9/14/14

Gempei War of 1180-1185: The Minamoto-Taira Conflict at the Dawn of the Age of the Samurai

The Gempei War of 1180-1185 was one of the longest and hard fought civil war’s fought during the historical Heian period of Japanese history. Pitting the “overmighty” clans of Minamoto (Genji), including the rival factions sworn to Yoritomo (b.1147-1199) and his cousin Yoshinaka (b.1154-1184), against the royal daimyo ruled by the mighty Taira (Heike) clan sworn to Emperor Takakura and later his infant son, emperor Antoku (b.1178-1185), the Gempei or Genpei War was fought throughout southern and western Japan. It is well remembered today in Japan for the gallant and often violent battles between the countries emerging samurai warrior-caste and for the wars’ penultimate battle, the legendary Battle of Dan-no-aura which was fought in March of 1185.

Minamoto clan warriors and ships at the Battle of Yashima

The Heian Rebellions, 1051-1160

The emperors of Japan and their loyal Taira clan armies put down a series of attempted coups and open rebellions between 1051-1160 during the late Heian period. This era was defined by successive reigns of weak and ineffective emperors who did little to curb the political maneuverings and open revolts of the Minamoto clan led by Yoshitomo. The rival Taira clan were led before and at the very start of the Gempei War by the powerful and widely regarded samurai general and court prefect Kiyomori (b.1118-1181).

It had been Kiyomori who put down the Hogen Disturbance in 1156, just one of the several Minamoto revolts against the “cloistered” emperor Go-Shirakawa (b.1127-1192). The most significant of these rebellions was the Heiji Revolt of January-February 1160. Hoping to snuff Taira dominance at court Yoshitomo of the Minamoto clan and Nobuyori of the influential Fujiwara clan attacked Sanjō Palace in Kyoto, taking the current emperor Nijō and his father the “cloistered emperor” Go-Shirakawa hostage with a force of around 500 samurai.

'Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace during the Heiji Disturbance' from a 13th century scroll

The rebel Minamoto host stormed the palace slaughtering the emperors’ retainers and royal attendants and then set the palace ablaze. Their success was short lived however when a force of 3000 Tara cavalry attacked the burning palace, scattering the Minamoto and retaking custody of the errant emperors Nijō and Shirakawa. Yoshitomo fled only to be betrayed days later by a retainer and murdered unarmed-a great dishonor. His two eldest sons Yoshihira and Tomonaga had been slain in their father’s failed rebellion but his surviving sons were all spared and then exiled by Kiyomori.

Of Yoshitomo’s sons, three would become famous in Japanese history and play important roles in the Gempei War, Yoritomo, Yoshitsune (b.1159-1189), and Noriyori (b.1156-1193). Though he only had reigned unopposed from 1155-1158, emperor Go-Shirakawa would cast a large shadow over Japanese political affairs and military movements until his eventual death in the year 1192. He lived through the reigns of five different emperors, two of them, Takakura and Nijō, both his sons. Only upon his death was the foundation allowed to be cultivated in order to begin the genesis of the Kamakura shogunate of Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Act I, 1180-1183, 1st Uji to Kurikara
The Gempei War began in March of 1180 in the aftermath of the abdication of yet another ineffective Japanese emperor, Takakura. The well respected and influential samurai lord Kiyomori enthroned his two year old grandson Antoku as emperor despite already widespread discontent with the Tara clan’s rule. Classic sources note that Go-Shirakawa played a role as well; inciting open rebellion when he commanded his third son, Prince Mochihito to raise Minamoto banners and to command samurai in open rebellion.. Not long after, tens of thousands of men and a few women as well, levies, monks, and samurai, were in arms, declaring for either the Minamoto or Tara clans. 

Led by Prince Mochihito and Yorimasa, a samurai general and noted poet, a Minamato host attacked Uji outside Kyoto in the conflicts’ first battle in June of 1180. Yorimasa’s host of a few thousand warriors was bolstered by the famed warrior “monks of the mountains”, the naginta wielding buddhist monks of the Midera temple. These warrior monks attacked and then partially burned the city of Nara during the battle. They would sustain high casualties in the fighting with the Tara clan’s samurai in the melee.

Battle of Uji Bridge, 23 June 1180

A fierce counter attack by a relatively small Taira force led by Tommori (b.1152-1185), a son of Kiyomori, succeeded in pushing the Minamato clan back across the broken frame of the Uji bridge where hundreds were killed in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Some were forced or would choose to jump to their deaths into the water below during the fearsome struggle. Yorimasa’s remaining samurai and retainers including several of his sons retreated to the temple of Byodo-In seeking refuge. As the Taira samurai descended the river valley nearer to temple the ever respected Yorimasa wrote his death poem on his war fan, “Like a rotten log-half buried in the ground-my life, which has not flowered, comes to this sad end” and committed hara kiri (seppuku), the ritual belly cutting suicide of the samurai warrior, the first known historical account of this the act being committed by a samurai lord after a significant defeat in battle. His head was taken from his body and his sons fled to avoid it’s capture by the vengeful Tara enemy.

In September of 1180 at the Battle of Ishibashiyama Yoritomo and a small Minamato clan force where defeated by a large Taira clan host led by Ōba Kagechika. Yoritomo's only major independent command in battle during the Gempei War was an utter failure. Yoritomo was no match for the tactical and strategic acumen of both his allies and his many enemies; he was no warlord or strategic minded samurai, he was a daimyo, a diplomat, clan patriarch, and politician foremost. Tommori of the Taira clan later attacked and burned the Miidera temple in retaliation for the mountain monks’ support of the Minamoto clan at the Battle of Uji. 

Depiction of Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan with a retainer c.1180

Tommori won another decisive victory in the Battle of Sunomata in August of 1181 against Minamoto Yukiee, an uncle of Yoritomo. After Minamato samurai attempted to cross a river at night in order to ambush Tommori’s force his Tara samurai formed battle lines and savagely defended them into the small hours of the night; cutting down hundreds of Minamoto who passed amongst their ranks, telling friend from foe by the dripping wet armor of the attacking Minamoto samurai. A second battle fought as a rearguard action was fought shortly after the Minamoto defeat at Sunomata in the spring of 1181 at the bridge near Yahagi-gawa.

