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].


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).


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


The Haitian Revolution: Slave Revolts, Civil War, and Revolution in Haiti, 1791-1804

Of the many celebrated, little known, or completely forgotten conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Haitian Revolution fought from 1791-1804 is one of the most culturally relevant conflicts. Currently the Haitian Revolution has garnered more attention from military and popular historians, which as a study as a revolt, rebellion and colonialist war nevertheless deserves more attention from historians.

Luckily a resurgence in the study and historical interpretation of this period has occurred, with more many books written or currently being written on Napoleon’s ‘West Indian Policy’ and campaign within the context of the greater Haitian Revolution period from the Haitian/Caribbean perspective.

Soldier & Haitian patriot, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

As a French colony, Saint Domingue what is today the nation of Haiti, and the greater island of Hispaniola in general, split in half by the Spanish and French in the early colonial period-had been under the threat of a massive slave rebellion and middle class revolution for five years before the events of the French Revolution. Saint Domingue had come under the implied but specific control of the French plantation owners who relied on slave labor to make a hefty profit through the lucrative growing of sugar which was in high demand in Europe and America in the 1700 and 1800’s.

Slave rebellions and Mulatto revolts, 1790-17

It was the French Revolution indeed and its great turmoil which lead to the rise of the Haitian independence movement which began most certainly as a rebellion of slaves, which eventually mobilized all castes of Haiti at this time including free men of color (mulattos), some of whom were very rich and well connected sons of White planters. Other patriots included outlaw slaves living in the mountains known as maroons. These two groups played a major part in the early rebellions of 1790-1792, leading up to a 1792 decree which made free men of color (many of whom were mixed heritage Haitians) legal citizens.

'Pantheon of Haitian revolutionary heroes 1790-1804' Rebels, Generals, Emperors, Kings & Presidents of Haiti

The Haitian Revolution was fought sporadically often in isolated conflicts as well as in several important inter-connected wars and battles. There was significant infighting especially between the predominantly slave and former slave militias, and the private armies & regiments' of the mulatto generals, most notably André Rigaud. Rigaud was a well known noble, a veteran of the French mission to America during the American Revolution he controlled close to 7,000 soldiers in south of Haiti before emancipation as a dictator-general.

Rigaud was an influential mulatto supported by the French whose personal rivalry with General Toussaint Louverture led Haiti into the first rebellion as an united but not technically a sovereign nation during the War of Knives, 1799-1800. In the aftermath of this war future president and emperor of an independent Haiti, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines was ordered to the rebellious territory, where his forces slaughtered, burned, and pillaged the mulatto villages and settlements, killing perhaps 10,000 people or more.

André Rigaud, influential French educated general who fought Toussaint in 1799-1800 & in 1802

Haiti as first a semi-independent unincorporated territory and later as a young nation, became an important secondary theatre in the growing Napoleonic conflicts of 1798-1815. Led by the historically under appreciated leadership of Toussaint Louverture (b.1742-1803), one of the greatest for lack of a better term, New World African leaders of the 18th-19th centuries. He was an able commander of soldiers, charismatic and cunning on campaign and on the battlefield. Toussaint was  a nation builder, a Haitian patriot and later martyr and revolutionary hero then as well as now in Haitian and Latin American culture.

As leader of a nominally independent Haiti at this time, Louverture courted trade and diplomatic treaties with the United States of America and with the British Empire both at war with France at varying times before and after Napoleon's rise. Yet he also maintained a pact with France and at least the appearance of loyalty which few truly believed.  Louverture set the stage for a French invasion when he gained the personal attention of Napoleon I (b.1769-1821), who referred to his later adversary as “This gilded African” following his rise to power and the ouster of the French.

Napoleon's Invasion, The bloody War for Independence & the rise of Jean-Jacques Dessalines

As apart of the ‘West Indian Policy’ which Napoleon inherited following the coup of November 1799 and following the Treaty of Amiens in Europe 1802, an invasion force led by Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc was sent to invade Haiti and take back control from the rebels. Arriving in the port of Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) the capital of Saint Domingue at the time, Haitian patriot and future president & King Henri Christophe burned the city rather than let the French take it by arms.

General Leclerc (b.1772-1802), Napoleon's brother-in-law 
and the first French Commander of the Haiti expedition

The Haitians retreated quickly with both Toussaint and Christophe surrendering to General Leclerc’s forces, with eventually Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines working with the French as officers in their army. Though the event remains clouded historically to this day, Touissaint Louverture was offered clemency perhaps but then arrested in an act of treachery later, promptly shipped to a French prison, the Fort-de-Joux near Switzerland, General Touissaint Louverture died a sickly, cold death, alone in the dungeon of his enemy in 1803, thousands of miles from the homeland he fought so hard to control and protect in the decade before.

