The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War

The papers supposedly outlined a Federal plan to burn the Confederate capital and assassinate Jefferson Davis and his cabinet

The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War

In an ironic coincidence, Duane Schultz's new book, The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War, appeared almost simultaneously with a major article on the same subject by Stephen W. Sears in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History (MHQ, 11, Autumn 1998, 88-96).

The abortive cavalry raid against Richmond in March 1864 to liberate some twelve thousand Union prisoners of war that is the subject of Schultz's and Sears' works would have been little more than a Civil War footnote had it not been for papers found on the body of one of its officers, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. The papers supposedly outlined a Federal plan to burn the Confederate capital and assassinate Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The uproar generated by these papers may have affected the course of the war; the controversy about their authenticity continues to this day.

On the issue of whether the papers found on Dahlgren's body were genuine, Schultz and Sears come down on opposite sides. But on other important questions they are in substantial agreement. The raid had its origins in the breakdown of the prisoner of war exchange cartel. By 1864, tens of thousands of captives were crowded into the squalid, inadequate prison camps of both sides. Stories about the suffering and mortality of Union prisoners at Libby (officers) and Belle Isle (enlisted men) prison camps in Richmond filled Northern newspapers. Intelligence reports reached Washington that Richmond was defended only by emergency militia and government clerks during the bleak winter of 1863-64, when General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was on the Rapidan River fifty miles north of the capital. The idea of a lightning cavalry strike to free these prisoners and torch Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works and other war industries occurred to more than one Northern leader--especially when Union intelligence also learned that the prisoners at Belle Isle would soon be moved to a new camp in Georgia. President Abraham Lincoln himself took a personal interest in the matter. In early February, twenty-two hundred cavalry troopers from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's Army of the James launched a raid toward Richmond from the east. But Confederate intelligence had been forewarned, and Butler's cavalry found the crossings of the Chickahominy River blocked by entrenched and waiting infantry.

Butler's failure did not end the matter. One of the Union's most ambitious and self-promoting cavalry commanders, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, bypassed the normal chain of command and proposed to Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton a plan for a larger raid. Unlike Butler's raids, Kilpatrick's attempt would be from the north and would be aided by infantry and cavalry diversions that would allow the raiders to slip past Lee's troops. Lincoln approved.

Enter Ulric Dahlgren, a popular and well-connected twenty-one-year-old cavalry colonel who had lost a leg in a skirmish after Gettysburg. He was now back in the saddle with a wooden leg and a thirst for action. Dahlgren's father, John, was a rear admiral and commander of the Union's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He was also a friend of Lincoln, who liked young Ulric as well. At Kilpatrick's urging Ulric Dahlgren became a part of the raid, commanding five hundred troopers who planned to cross the James River and enter Richmond from the south while Kilpatrick's thirty-five hundred men attacked from the north.

The raid began as scheduled on February 28, 1864. But thereafter nothing went right. Soon after the Federals set out, the heavens opened and poured rain, sleet, and snow for several days. Dahlgren's black guide could not find the correct ford on the now-swollen James River, so the enraged colonel hanged him as a traitor. Dahlgren's exhausted men now had to attack the Richmond defenses from the west. Meanwhile Kilpatrick, his usual brashness and vain-glory strangely absent, tentatively probed the Richmond defenses on the north side, found them stronger than expected (he said), and retreated, leaving Dahlgren to his fate. That fate came March 2, when the colonel and part of his force were ambushed by homeguard troops about thirty miles northeast of Richmond and Dahlgren was killed.

This was a sorry enough ending to a bold beginning. But worse was yet to come. One of the teenage homeguards found papers on Dahlgren's body. Sent up the chain of command to President Davis, these papers included instructions to Dahlgren's subordinates and a copy of an address to his troops, which stated that once the prisoners were freed they were "to destroy and burn the hateful City and do not let the Rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew escape....Jeff Davis and his Cabinet must be killed on the spot."