The Taira clan won again by preventing Yukiee from destroying the bridge and forcing him to withdraw back into Minamato lands. Tommori took sick during the chase and his now depleted force was forced to halt their pursuit of the Minamoto. Had this not happened Tommori might have pressed on to defeat the Minamoto, winning the war in a decisive and bloody fashion. In March of the same year Kiyomori of the Taira clan died of fever leaving his eldest surviving Munemori as his heir. As such Munemori took legal custody of the child-emperor Antoku.

Munemori of the Taira clan

After a relatively peaceful lull in the fighting from the spring 1181 until the spring of 1183, the Gempei conflict was thus renewed when the Minamato clan’s top military commander Kiso Yoshinaka called his banners and attacked north into Taira lands nearer to the Noto Peninsula. As in many of the battles of the Gempei conflict, a river would play a decisive role in the less than month long Siege of Hiuchi from April to May 1183. Here a well guarded but simple fortress and dam held by a relatively small force led by Yoshinaka held out for several weeks against a Taira clan host led by the young samurai commander Koremori.

The Minamoto might have held against the larger Taira force had not a traitor fired an arrow from the battlements with a note to the Taira commanders detailing a not-so-secret way to breach Yoshinaka’s fortress atop the craggy outcrop along a hastily built dam. Koremori took the dam with the traitors advice but Yoshinaka was able to escape along with most of his men to raid Taira lands again. Yoshinaka achieved revenge for his defeat by treachery several months later in June of 1183 when he won a truly remarkable victory over the Taira at the Battle of Kurikara Pass.

Battle of Kurikara Map

With perhaps 10,000-15,000 men facing a much larger (but most likely exaggerated) Taira clan army of between 18,000-40,000 soldiers, Yoshinaka and his uncle Yukiee won with nothing less than tactical elegance and élan. He struck thirty white Minamoto clan banners atop Kurosaka hill while the Taira clan’s massive host rested a little more than a mile away. Yoshinaka divided his forces, a mobile and partly mounted force attacked from the rear while a detachment of Minamoto samurai loosed arrows from concealed positions on the Taira frontline. The remainder of his men were held in the center. A trap was set and the Taira took the bait. The jaws of Yoshinaka’s assault hit them like bullet train. Within a span of 10-12 minutes his forces had charged the Taira from two sides and scattered them entirely almost entirely. Some were ridden down into a nearby valley and slaughtered. Others were killed under a highly effective and concealed arrow barrage. For the coup de grâce, Yoshinakas’ mounted force drove a herd of oxen with torches attached to their horns into the Taira’s rearguard column knocking some of their men off the foothills into the valley below and spreading fear and confusion everywhere. By any standard the Minamoto clan victory at Kurikara had been a decisive rout.

Battle of Kurikara 1184

Act II, 1183-1184-Shinowara to the Taking of Kyoto by Kiso Yoshinaka

Other great battles followed the decisive Minamoto clan victory at the Kurikara pass. These included Shinowara, a bloody battle which began as an archery duel and then rapidly descended into bloody melee between the Minamoto and Taira led by Yoshinaka and Munemori respectively. The Minamoto carried the day yet again in this battle. Weeks later at the Battle of Mizushima, a Minamoto host commanded by Yoshiyasu was sent to the Bitchū province to attack the Taira clan bases in the Inland Sea near Yashima and Shikoku island. Minamoto and Taira armies met in the sea off Kurashiki near the Takahashi river in a most unique naval engagement. 

Theater of War during the Gempei Conflict, 1180-1185

According to a posthumous account, Tara clan ships were fastened together with planks and made into a single standing battle platform off the coast as a sort coastal blockade. The account details , “The Heike [Tara] ships were made fast alongside each other by [rope cables] from the stem and stern...so that the whole became like a level surface for the fighting men. At the onset of the battle, samurai general Noto no kami Noritsune cried out in a mighty voice ‘Ho! men of Shikoku! How can you bear the shame of being taken alive by these boors of the north! Upon them and grapple!” [The Samurai Sourcebook, Stephen Turnbull].

In the refined melee on the waves that followed hundreds were killed by arrows, swords, or spears. The issue was only decided after surviving Minamoto samurai attempted to swim to shore however Noritsune rode them down in the shallows with 500 Taira horsemen capturing or killing many before they made it to safety. Yoshinaka’s milk brother and contemporary samurai commander Imai Kanehira won another minor victory against the Taira at Fukuryūji several days later, charging through muddy ricefields under an arrow storm to defeat the Taira partisan Seno Kaneyasu who was slain in the action. 

Taira clan samurai aboard their ships during the Gempei War

In 1184 the dynamic of the Gempei conflict drastically mutated into a factionalist struggle. The Taira seemed all but defeated when Yoshinaka entered Kyoto and gained custody of both the young Emperor Antoku and the cloistered instigator of the conflict in 1180, emperor Go-Shirakawa. His army committed many outrages against the populace of Kyoto, pillaging, burning, and killing. Though he was highly respected, gaining de facto status as shogun because of his great victories, Yoshinaka was eventually held accountable and veritably ostracized by most of his former Minamoto clan allies and soon by the highest power in the land, the emperor and the royal court. 

Kiso Yoshinaka

The events that followed sowed the seeds for a rather brief but violent inter-clan conflict between pro-Yoritomo loyalists and Yoshinaka rebels. Yoritomo’s fragile hold on the Minamoto’s clan hierarchy cracked and Minamoto clan banners were raised against him for the first time. This all changed with the attack on the temple of Hōjūjidono in Kyoto. On Yoshinaka’s order his samurai torched the sacred venue with fire arrows and then proceeded to mercilessly slaughter its defenders and courtly inhabitants. Yoshinaka and his rebel Minamoto clique took personal custody of emperor Go-Shirakawa before the palace was wrecked. This coup d'état’s results did not last long and would quickly have a disastrous outcome for Yoshinaka and his retinue. Yoritomo soon gained the trust of the fickle cloistered emperor and made peace with him and the royal house, formally cutting Kiso Yoshinaka out of the Minamoto ascendancy entirely. It was agreed by both parties that the common enemy was still the Taira clan and now Kiso Yoshinaka as well.

