By Ronald S. Coddington
New York Times, March 10, 2014
Samuel Kingston, a Union soldier and prisoner of war, languished in a dungeon on a late winter’s day in March 1864. The cell was in the basement of infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy. A severe cough and cold racked his body. His cellmates were similarly affected. Ten in all, they were crammed into a dank, drafty cell not much larger than a common tent. Rebel guards provided Kingston and the others with nothing more than scraps of food for subsistence and an open bucket for a toilet. If some of the guards had had their way, the prisoners would be left to rot in the filth and cold of the converted brick warehouse.
Four of the cellmates were enlisted men of color, who were often abused, if not executed, by their Southern captors. But in the minds of the guards, the other six, including Kingston, had done something even more heinous: They were implicated in an alleged assassination attempt against the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet.
The mysterious plot to take out the senior leadership of the South was uncovered in papers found during a Union cavalry raid on Richmond. The stated purpose of the coup de main was to free federal troops held in Libby Prison and the nearby Belle Isle camp.
The raid began on the evening of Feb. 28, 1864. A column of handpicked troopers, 3,584 sabers strong, crossed the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford, about 65 miles north of Richmond. A half-dozen artillery pieces and a few supply wagons and ambulances accompanied the cavalrymen.
The brain behind the audacious operation was a junior cavalry commander in the Army of the Potomac who worked back channels to sell the plan to the Lincoln administration. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a West Point-educated brigadier driven by reckless personal ambition, had a penchant for suicidal charges and pushing his troopers to exhaustion. “Kill Cavalry,” as he became known, had started his career as a horse soldier in the summer of 1861 when he was named lieutenant colonel of the Second New York Cavalry. An amalgamated regiment composed of recruits from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Indiana, six of the 10 companies hailed from the Empire State.
Kingston was a latecomer to the regiment. A meticulous bachelor who worked as physician in the bustling community of Oswego, N.Y., he joined the Second as an assistant surgeon in May 1863. He had his baptism to war during the seven-week-long Gettysburg Campaign, although the regiment did not fight in the eponymous three-day battle that broke an unprecedented streak of victories by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.
Half a year later, Kingston mounted his horse and joined his comrades on Kilpatrick’s Raid. Word of the incursion arrived in lightly defended Richmond before the Yankees. The Confederate War Department mobilized an irregular force of soldiers, government workers and volunteers to resist the invaders.
On Feb. 29, during the first full day of the raid, Kilpatrick divided his troops into two columns. He rode hard with the main body of about 3,000 men south to Richmond, while a second, smaller column of 500 men headed to Goochland, northwest of the capital.
Kingston and the rest of the Second were part of the smaller column. It was under the command of Ulric Dahlgren, a 21-year-old colonel and son of a career Navy officer, John Dahlgren. “Ully” spent his boyhood steeped in all things military, and distinguished himself in Union blue. He had led a successful reconnaissance raid into Confederate-held Fredericksburg on Nov. 9, 1862; later, at Gettysburg, he had suffered a severe wound in the foot that resulted in the amputation of a leg below the knee. Still, he soldiered on.
Kilpatrick and his men encountered Richmond’s outermost defenses on March 1 and found them stronger than anticipated. “Kill Cavalry” balked. He turned east and skirmished with Confederates while he waited for Dahlgren’s column to arrive.
Dahlgren, unaware of Kilpatrick’s withdrawal, continued on to Goochland and made a dash for Richmond. According to Lt. Col. Mortimer B. Birdseye of the Second, “This regiment has the honor of being the only Union regiment that passed the outer line of defenses surrounding Richmond during its occupation by Confederate forces.” But Dahlgren and his men ran into stiff resistance as they closed in on the capital. Casualties mounted, and Kingston went to work to save as many men as he could.
Dahlgren pressed to within two-and-a-half miles of the heart of the capital when the defenders finally broke their momentum. Dahlgren acted to save his command. “It soon got too hot, and he sounded the retreat, leaving forty men on the field” stated one of Dahlgren’s aides, 2nd Lt. Reuben Bartley. Kingston, who was uninjured, remained with the wounded as Dahlgren and the survivors fled.
Dahlgren continued on. By now night had fallen, and in the confusion caused by the darkness and enemy activity the column became separated. One section eventually made its way back to Kilpatrick. The other section, under the command of Dahlgren, rode into an ambush arranged by about 150 Confederate cavalrymen and other local volunteers. They descended on the Yankee raiders. Dahlgren was struck and killed by four bullets, and the rest of his troopers were dispersed or captured.
Victorious Confederates found Dahlgren’s lifeless body and stripped it of clothing and valuables, including his wooden artificial leg. One man hacked off one of Dahlgren’s fingers to take a ring. Another, 13-year-old William Littlepage, came away with a cigar case, a memorandum book and a few papers.
Littlepage and his comrades read one of the papers with fascination. “Special Orders and Instructions” provided details about the raid. One statement stood out among the rest: “The men must be kept together and well in hand, and, once in the city, it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and his cabinet killed.”
The papers were forwarded through military and political chains of command and ultimately to Davis. Publication of the contents days after they were discovered rocked Richmond. Calls for retribution and retaliation rippled across the South. The North promptly denied any assassination plans and declared the documents to be forgeries.
Dahlgren’s body, which had been unceremoniously dumped in a muddy grave near the place he fell, was disinterred and put on display in Richmond. “Large numbers of persons went to see it. It was in a pine box, clothed in Confederate shirt and pants, and shrouded in a Confederate blanket,” reported The Richmond Whig on March 8, 1864.
While this circus played out on the streets of the capital, Kingston and his white cellmates were informed that they had been condemned to death as felons for their role in the alleged assassination attempt. “This news appeared to have a very depressing effect on Dr. Kingston,” noted Lieutenant Bartley, a fellow prisoner.
Kingston’s cough and cold worsened, and he lost his appetite. On March 21, as he lay near death, the Confederates removed him from his cell and sent him North. He survived the trip home, and with good food and care came back to life. He eventually returned to the regiment, was promoted to full surgeon, and served in this capacity until the end of the war.
The Confederates never followed through on their promise to execute the prisoners, which was most likely an idle threat by overzealous guards. But their ill treatment exacted a grim toll. According to Bartley, of the six officers imprisoned in the dungeon at Libby Prison, only three survived. He did not mention the fate of the four black soldiers.
Kingston was forever damaged by the ordeal. Back home in Oswego, he was frequently incapacitated by illness, and often doctored himself. His mental health appears to have suffered as well. An acquaintance described him as “a very odd & peculiar person.” Still, he managed to practice medicine and work as a druggist. A cerebral hemorrhage ended his life in 1889, at age 53. His wife, Anne, whom he had married in 1875, and two daughters survived him.
Sources: Samuel T. Kingston military service record, National Archives and Records Administration; New York Monuments Commission, “Final Report on the Battlefield at Gettysburg”; John Dahlgren, “Memoir of Ulric Dahlgren”; Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 1864; Frank Moore, “The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events”; Richmond Whig, March 8, 1864; The New York Times, March 10, 1864; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Anne E. Kingston pension record, National Archives and Records Administration.
Ronald S. Coddington is the author of “Faces of the Civil War” and “Faces of the Confederacy.” His most recent book is “African American Faces of the Civil War.” He writes “Faces of War,” a column for the Civil War News.