During the early weeks of 1864, Union cavalry Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick plotted a daring raid on Richmond to release the large number of Union prisoners held there. The scheme impressed his influentual friends in Washington; Abraham Lincoln added his blessing; and on the evening of February 28th, about 4,000 troopers set out toward Ely's Ford on the Rapidan River.
The Federals rode all night and before dawn reached Spotsylvania Court House, where a detached force of 500 turned due south on a route to Goochland Court House. Commanding this detachment was Col. Ulric Dahlgren, whose mission it was to cross the James River and dash into Richmond from the south while Kilpatrick entered from the north. Both parties advanced relatively on schedule during the 29th, despite heavy rains that turned into sleet toward nightfall. A small force of 300 Confederate cavalry was in pursuit of Kilpatrick's men but was well behind the Union raiders.
On March 1st, Kilpatrick reached Richmond's intermediate defense line. Though there were only about 500 Confederate defenders, Kilpatrick hesitated, then retreated some distance. He contemplated a night attack, but the pursuing Confederate cavalry caught up and launched an attack on his camps. After the Federals fought them off, Kilpatrick decided to withdraw down the peninsula to friendly lines.
Meanwhile, Dahlgren was having difficulties. High water prevented him from crossing the James; thus, he approached Richmond from the west instead of the south. Late on the afternoon of the 1st, his troopers were repulsed on the outskirts of the city by the home guards. During the confusion, Dahlgren and about 100 men were seperated from the rest of the force. Most of the troops circled north of Richmond and finally found Kilpatrick. Dahlgren's smaller body took a wider arc around the city and on the night of the 2nd, rode into an ambush in King and Queen County. Dahlgren was killed and most of the raiders were taken captive. Papers found on Dahlgren's body contained instructions to burn Richmond and kill Confederate leaders, inflaming public opinion in the South.