Act III, 1184-2nd Uji to Ichi-no-Tana
Some of the Gempei conflicts most poignant and well remembered battles were fought during the last period of the war between the two rival Minamoto factions. Following their great victory at Kurikara the Minamoto clan led by Yoritomo and his brothers, the great warrior Yoshitsune and the equally brave as well as industrious younger brother Noriyori, looked to press their advantage against the Taira clan and push closer towards Kyoto and the Inland Sea. But first they had to defeat the rebel Yoshinaka and his army once and for all. After the burning of Hōjūjidono, Yoshinaka and his host fled empty handed (without either emperor) from Kyoto to the Uji River-the site of the wars’ first battle in 1180.

Yoshitsune, then known as Ushiwakamaru, defeats the bandit chief Kumasaka Chohan in c.1174

Yoritomo’s half brother Yoshitsune led the Minamoto host into battle against their cousin the now traitor and pretender shogun, Kiso Yoshinaka. Though small in stature he was brave in heart and a fierce warrior. An adept archer, sailor, and swordsmen, Yoshitsune first gained renown when he defeated a notorious bandit chief by the name of Kumasaka Chohan at the age of fifteen. According to the recorded tales of his life he braved many martial adventures (both real and mythical) by the time he was reunited with his brothers sometime in 1179-1180.

Yoshitsune won the day but Yoshinaka was able to retreat in good order with a fair portion of his army intact. Following his flight from the capital he regrouped with his old battle companion Imai Kanehira the victor of the Battle of Fukuryūji and his concubine, Tomoe Gozen (b.1158-1247), an onna-bugeisha (women warrior), his retainer who happened to be highly skilled in the samurai’ arts of war. It was said that she was as brave and as deadly as many of her male counterparts. The Minamoto rebels fled north to Awazu (Ōtsu) following their defeat at the Second Battle of Uji but were caught by Yoshitsune and Noriyori’s host.

After the trading of arrow barrages the fighting got close enough for katana and tanto (dagger), there was much blood spilt between each sides samurai and ashigaru. The traditional sources and epic poems of the later ages only celebrate the brave and often fatal personal combat between rival samurais in many of the wars later battles especially at Uji and Awazu. Perhaps the most notable personal combat fought at the Battle of Awazu featured the female warrior-concubine Tomoe Gozen. With her lover’s army reeling; his retainers cut down and with many ashigaru fleeing, dead or dieing, Tomoe Gozen met three Minamoto samurai in single combat while attempting to flee the field.

First she killed a well known samurai named Honda no Moroshige, taking his head upon defeat, a great honor for any samurai of any generation. She then slew Minamoto samurai Uchida Ieyoshi with her katana and then defeated Hatakeyama Shigetada in single combat to make good on her escape. Yoshinaka, the great daimyo and would-be Minamoto shogun was felled by an arrow attempting to escape across a rice-likely riding towards a safe location to commit ritual suicide. Upon witnessing or being informed of his dear companions’ death, Imai Kanehira put his katana in his mouth and jumped off his horse, killing himself instantly in a last act of loyalty to his now deceased master.

Tomoe Gozen in combat with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama Shigetada

Three more battles were fought against the Taira Clan in the wars’ final stages. The first, largest, and most notable was certainly the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani which was fought on 18 March 1184. Yoshitsune led 2500-3000 Minamoto soldiers against a roughly even number of Taira ashigaru and samurai. In a dashing foray up a steep coastal cliff near Suma, Yoshitune and his men breached the Ichi-no-Tani fortress and then set it ablaze. There was a great deal of archery and melee action to take the fortress and again nearly countless personal combats, both heralded and unheralded.

The Minamoto samurai chased their Tara counterparts to the beach below Ichi-no-Tani where the fighting continued until the rest of the Taira force fled or were killed. Noriyori won another minor victory for his brother over a fleeing Taira clan army on the coast of Kojima in March of 1184. Next Yoshitsune raised a large fleet and with a 500-1000 men sailed across the Inland Sea and launched an attack against the Taira on the island of Shikoku. Upon landing on the island he personally led a night assault against the Taira clan samurai at Yashima who were led by Tommori. The Minamoto won a moderate victory though the remainder of the Taira clan ships and samurai escaped to sea yet again.

Yoshitsune rides to battle at Ichi-no-Tani

Final Act, Battle of Dan-no-ura March 1185

The Battle of Dan-no-ura was fought on 24 March 1185 in the Straits of Shimonoseki-nearly at the crossroads of the Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan. Yoshitsune had a great fleet of 150-200 ships and many loyal and experienced samurai under his command when he sailed to meet the Tara clans’ fleet days before this most epic of battles. Tommori had a large fleet as well, perhaps 150 or more ships and he was also an experienced sailor who knew the waters of Shimonoseki well. In addition, Tommoris’ samurai were ragged and hungry for a decisive victory. Among the ships in the Tairan fleet was a smaller inconspicuous royal junk carrying the seven year old dethroned emperor Antoku and his grandmother and guardian, Kiyomori's widowed wife Tokiko. In their possession were the royal jewels and artifacts including the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the mythical and sacred Japanese sword of state.

Action was begun with a particularly dramatic archery duel between the opposing armies their vessels. We can imagine that thousands of arrows were fired in this duel in less than one hour. The Taira had formed battle lines as three squadrons whilst the Minamoto fleet sailed in a large pack with Yoshitsune’s ships sailing abreast of one another. The battle began at Ebb tide giving a distinct advantage to Tommori who used the shallows near the coast to sail circles around Yoshitsune’s ships. By 11am the battle turned to vicious melee combat. Fighting was fierce and little or no quarter was asked for or given between the two hated factions.

The final defeat of the Taira at Dan-no-aura, Tommori is center

It was in the melee where the tide of the battle finally turned, literally as well as figuratively. Though the Minamoto had fought poorly the coming of high tide renewed their effort in the Battle of Dan-no-aura. Tommori’s men held fast until treachery reared its grotesque head on the tidal waters of the battle like a monstrous sea serpent. A Taira clan commander named Miura Yoshizumi betrayed his comrades and attacked the Taira’s rear in support of the Minamoto. He also informed Yoshitsune’s commanders that the largest ship which appeared to be carrying emperor Antoku was actually a decoy vessel. The Minamoto soon found the royal ship and successfully disabled it by killing the ships oarsmen with arrows. As more and more Taira ships were cast aimlessly into the waves by the same tactic the struggle ultimately became a rout.

