On October 4, 1862, Col. Lafayette Baker arrested and jailed Lt. Col. Judson Kilpatrick in Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. Baker worked for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as “Special Provost Marshal.” He later became head of the National Detective Police or what he termed the United States Secret Service. As stated in one brief biographical snapshot, Baker “inaugurated a reign of terror against Southern sympathizers, spies, and anyone else in the North who seemed suspicious.” Baker reported directly to Lt. Col. Levi Baker, who held the title of “Special Judge Advocate.” Their case files can be found in the National Archives and on Fold3.
On his reconnaissance to Leesburg on September 17, Kilpatrick had encountered a black man with a team of mules pulling a wagon near Dranesville. Kilpatrick seized the team and wagon, owned by George Jackson. When Jackson later demanded the return of his property, Kilpatrick put him off, telling he could take custody of his property after Kilpatrick had reached his camp, as he was then transporting several wounded men in the wagon. Jackson later retrieved the wagon but was told that Kilpatrick had sold the mules for $75. Angry, Jackson made his way to Colonel Baker. With Jackson’s deposition, Baker went after Kilpatrick tooth and nail. By October 4, he had compiled other affidavits and deemed Kilpatrick guilty of soliciting bribes and selling captured property for personal profit on more than one occasion. Without interviewing Kilpatrick or explaining the charges, Baker imprisoned him for ten days before releasing him on house arrest. For seven more weeks, “Old-Kil” was forced to remain in the city without any semblance of due process.
After all his other efforts at justice had failed, Kilpatrick wrote to President Lincoln on November 24. Though the exact extent of Lincoln’s involvement may never be known, Capt. Theophilus Gaines, an assistant judge advocate began his own investigation shortly thereafter. For a variety of reasons, Baker’s case fell apart. Gaines believed Kilpatrick to be innocent and Stanton ordered Kilpatrick released on January 21, 1863. Though not mentioned in accounts of the case, George Jackson (I believe the same complaining witness in the case, as he lived and ran a tavern in Dranesville) died “suddenly” on November 19. (His widow is believed to have died by poisoning in the spring of 1865).
To this point, the story may not be new to many readers. And, many readers, depending on their opinions of Kilpatrick will quickly reach their own judgment as to his guilt or innocence. As I worked on the “Kill-Cavalry” post, I ran into the editorial below, from an August 1863 issue of the Camden [NJ] Democrat. However, we view Kilpatrick and wherever we fall in today’s political spectrum, I think we can all appreciate the tone of the editorial, given our own rather tumultuous political climate.
“The Sussex Register, in its last issue, professes great admiration for General Kilpatrick, and attributes to him language which he never uttered. It is not yet [twelve months] since [he] was the object of one of the most infamous outrages ever perpetrated by this Administration. Innocent of any offence, he was seized by one of the officers of the inquisition and thrust into prison in Washington…and ‘twas many days ere his whereabouts could be ascertained by his friends; and finally the guilty conspirators who did him the wrong were forced, by the interposition of men whom they feared rather than favored, to return him to liberty. They were compelled, too, to admit that he was entirely guiltless; and yet during all these proceeding, the Sussex Register was dumb, and but for the exposition published in these columns at the time, the people of this his native county…would have remained in utter ignorance of the persecutions to which he was subjected, wholly on account of his unflinching Democracy.
“It may be asked, How is it that Colonel Kilpatrick was promoted to the position of Brigadier General? He fought his way there, is the answer [emphasis in original]. He has no man in this administration to thank for it. He thanks none. As the Register observes, Gen. K. is “a Democrat, a lover of the Union and hater of treason;” but he is not one of that class of Democrats who, in every momentous issue, vote a Republican ticket. He is a Democrat who can see no distinction, except in the means used to attain their ends, between the treason of secession and the treason of abolitionism. He hates both as heartily as he loves the Democratic party.”
I have not found the Sussex Register online, so we only get one editor’s view of the story, but how many of us cling to only one view of any story today, dismissing all others? Beyond any questions as to how and with whose help Kilpatrick had been promoted throughout his career, we might consider his politics during the war.
New Jersey residents voted predominately Democratic during the 1850s and 1860s, and Kilpatrick had campaigned for and been appointed to West Point by a Democratic congressman. He was an ardent Unionist while at the academy, which might suggest he either switched to the Republican party or was what today we would call a right-leaning Democrat. He was a Republican after the war, supporting Grant and running three times for political office in New Jersey as a Republican – each time unsuccessfully.
At the time of his arrest, Kilpatrick accused Baker of insulting him. He also believed Baker had been driven by a personal grudge against him. But “Kil” may not have helped himself when he, reportedly, went after Baker, verbally, during his arrest. Baker had served on the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco before the war, an extra-legal militia or vigilante group that hanged several persons and forced others from office in the mid-1850s. Kilpatrick must have been aware of Baker’s history, as, according to the Camden [NJ] Democrat, when Baker asked him if he knew who he was talking to, Kilpatrick responded, “perfectly well – I am talking to the man whose crimes drove him from California, and who if he had had his deserts would have been hung for the murder of Bill Poole, instead of being Provost Marshal of Washington.”
But Kilpatrick had his facts wrong. Yes, Baker had been in California with the Vigilance Committee, but he had not been accused of killing William Poole. Poole, a native of Sussex, New Jersey, (Kilpatrick’s hometown) had been a local political boss in New York City and possibly a club-fighter. According to the New York Tribune, Poole, and Lewis Baker, rather than Lafayette Baker, had been friends for years. Poole had gotten Lewis a position as a police officer, before they had a falling out, eventually leading to Poole’s death in what sounds like an Old West brawl and shootout in a local bar. Poole’s murder became a cause célèbre in 1855 and for several years thereafter, garnering nationwide coverage.
According to the Camden paper, Baker arrested Kilpatrick for his insolence, with no mention of any other charges. The editor closed by claiming, “As an offset to this wrongful imprisonment, the President has made him [Kilpatrick] a Brigadier General – but Baker still retains his place.” But the paper erred. Kilpatrick had been promoted to colonel while under house arrest due to Col. J. Mansfield Davies’s resignation. He received an appointment as brigadier in June 1863.
New York Weekly Tribune
Patricia Faust, editor, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War
Edwin Fishel, The Secret War for the Union
Cordelia Sansone, Journey to Bloomfield
Wiley Sword, “Lt. Col. Judson Kilpatrick Complains to President Lincoln of the Harsh Injustice of Col. Lafayette C. Baker, Who Threw ‘Kill-Cavalry’ Into Prison,” Blue & Gray Magazine