Battle of Snake Gully, victory for Leclerc's 5th Light Infantry Regiment, Toussaint's last battle

Leclerc as did most of his force died of fever in 1802 and shortly after many of the Haitian generals including Dessalines & Christophe changed sides yet again, openly plotting for a total overthrow of French power in Haiti forever. A popular folk story has it that Dessalines tore the out the white color bar of the French flag in defiance, vowing to drive out & kill the white man to win independence for Haiti, and thus was created the nation Haiti and its flag.

Battle of Vertieres

Eventually the Haitians won total victory over Napoleon & General Rochambeau, winning independence in 1804 through decisive victories in the field, a successful guerrilla campaign, and the eventual French withdrawal following Napoleon’s renewed war with Britain, and his other enemies on the continent in 1805.

 Jean-Jacques Dessalines leads the first independent Haiti as emperor and autocrat before his assassination in 1806, succeeded by Henri Christophe who later became King of Haiti from 1811 until his death in 1820.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (b.1758-1806), as Emperor, Jacques I, 1804-1806

There are many reasons why the conflicts of the Haitian Revolution are important, the socio-cultural impact being felt most certainly in Haiti today. The greater colonial impact of the revolutionary period on the island of Hispaniola are a unique and critical example of Napoleonic warfare in the dawn of the the modern age, and this is why the Haitian Revolution is a Conflict You Should Know.

Conflicts and Rebellions of the Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

Rebellion of Vincent Ogé & Jean-Baptiste Chavannes 1790-Rebellion of two rich mulatto leaders, inspired by Ogé who been in Paris when the Revolution began. They set up camp with a small contingent of rebels in Grand Riviere where they hoped to rally white & mulatto support to their cause. Eventually defeated in battle, both ringleaders escaped to Spanish Santo Domingo where they were eventually captured and handed over to the French. They were subsequently publicly tortured and executed in March of 1791.

Northern Voodoo Slave Rebellion of August 1791-Inspired by followers of a Haitian voodoo cult the Cape Francois region went into rebellion with hundreds of plantation owners tortured, raped, and murdered with their homes and plantations burned and sacked. An uprising known for the particular brutality inflicted on the white landowners by slaves before French General Assembly forces gained control again.

War with Spain, Britain, and France 1793-1798- Initially led by Frenchman Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (b.1763-1813) after Revolutionary France declares war on Britain. Many white plantation owners and Frenchman (already culturally & politically from metropolitan France) sided with England and it was Sonthonax’s emancipation of August 1793 that set the stage for the rise of Louverture. As author Bob Corbett notes during the years 1794-1798 “he [helped to drive] the British out of Saint- Domingue, overseen the retreat of the Spanish, ousted all genuine French authority and become commander in chief and governor general of the [former coloney/dependent protectorate] Saint-Domingue.”

War of Knives or War of the knife, 1799-1800-Led by General André Rigaud, who had his own mulatto led army in south, where he was known to be a dictator and authoritarian. He allied with two future presidents of Haiti, Jean-Pierre Boyer & Alexandre Pétion, challenging General Toussaint's authority. The rebellion is defeated following the battle for the port of Jacmel, with Rigaud escaping to France where he later has an as audience with Napoleon.

Quasi War, 1799-1800-Franco-American maritime war which General Riguard became apart of on January 1, 1800, engaging in an indecisive naval skirmish with an American merchant convoy with his small convoy of war sloops.

Toussaint’s invasion of Santo Domingo 1801-Haitian army invades Spanish Santo Domingo, technically a French possession but never occupied or turned over officially to the French. General Toussaint becomes the governor-general & de facto leader of the island of Hispaniola, drawing Napoleon’s France back into conflict with what they viewed as a rogue regime in their former rightful colonial possession, Saint Domingue.

Napoleon’s Invasion of Saint Domingue, War for Independence 1802-1804-General Leclerc invades Saint Domingue with 12,000 French soldiers sending the Haitians into the jungles and mountains of the interior. Many Haitian generals turn coat and Touissant Louverture is arrested and imprisoned in France. Eventually the Haitians under Jean-Jacques Dessalines rebel against the French again following the brutal practices of Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien-Marie-Joseph Rochambeau, who was to be killed at the Battle of Nations, LeipzigSaxony, October of 1813. Atrocities mount throughout 1802-1803, perpetrated by both sides trying to frantically end the war. France loses the will and need to fight in Haiti following the renewed war with Britain. The war was all but won by the Haitians at the Battle of Vertieres in 1803 in which Dessalines defeated General Rochambeau’s forces, with Independence Day coming January 1, 1804.

Rebel Haitians and Dominicans fight the Polish Legion  

Suggested Further Reading