Hundreds of Taira samurai committed suicide by throwing themselves along with their heavy armor and weapons into the ocean. Most of the major Taira lords did just this or were slain by arrows or in the melee. perhaps 500-800 in maybe the largest mass ritual suicide in samurai history. Tommori as legend holds, wrapped himself in his ships anchor and then plummeted to the bottom of the sea to avoid dishonor at the hands of his Minamoto enemies. Emperor Antoku and his grandmother jumped from their simple junk into the sea as well along with the Japanese royal regalia and state sword. None were seen again except for the ancient royal state mirror which was eventually recovered. Yoshitsune had won a total, war-ending victory. Munemori, son and heir of the Taira clan patriarch Kiyomori was captured alive in the battle and later executed for treason in Kyoto.

Battle of Dan-no-ura by Yoshikazu c.1850's-Depicts Yoshitunes 'eight boat leap' to escape Taira samurai during the early portion of the battle.

And so the Gempei War ended in a Minamoto victory. With most of the Taira clan’s hegemony dead, missing, or scattered it was now Yoritomo’s time to build the bakufu military government, know simply as the Shogunate thereafter to history. Just four years later Yoritomo’s rule over the Minamoto clan was challenged by his then exiled brother Yoshitsune who raised an army with the support of emperor Shirakawa. Yoshitsune was soon defeated and made a marked man until his death by suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Koromo River in June of 1189.

Armies and Warfare in the Gempei War, 1180-1185

Not surprisingly, very little information can be found to accurately ascertain troop strengths, dispositions of the two major forces, and the greater strategic/tactical maneuvering of the campaigns which comprise the majority of the Gempei War, 1180-1185. Though we know a great deal about the samurai warrior caste and its military history as a whole, the political machinations of the period perhaps overshadow this muddled and little dissected conflict. It is also important to highlight the contribution of other non-samurai military forces during this conflict as well. The overwhelming majority of (common) foot soldiers (later known as the ashigaru) during the Gempei War would have fought with primarily two weapons: the long shafted naginta or kama yari, a fearsome utilitarian weapon with a razor sharp curved blade, and the bow and arrow.

Many samurai of this period were master bowmen for sure and we can imagine that many non-samurai were trained in the use of bows and arrows use whilst hunting in the lush forests and valleys of Japan. Foot soldiers used the bow and naginta/pole weapons in abundance as did the samurai. Japanese chroniclers of the later medieval and early renaissance period have tended to entirely negate the battle contributions of the ashigaru in almost every single one of the battles and skirmishes of the Gempei War and its preceding conflicts. Women fought as well in small numbers though none had the last legacy of the beautiful and heroic Tomoe Gozen. 

Mounted Gempei era samurai

Samurai of the period fought armored and armed with the traditional weapons of their class. In the Gempei Wars' era the samurai was primarily used as a mounted archer unit. They fought adequately with naginta and spear but the skills applied to archery and bow warfare were seen as essential. Though many samurai and ashigaru clashed steel and wood during the conflict, it was the bow and arrow that caused the lions share of the wounds and fatalities in many of the Gempei conflict’s battles. Well funded samurai would fight mounted in the ō-yoroi or “box armor”, a heavy, inflexible, and cumbersome full body armor designed for mounted archery combat exclusively. When samurai were serving as retainers or foot soldiers they wore the light and flexible dō-maru instead.

The standard samurai weapons were the katana and the the smaller tanto for close proximity, melee combat. Nagintas and traditional spears were often used in this early period as well. It was not until the Mongol invasion of Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281 that samurai began to fight on foot more often than not relying less overall on mounted archery in pitched battles. Many melee combat duels during the Gempei era were concluded in hand-to-hand combat with a particular attention paid by samurais to the “grapple” style of combat. In one such instance at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani in 1184, a Minamoto samurai killed a Tara foe by “[snatching] his dagger from his side and pulling up the skirt of his [enemies] armour, stabbed him so deeply three times that the hilt went in after the blade. Having thus dispatched him he cut off his head.” [The Samurai Sourcebook, Turnbull].

Depiction from a Japanese print of a  Samurai warrior during the Gempei War, 

There were distinctly three castes of the samurai military society during the greater period of conflict from 1151-1189 encompassing the Gempei War. At the top were the daimyo, the ruling class of lords of the major and minor Japanese provinces. They owed fealty to the emperor and their clan patriarch. As lords they ruled their provinces or domains as military governors, justices of the peace, sheriffs, and landlord. The mid-level samurai were the ranking soldiers who fought for clan (family) honor and/or their lord or master’s honor. The third class consisted of retainers and household samurai who served their respected daimyo or samurai warlord. These were often third or fourth sons of samurai lords or commoners who served as armed retainers and servants (sandal-bearers).

Even in this early age the samurai lords and ranking samurai were a most fascinating breed of warriors. They lived for honor and many often died by the sword; fighting for justice and honor, some for revenge or self serving material interest, and some for the simple love of combat and battle. For most samurai personal loyalty and honor were life's only true purpose. A good death in battle or by your own hand (seppuku) was considered most noble. Though the samurai were warriors of the highest order they also enjoyed writing poems, watching or acting in plays, hunting, athletics, and courting women. Most came from large families so providing land and status for one’s sons, daughters, and grandchildren was of high importance to ranking samurai.

This fascinating but still emerging samurai warrior caste was on full display during the long and relatively bloody Gempei War from 1180-1185. Seemingly endless accounts translated to English and still many others untranslated from Japanese describe and likely embellish a great deal relating to personal combat between samurai during the battles of this great Japanese conflict. Military and civil power were greatly altered following the end of the conflict and the eventual proclamation of the samurai ruled government, the Kamakura Shogunate in the year 1192, ruled by Shogun Yoritomo with the blessing of emperor Go-Toba (b.1180-1239).

Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (b.1147-1199), who ruled as first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan, 1192-1199

Suggested Further Reading
The Samurai Sourcebook By: Stephen Turnbull (Cassell & CO. 1998-2002).