Seeing their propaganda value, Confederate officials had these papers printed in the Richmond newspapers. Their publication generated the expected outrage and demands for revenge from the Southern people. The government also made several photographic copies of the papers and sent them abroad as proof of Union barbarism. And according to Sears, as well as historian William Tidwell's two books on the Lincoln assassination (Come Retribution and April '65), the Dahlgren papers provoked the Confederate government to launch its own campaign of sabotage, kidnapping, and assassination behind enemy lines. During the remainder of the war, Confederate agents operating as far north as Canada plotted raids, arson, and efforts to liberate Confederate prisoners from Northern prison camps. Few of these schemes reached fruition, but they did become part of the increasingly ugly "hard war" of 1864-65--the Confederate counterpart of generals William T. Sherman's and Philip H. Sheridan's scorched-earth policies in the South. The Confederate secret service also became involved in various schemes to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to Richmond, schemes that led in the end to John Wilkes Booth's fateful final performance at Ford's Theatre.

Sears therefore suggests that the ultimate victim of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid was Abraham Lincoln. Schultz does not deal with the assassination, but he does agree with Sears that Dahlgren's orders to kill Davis and his cabinet triggered the Confederate covert operations in the North during 1864, which Schultz chronicles in detail.

On the question of initial culpability, however, Schultz and Sears part company. Sears assumes that the papers found on Dahlgren's body were genuine. He further assumes that Kilpatrick and Stanton were aware of these orders--and that Stanton may have inspired them. However, the genuineness of the Dahlgren papers is contestable, Kilpatrick's knowledge of them is unproven, and Stanton's role is speculative.

Kilpatrick branded the papers a Confederate forgery. So did Captain John Mitchell, Dahlgren's second in command. Almost everyone in the North agreed, especially after Dahlgren's father obtained a lithographed copy of the papers and pointed out that: (1) part of the papers were not in Dahlgren's handwriting; (2) his signature was misspelled "Dalhgren"; and (3) the signature was "U. Dalhgren," but his son always signed with his full first name, "Ulric."

This did not put an end to the controversy, however. Southerners maintained the authenticity of the papers, and most modern historians, until now at least, have agreed with them. Part of the orders may have been drafted by Dahlgren's clerk, they note, and the transposition of the "h" and "l" may have been an optical illusion caused by ink from the other side of the thin paper leaking through. (No one, however, has tried to explain the anomaly of Dahlgren signing his name "U." rather than "Ulric.")

Schultz reviews all of this evidence in too much detail to summarize here. His analysis convinced him that the papers found on Dahlgren were forgeries. Much more rides on this issue than the mere technical question of authenticity. Even before the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, Confederate Captain Thomas Hines (one of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan's daredevil cavalry officers who escaped from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus with Morgan) had proposed to Davis a campaign of raids, sabotage, and assassinations behind Northern lines. Davis hesitated to approve such enterprises, fearing that they might become a public relations disaster. Then came the Dahlgren affair. What a godsend for the embattled South. If the world could be convinced that the Union had fired the first shot in this "uncivilized" intensification of the war, then retaliatory Confederate operations would appear justified.

Schultz concedes that he cannot prove that the papers were forged--in this respect he is less categorical than Sears and others who claim that their genuineness is beyond a doubt. Nor can he offer more than circumstantial evidence and speculation concerning the motives that the Confederates might have had to forge them. Nevertheless, writes Schultz, "whoever wrote the Dahlgren papers, the compelling coincidence of timing suggests that the papers were deliberately used as moral justification for a terror campaign against northern civilians....Having those papers surface when they did seemed downright providential."

Schultz's careful analysis of the forgery question contrasts sharply with his uncritical acceptance of dubious and sensational evidence about spies, secret agents, and skullduggery in the intelligence operations of both sides. He credits at face value the accounts of cloak-and-dagger derring-do that spiced sensational postwar spy and secret agent literature. He also accepts almost at face value (as indeed did the Confederate leadership) the reports of multitudes of Northern Copperheads with secret caches of arms waiting to be mobilized against the Union. Skeptical historians have learned to discount much of this evidence. If he had likewise done so, Schultz would have written a less colorful but perhaps more persuasive book.

Nevertheless, there is more than enough substance here to chew on. This book is not the final word on the Dahlgren affair, but as Schultz says, "the truth may have died with Ulric Dahlgren and all the others involved, leaving us with a mystery that may never be resolved."


Other Travel Tips: