discussion of the planning and execution of the raid, which was the brain child of Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, and supposedly was intended to liberate Union P/Ws held in Richmond, is clear and he sets it within the overall events in the Eastern Theatre at time. As he examines the events, with some excellent battle pieces, Venter addresses a number of issues that remain unresolved.

The primary question, of course, is who issued the orders to decapitate the Confederate leadership? Some Confederates and their sympathizers since have argued for Lincoln. Venter, however, argues the Lincoln was very unlikely to have done so, as also was Kilpatrick. He concludes, with rather too many “perhapses”, that the most likely candidates are SecWar Edwin Stanton and young Dahlgren himself, the latter perhaps even acting on his own initiative. In short, Venter fails to resolve the problem, despite some convoluted logic, and the issue remains open.

A volume in the Oklahoma series “Campaigns and Commanders”, Kill Jeff Davis is interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying book about a neglected incident in the war.  Worth reading for Venter’s interesting analysis, albeit not a definitive account.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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