Samurai Commanders (1) 940-1576 By: Turnbull, illustrated by Richard Hook (Osprey Publishing, 2005).

7/16/14

Dahlgren's Raid on Richmond: The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid and the Plot Against Jefferson Davis, March 1864

On leap year eve of February 28, 1864 during the American Civil War (1861-1865), a large Union cavalry raid was launched on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia by the infamous Union cavalry general Hugh J. Kilpatrick (b.1836-1881).

Dahlgren Attacks Confederate Homeguards, March 1, 1864

A force of almost 4000 blue jacketed cavalrymen attacked Richmond in and around the James River in an ultimately costly and failed raid which threatened the very heart of the Confederacy. This attack on Richmond can be termed the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid or Dahlgren’s Raid by military historians, the former in posthumous honor (or infamy) of the young cavalry officer, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren (b.1842-1864) whose 450 Union raiders nearly succeeded in penetrating Richmond.

Known to modern historians as the Dahlgren Affair, this failed Union attempt to storm Richmond in order to free Union prisoners of war and to controversially assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his rebel cabinet would become arguably one of the most controversial moments of the war between the states, 1861-1865. Modern historiographers have somewhat recently tied together, with a certain degree of accuracy, the chilling connection between the Dahlgren Affair and the later successful assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by Confederate sympathizer and professional actor John Wilkes Booth in April of 1865 after the wars’ end.


Prelude and Preparations

The Richmond Raid was conceived by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with the direct oversight of President Lincoln. This raid was to have three main objectives, to strike terror into the civilian populace, to free 5000 Union prisoners of war held at the Libby and Belle Isle prisons, and to distribute thousands of leaflets announcing the “President’s proclamation”, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, the de facto freedom of all African-American slaves held in Confederate bondage.

Twenty seven year old Brigadier General Hugh J. Kilpatrick, a reckless and fiery cavalry officer who had won quick battlefield promotions from Big Bethel in 1861, to the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862 and to the Gettysburg Campaign of June-July 1863, was chosen to lead the raid on Richmond. Kilpatrick was and is now commonly referred to as “Kill-Cavalry” for the thousands of men and horses who died under his command throughout the war. Kilpatrick had fought at the Battle of Brandy Station (Battle of Beverly Ford) in June of 1863 and had experience in large scale cavalry raid operations already; having led a cavalry brigade with some success during Stoneman's Raid in April-May 1863 during the Chancellorsville Campaign.

Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, General Kill-Cavalry

The raid faced opposition from both General Meade and the general of the Union cavalry corps, Alfred Pleasonton. Stanton and Lincoln were convinced of the raids potential for greater success and thus allowed the operation to proceed into the planning and preparation stage into late February 1864. Kilpatrick with 3,585 troopers began his grand raid on Richmond fifty miles from the city limits at 11 o’clock at night on February 28. Commanding brigades under Kilpatrick during the raid were the young and glory hungry Brigadier General George A. Custer (b.1839-1876) and the much older and cautious Yankee cavalry officer, Major-General John Sedgwick (b.1813-1864) of Connecticut.

A hand picked detachment of 450 troopers was led by the young Col. Ulric Dahlgren. Their task would be to attack the heart of Richmond to free the POW’s, the young colonel had additional secret objectives that would not be uncovered until after the raid and his own death. Dahlgren had enjoyed a meteoric rise as young officer. The younger son of Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren, Ulric was commissioned as an officer on the appointment of Secretary of War Stanton in 1861, serving with distinction under Generals Burnside, Meade, and Hooker. 

Col. Ulric Dahlgren

He had fought against JEB Stuart’s rebel cavalry at Brandy Station in 1863 in the largest [mostly] all cavalry battle of the war. Dahlgren was a “cavalier” in the near Southern romantic sense and a victor in several trooper to trooper duels against rebel cavalrymen. His promising career was severely jeopardized following the grave injury and loss of his leg at the Battle of Hagerstown (Williamsport) whilst in command of Company A of the 18th Pennsylvania cavalry under Gen. Kilpatrick.

Young Dahlgren had lost his leg but gained a promotion to colonel-perhaps the youngest in both the Federal and Rebel armies during the war. After recouping aboard his father's warship he was fitted with a prosthetic leg whilst eagerly awaiting another assignment despite his rather serious injury. He received his wish when Kilpatrick accepted his request to join the planned raid on the Confederate capital in mid February 1864. Filled with pride but with an ever so realistic foreboding of the real danger ahead, Col Dahlgren wrote to his father before the raid commenced that it “will be the grandest thing on record; and if it fails, many of us will go up-I may be captured or I may be tumbled over, but it is an undertaking that if I were not in I should be ashamed to show my face again-if we do not return, there is no better place to give up the ghost”.

Dahlgren, standing left, with fellow officers, 1863

Kilpatrick and Custer’s Raids, February 28-29

Kilpatrick’s raid began with his troopers crossing Ely’s Ford on almost a straight march towards the city of Richmond. Major Gen. Sedgewick and his troopers struck out West towards the Rapidan whilst Custer and his 1500 troopers rode further south in an attempt to spread Confederate home guardsmen and Confederate regular army forces thin for a ‘lightning raid’ attack on the capital by Kilpatrick and Dahlgren. Custer ravaged his assigned raiding grounds burning three mills and a few hundred pounds of grain whilst capturing 50 rebels and some 500 southern horses before returning to Union lines on March 1.

The night before Custer’s return, Kilpatrick and his troopers were “knocking at the gates of Richmond” according to author and historian Shelby Foote (b.1916-2005). An icy rainstorm had descended when Kilpatrick and his riders approached the outside defensive works of Richmond. His exhausted troopers had ridden sixty miles in less than thirty-five hours and then were promptly fired upon by the surprisingly precise Confederate homeguard artillery. The firing was so intensive that Kilpatrick was convinced that regulars had reinforced the Richmond homeguard and soon withdrew to a safer position. This had not been the case necessarily, as Foote points out. In fact it had been the Confederate militia homeguards-old men, young boys, city workers, and government clerks, who manned the guns bravely and with precision until Lee’s reinforcement bolstered their already staunch defense of the capital. These Confederate homeguards numbered around 3,000-5000 lightly armed militia members.

