Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren
By Eric J. Wittenberg
(January 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index, 318 pp., 2009. Edinborough Press, P.O. Box 13790, Roseville MN, 55113-2293, $29.95 plus shipping.
Col. Ulric Dahlgren gained lasting notoriety when he was killed leading a cavalry column in a disastrous raid upon Richmond in March 1864. Another column was led by the raid’s commander, Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
Papers that the Confederates found on Dahlgren’s body stated that his objective was to liberate Union prisoners in Richmond. Considered a martyr in the North, Dahlgren was despised by the South because the papers also bore instructions to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and to “burn the hateful city.”
The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid has been the subject of numerous books and articles, but until now the only “biography” of Ulric Dahlgren was written by his father, Adm. John Dahlgren. At long last a new perspective is rendered masterfully by Eric Wittenberg, the dean of Eastern Theater cavalry operations.
Like many biographers, Wittenberg provides a sympathetic view of his subject. This viewpoint is furthered by frequent quotations from Dahlgren’s father and from a lengthy eulogy. But objectivity prevails as the author combines these works with a wealth of other primary and secondary sources and his own insightful commentary.
Wittenberg demonstrates that Dahlgren was an ambitious young officer whose indiscretions in his final venture led to his premature death, just shy of his 22nd birthday. Although he was extremely capable and courageous, his career was advanced by extraordinary political connections.
Dahlgren’s brief life included early artillery training by his father, who invented the gun that bears his name. When the Civil War broke out Ulric Dahlgren fulfilled the duties of a staff officer and demonstrated daring and competence in artillery and cavalry duties.
During the battle of Gettysburg he captured valuable documents, and a few days later he lost a leg.
It was the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, however, that won him immortality, infamy and a rendezvous with death.
In addition to a lively narrative, Wittenberg provides balanced and perceptive analysis of controversial issues such as the motives for the raid and the authenticity of the incriminating papers that Dahlgren carried.
The raid, he notes, had gross oversights that doomed it from the beginning, e.g., the poorly clothed, malnourished and sick Union prisoners were in no condition for a rapid escape, especially in harsh winter weather. And the Dahlgren papers? Wittenberg accepts their authenticity after meticulous research.
Since the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid and the Dahlgren papers are one of the war’s most fascinating mysteries, anyone who fails to read Wittenberg’s endnotes is deprived not only of documentary support but also of expository notes that are as revealing as the main text.
A few discrepancies crept into the narrative, e.g., on p. 145 it states that Dahlgren was the youngest full colonel in either army (the Army of Northern Virginia alone had at least five colonels who were younger); pp. 146-147 sound like two separate dates and presentations for his colonel’s commission; and p. 173 says that J.R. Dykes did not accompany Dahlgren as scout on the raid whereas p. 174 says that he did.
And some of the maps – all of which are excellent – should have been printed on a full page, rather than a half page. Readers also will encounter a section of the book with numerous typographical errors and conflicting spellings, e.g., Mattoponi/Mattapony River. But many of these slips are the editor’s, not the author’s, and do not diminish the book’s overall quality.
Wittenberg’s decision to write a biography of Dahlgren instead of a book on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid was an excellent idea. It provides an understanding of the colonel that heretofore was missing. This first-rate book is welcome for its scholarly research and its captivating reading.
David F. Riggs
David F. Riggs is a museum curator at Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown. He has a BA in history from Lock Haven University and MA in history from Penn State. His publications include Embattled Shrine: Jamestown in the Civil War and Vicksburg Battlefield Monuments.
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. I couldn’t be more pleased. And it’s that sort of response that gets me fired up to do more. Thanks, David. And thanks to Jim Schmidt for bringing it to my attention.Scridb filter
As I have mentioned here previously, my book manuscript on the Battle of Brandy Station is complete and is in the hands of the publisher. A couple of days ago, the publisher advised me that the book will released right around Memorial Day 2010, in time for the anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9. Stay tuned. More details to follow.Scridb filter
I have finished my Brandy Station manuscript, and submitted it to the publisher over the weekend. I am waiting for my editor to let me know what the projected release date is, but I am told that there’s a reasonably good chance that they will get it out before the end of the year.