Kilpatrick and his raiders in Virginia, Harpers Weekly, 1864

Waiting in vain for word from Dahlgren, Kilpatrick resumed his raid at 10 o’clock at night by attempting to march down the Mechanicsville Road into the city. This attempt was thwarted by the cavalry corps of Lt. General Wade Hampton who’s troopers nearly succeeded in capturing Kilpatrick himself. The bold Kilpatrick soon realized that he was surrounded in enemy country by both the Confederate militia and regular army troops sent by General Robert E. Lee to reinforce the nearly compromised approaches to Richmond.

Dahlgren’s Ride Febuary 29-March 2nd

Though it had begun with promise, Dahlgren's raid had descended into a quagmire rather quickly. Making fast progress as he had been ordered to do, Dahlgren and his 500 raiders fought freezing rain on their ride into Goochland County. There Dahlgren used the services of a teenage slave named Martin in order to navigate to his way to Jude’s Ford-from here he would cross the James and enter Richmond from the south. The river was flowing too high and rapidly however and Dahlgren's column were unable to cross. They were most likely harried by Confederate cavalry and most certainly skirmished with scattered bands of rebel homeguards. Outraged by what he perceived as the young slave’s treachery, Col. Dahlgren had him executed (by hanging) and then resumed his roughshod march around the river.

Union 'bluejacket' cavalry armed with Spencer seven shot repeaters, 1864

Continuing the raid, Dahlgren’s force set fire to several farms and mills until they arrived about eight miles south of Richmond at a place called Short Pump. Unfortunately his command was now split with 260 troopers becoming separated from Dahlgren's column, they eventually escaped the peninsula and returned to tell a grave tall to Gen. Kilpatrick. Traveling further the Dahlgren column attempted to ford the Pamunkey river but now numbered just 200 troopers or less.

They skirmished further with bands of rebel militia and Confederate regulars and dozens were shot from their horses or captured as the column successfully forded the river. Dahlgren made it as far as King and Queen Court House on the Mattaponi River by the evening of March 2nd. Riding at the head of his depleted force the young colonel was halted by a band of Confederate pickets of the 9th Virginia Cavalry and homeguard militia. Brandishing his revolver he shouted, “Surrender, you damned rebels or ill shoot you!” The confederates answered with a deadly volley and the 22 year old colonel was felled by four musket balls.

Ambuscade and Death of Dahlgren, 1864

His men were soon shot down or made prisoner and perhaps only a handful escaped unscathed. Some were hunted down by bloodhounds and a few most likely were executed by the pursuing rebels. Dahlgren’s body was looted; his personal possessions including a watch and his boots were taken as was his artificial leg. Adding to these insults his pinky finger was cut off by a hapless homeguardsmen who had botched an attempt to loot a small diamond ring from the dead colonel. By the time the Dahlgren papers were discovered Kilpatrick had arrived back to Union lines and was soon fully aware of Col. Dahlgren’s death and the complete failure of their joint raid.

Kilpatrick had lost 340 troopers killed or missing and 1063 Union horses were lost or too injured to ride again. The general denounced Col. Dahlgren’s death as “murder” but put the full blame of the failure to free the Union POW's on the young colonel alone. Public controversy and outcry would follow in the discovery of the so-called Dahlgren Papers. Though their authenticity remains in question to this day, these unsent orders and letters were addressed to Dahlgren's command and were allegedly found on his bullet ridden body. 

These papers according to the Richmond Sentinel on March 5, 1864, detailed the attack on Richmond and supposed assassination plot against President Jefferson Davis and his Confederate cabinet. 'Pioneers' or saboteurs were to be on hand to burn the city and Jefferson's residence in the posh Court End neighborhood of Richmond. Newspapers on both sides of the conflict regurgitated and embellished the accounts of the Dahlgreen orders.

We will try and secure the bridge to the city, (one mile below Belle Isle,) and release the prisoners at the same time. If we do not succeed they must then dash down, and we will try and carry the bridge from each side. When necessary, the men must be filed through the woods and along the river bank. The bridges once secured, and the prisoners loose and over the river, the bridges will be secured and the city destroyed. The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed” [Richmond Sentinel, 5 March, 1864].

Conclusion

Great controversy surrounds the Dahlgren Paper’s today-mainly who authored them and why? Was General Kilpatrick, Col. Dahlgren, another Federal subordinate officer the true author of these? Or were they a Confederate creation for propaganda and moral purposes? Public opinion exploded in the aftermath of the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick Raid, this much can be entirely certain. Southern papers denounced Dahlgren as a terrorist and bandit, calling for swift reprisals and counter raids. Northern papers lionized the young colonel who had died in the service of his country and celebrated the rather minor successes of the . Some accounts claimed that he had been executed with a shot to the head and others claimed his body had been publicly displayed as a war prize. Later many including Dahlgren’s father sought to prove that the papers were indeed a forgery and that Dahlgren had received no such orders.

The major players in the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid met a variety of mixed fates. Kilpatrick was personally blamed by General Meade and the public to an extant for the utter failure of the Richmond Raid. He was exiled from the Eastern Theater of the war, finishing the conflict under the command of Major-General William T. Sherman in the West, including service in the Atlanta Campaign where he was wounded commanding cavalry at the Battle of Resaca (Georgia) in May of 1864. He later fought and was defeated at Lovejoy's Station by the rebel cavalry of Brig. General William H. Jackson.

After the war, Kilpatrick served as ambassador to Chile until 1870. One can imagine that John Wilkes Booth, who later in 1864 played Marc Anthony in the play Julius Caesar alongside his brothers Edwin and Junius, read the sensational Southern headlines such as “Last Ride of the Infernals” by the Richmond Daily Dispatch (March, 1864), and was incited to eventually act in order to restore the honor of the Confederacy and the south.

Dahlgren in 1863-1864

It was in 1864 when Booth first made contact with co-conspirators John Surrat, George Azterodt, and Lewis Powell amongst others. By 1865 he was ready to act, assassinating Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. Custer finished the war with great distinction, his troopers killed JEB Stuart at Yellow Tavern in 1864 and he was present at Appomattox Courthouse to receive the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865. He became an Indian fighter in the Dakotas before meeting his death surrounded by 3000 or more whooping Arapho, Lakota, and Cheyenne warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. Major Gen. John Sedgwick was killed by a rebel sharpshooter at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May of 1864, famous for exclaiming to his men, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!", before a rebel bullet found its mark and mortally wounded the old general.


Suggested Further Reading
Shelby Foote The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume II, Chapter III, ‘Spring Came on Forever’ (Random House, 1963-1986).

7/15/14

Yankee Pennamite Wars: The Connecticut-Pennsylvanian conflict, 1769-1794

The Yankee-Pennamite Wars, 1769-1794, were a series of American colonial conflicts that took place before, during, and after the American Revolution, between Connecticut settlers and their militias, and the armed forces and militias of the Pennsylvania colonists in what is today the Wyoming and Luzerne counties of the US state of Pennsylvania. The Connecticut Colonies' land claims in Eastern Pennsylvania dated back to 1662 when England’s newly restored King Charles II (b.1630-1685) granted a Royal charter to settle the Wyoming Valley to the Connecticut ‘Yankees’, originally a pejorative Dutch name for Englishman in North America.


In 1681 King Charles granted a similar charter to William Penn who had become the founder of the new colony. This was to be an event which sowed the seeds for a long and relatively bloody conflict for the rights and land deeds to settle what became Western Pennsylvania. Other important preceding conflicts or events in relation to the War in the Wyoming Valley included the First Anglo Dutch War 1652-1654, the massacre of Dutch Mennonites in Delaware 1664-1665, and King Philips War in New England, fought from 1675-1678.

The Yankee-Pennamite Wars truly began in the very early 1750’s in a frantic climate of land grabs as speculators, pioneers, and settlers arrived in Western Pennsylvania to claim land. Elsewhere throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, English and American colonials flocked to the forests of the region to claim plots of untouched land. These settlers were of both Yankee, those from Connecticut or New York heritage and from Pennsylvania (or Pennamite from the English Penn family who ruled the Pennsylvania colony) stock.

Chaos of a forest fight during the French & Indian War, 1754-1763


Colonial Rangers

Colonial American rangers were a very important military asset to the nations, states, and political movements who fought for control over the territories, and eventual states & provinces of North America. Rangers used a combination of skills most certainly inspired by the Native tribes of the North and Northwest of the America’s, like the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, and Onondaga of the Iroquois Confederacy. In fact many Ranger units or regiments of the French and later the British army were comprised primarily of friendly tribesman and colonial rangers (hunters/trappers) who knew the North American landscape well.

Depiction of the British colonial ranger, Robert Rogers (b.1731-1795)

The rangers of the colonial era fought with the accurate long rifles, flintlock pistols, tomahawks, swords, and hunting knifes. Many were used to great effect during French and Indian Wars for Great Britain, France, and the American colonists. Though rangers have entered into popular culture as romantic woodsman and citizen-soldiers, a fair amount of "rangers" were simply militia and provincial outfits of untrained or semi-trained levies. Very few ranger units of this era enjoyed the strategic successes or aplomb of Robert Rangers and Rogers' Rangers of French & Indian War fame.

Rogers' Rangers battling the French at La Barbue Creek in 1757

In the aftermath of the first Yankee-Pennamite Wars, rangers and irregular borderers were important to the security as well as the ever present conflict in the Wyoming Valley and in the other frontier regions of the New Hampshire Grants from the mid to late 1700’s. By 1770 the Wyoming Valley region had more than 3,000 Yankee settlers and with the support of the Scots-Irish population of Lancaster county, Connecticut could have in-theory all but overthrown Pennsylvania’s authority in the region, a territory more than 200 miles away from Connecticut’s colonial (or modern day) border.

There were three separate Yankee-Pennamite Wars fought between 1769-1794; only in strict remission for a time during the height of the American Revolution. The First Yankee-Pennamite War began in the winter of 1769 and was fought until August of 1771.

First Yankee Pennamite War 1769-1771

The First Yankee-Pennamite War began in 1769 when a Pennsylvanian settler and local scion Amos Ogden, refused to vacate his land and fortified blockhouse near the mouth of Mill Creek. After some skirmishing and the harassment of surveyors and Yankee settlers, a Connecticut army major by the name of John Durkee marched on Pennsylvania. He and his men erected the Forty Fort, named for the first 40 or so militia who came to defend Connecticut's land rights in the Wyoming Valley. Later a second redoubt, Fort Durkee, was built and reinforced with around 200 armed Yankees. 

After Fort Durkee was seized by Pennamite militia in 1769 and Major Durkee arrested (later made prisoner in Philadelphia) another Connecticut officer and later Major-General, Zebulon Butler (b.1731-1795), a respected military man and veteran of the French & Indian Conflict, 1754-1763), was put in charge of the Connecticut army and militia forces in Pennsylvania. Butler used the services of Captain Lazarus Stewart and the "Paxton boys", known as the Paxton or Paxtang Rangers. This was an irregular force of Pennsylvania bushwhackers, Indian fighters, and rangers who had served on the frontier during the French & Indian conflict and who had fought and at times murdered the Native Tribes of the Susquehanna and Juniata River valley throughout the 1760's-1770's. They were the outlaw foil to the high ideals and forest swashbuckling of Robert's Rogers. The most infamous incident perpetrated by the Paxton Boys was Conestoga Massacre of 1763, in which a few dozen of Stewart's men massacred twelve Native Americans, most of them women and children, in Lancaster County.


The Conestoga Massacre of 1763

An irregular of force of Paxton Boys and Yankees led Capt. Stewart, numbering less than one hundred men perhaps, struck back next in the First Yankee-Pennamite War, recapturing Fort Durkee with almost no opposition in February of 1770. Knowing that a large Pennamite miltia could overtake his small force rather easily, he sent a party to steal a four pound cannon from the blockhouse of Amos Ogden. Ogden got wind of this theft and swiftly returned to his blockhouse with an armed party, resolved to defend his property from Stewart's band. 

What ensued next can be called the Siege of Ogden's Blockhouse; for five days the Paxton Boys and their Yankee allies took pot shots and fired their stolen cannon into the well defended fortress. At least one Yankee and five other men were wounded in this odd but hotly contested mini-siege. Major Durkee was released from prison and promptly returned to the valley, personally negotiating a surrender agreement with Ogden, who promptly fled after his surrender. His blockhouse and homestead were eventually plundered and burned by the vengeful Yankees in retaliation.

July 3, 1778, Massacre of most of Col. Zebulon Butler's force by British rangers and their Seneca & Iroquois allies

Butler’s Yankee regulars won the First Yankee-Pennamite War by the end of the summer of 1771, first recapturing Fort Durkee and then capturing the Pennamite built Fort Wyoming on the banks of the Susquehanna River after a 26 day siege. After their victory in the First Yankee-Pennamite War, part of the Wyoming Valley territory from 1771-1778 became known as Westmoreland and was annexed to the control of Connecticut’s Litchfield County, essentially a colony of the county. Zebulon Butler represented Westmoreland in the Connecticut General Assembly (state senate) from 1774-1776 and later served in the Continental Army as general. He had gained fame and supporters due to his time spent in the region.

Second Yankee-Pennamite War

The Second Yankee-Pennamite War took place in 1775 beginning with skirmishes & ambushes between the settlers and militias of the Wyoming Valley. On Decembr 20 1775, war became unavoidable when most of the towns of the region levied militias to fight the Yankee expeditionary force. This short but bloody conflict ended at the Battle of Rampart Rocks on Christmas Day 1775.

On Sunday the 24th, Christmas Eve, Yankee and Pennamite forces skirmished throughout the day near the area known as Harvey's Landing. A carefully planned Yankee ambush led by Capt. Lazarus Stewart killed several Pennamites with the the leader of the Pennamite force, Colonel Plunkett, barely escaping with his own life as he and a few armed skirmishers attempted to cross Harvey's Creek in small boats.

Soldiers of the period on a cold and harsh winter march, 1771-1779

At Nanticoke Falls on the "Rampart Rocks", a Yankee regiment of 400 soldiers under Colonel Zebulon Butler, enemy "invaders" to the Pennsylvanians, defeated an attack of 600-700 Pennamite’s under Col. Plunkett supported by two Pennsylvanian small cannons. The Yankee commander wrote in an account of the battle two days later to a confidant in the capital of Hartford that the Pennamitte "Torie [wretches]" attacked when soon in sight of the Rampart Rocks and charged resolutely several times until beaten back by the Yankees deadly volleyed fire.

Col. Butler's Yankees used the natural cover of the Rampart Rocks to inflict nearly 50-60 casualties on the Pennamites. The Yankees had two killed and three wounded in the skirmish of whom one would later die from his injuries. More than a year later the Yankee’s and Pennsylvanians forgoe their conflict for a time creating an official treaty whilst supplying fighting men to the Continental army and the militias of the Patriot cause. Western Pennsylvania was also a haven for Loyalists which would cause further bloodshed as a result. It would be Col. Butler who would lead Yankee militia during the Revolution up until the infamous Massacre in the Wyoming Valley following his forces defeat and slaughter at the Battle of Wyoming, July 3, 1778.

Third Yankee-Pennamite War

Following America’s War for Independence in 1783, the state of Connecticut had lost all sympathy and support for their far off claims in Pennsylvania. In 1782 the Decree of Trenton confirmed that the Yankees were illegally settled in the Wyoming Valley. Most of the Yankee settlers lost their rights as citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and were stripped of their land claims as a result. The Third Yankee-Pennamite War was fought and ended in 1783 after a Yankee army burned the fort at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and then abandoned the settlers of the Wyoming Valley, leaving them to become essentially refugees of war. Bloodshed and a very low intensity conflict of sorts would ensue for years after, not completely ending until the year 1799.

Part of the renewed Yankee campaigns from 1784-1790 began when 700-800 Yankee settlers were forcefully driven from their lands, losing their claims and for some their very lives following hardships in the wilderness after their eviction by the Pennamites. Despite General Butler's attempts to lobby for Senate and Congressional support any hope for a peaceful settlement seemed in vain. This was confirmed by the arrival of Ethan Allen (b.1738-1789) and small detachment of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont in April of 1786.

Ethan Allen (b.1738-1789), a native of Connecticut, Allen was an American Patriot famous for capturing Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 during the War

Allen was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut becoming a Revolutionary War hero and a political force nationally as a former representative lobbying for the independence of the Vermont Republic. The Republic became an unofficial name given by historians of this period to the state when referring to Vermont's history between 1777-1791. Along with with his brother Ira (b.1751-1814) and some of his cousins he created an armed militia in the year 1770 after meeting at the Catamount Tavern in Old Bennington, Vermont. They were dubbed the Green Mountain Boys and soon his outfit took to harassing Yorkers (from the New York colony), Scottish settlers, and other interlopers who they felt were infringing upon their land rights. In time they were known as outlaws with Ethan Allen as their leader, a man well versed in riding, shooting, and ranging through the woods of the Northeast.

During the Revolution they became famous for helping then Colonel Benedict Arnold (b.1741-1801) capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775, soon after taking Fort Crown Point and Lake George, ensuring that a British invasion of New York or Connecticut via Canada would be foiled. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys might have played a greater part in the Revolution had he not been captured leading a raid on Montreal after his defeat at the Battle of Longue-Pointe in September 1775. Ethan Allan would remain in British custody until 1778, a year after Vermont had declared independence and become a de facto independent state.

Flag of the Vermont Republic

At the tail end of the Yankee-Pennamite conflict, Allan had come out of retirement to create a new skeletal regiment of Green Mountain Boys in the hopes of gaining considerable land from a deal between Vermont, Connecticut, and the Yankee settlers. Evidence suggests that he was willing to carve out another state in the region if the conditions were ideal.

This alleged plan never materialized and his trip to the Wyoming Valley was an utter failure. Sporadic fighting continued well after Allen’s departure in 1787 and into the mid 1790’s. In 1799 hostility between the Yankees and Pennamites was squashed when Pennsylvania sought a peaceful resolve to the conflict and granted the Yankee settlers and others the right to settle in the Wyoming Valley as citizens of Pennsylvania. Connecticut lost all state claims to region and the border dispute was finally settled.

The Green Mountain Boys, 1776