The manuscript features a walking/driving tour of the publicly accessible portions of the battlefield, 11 of Steve Stanley’s superb maps (published with the permission of the Civil War Preservation Trust), and about 50 other illustrations. It will also feature a foreword by Jim Lighthizer, the president of the CWPT, that discusses the fight to preserve the battlefield.
Part of my motivation in writing this book was that there be a good, reasonably detailed tactical overview of the battle, with good maps and an order of battle, that folks can purchase at the Graffiti House, which is the Brandy Station Foundation’s visitor center, and which can be used by the BSF as a fundraiser for its preservation efforts.
I’m going to take a month or so off from my Civil War research and writing duties–I am scheduled for a multi-day jury trial on September 1–and then I will begin working on the Yellow Tavern study in earnest once I get through that trial.Scridb filter
Regular reader Art Fox left me this comment:
I read your blog almost daily. Am amazed at how you can manage so many book projects, magazine articles, appearances, in addition to a law practice. I am a semi-retired university professor, and have had only two books published in the past 6 years: Our Honored Dead Allegheny Co.PA in the American Civil War (2008,2009), and Pittsburgh During the American Civil War, 1860-1865 (2002,2004,2009), and will probably be working on my present project – They Served with Honor, Allegheny county Soldiers at The Battle of Gettysburg, a 150 Anniversary Commemoration – for the next 3 years. My question to you brother – Is how do you do it, what is your secret – Congratulations in what you have added to Civil War History.
Art fox, Pittsburgh
I thought I would answer his question.
Art, first, let me say thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them very much.
How do I do what I do? Hmmmm….good question. Some background will give you some insight.
First, and foremost, while I am good at my day job, I often do not find it rewarding and often find myself asking what the hell I was thinking getting into the legal business in the first place. The practice of law can be very frustrating and very stressful, and I welcome having an escape for a couple of hours each night when I am in serious writing mode. Being able to lose myself in events that happened 140+ years ago is a great release for me.
Second, I haven’t got children to chase after. While my friends are going hither and yon hauling kids to activities–time consuming and often exhausting–I don’t have that particular encumbrance. My kids have four legs, and if I play with them for 15-20 minutes, they’re happy and good for the evening. That means I have plenty of time to write and not a lot in the way of distractions.
I also have a very short attention span. I find it nearly impossible to just sit and do nothing, and I likewise find it nearly impossible to just sit and watch TV. I need to have something to do pretty much all the time (the truth is that I think I have a pretty bad case of ADD, but they didn’t really know what it was when I was a kid in school), and it usually needs to be something that keeps my mind active, or else I go totally bonkers. What better way than writing?
My short attention span also means that I have to finish a project and move on. That stems, in part, from how I have to write at work. I write all day, every day, at work. Consequently, I’ve learned to be efficient in my writing. I’ve never been one to labor over a single sentence for hours on end. I would rather get it down on paper and then work on it.
Researching and writing is how I really learn something. If I want to really learn about something, I research it and I write about it; doing so forces me to really learn it. That’s why nearly all of my projects start out as things that interest me; if others find them interesting, all the better, but most of what I write about is to satisfy my own curiosity about things.
I am also very fortunate indeed to have a spouse who not only understands this compulsion of mine, but who supports it wholeheartedly. There is simply no way that I could get done what I get done without Susan’s unflinching support. She understands and appreciates my compulsive need to write, and she supports it. She understands the expenditures involved in doing the research, and she supports them. She understands the investment of time and the level of intensity that’s involved with my writing, and she not only supports it, there are times when she reminds me that I’m not being as productive as I should be. Bottom line: without Susan’s unwavering support, none of this would be possible. She just wishes that the venture was more profitable and that we got a better return on the financial investment.
Finally, I have a great deal of inflexible personal discipline. When I am in writing mode, I write at least 2 hours per night, at least three nights per week. If I do that, the results just flow. That’s part of my compulsion to get things finished and then to move on to the next project.
Some might think I’m nuts. Perhaps I am. But this work is how I relax after a long day at the office, and being able to immerse myself in events of the past is how I keep whatever semblance of sanity that remains….
Thanks again for writing, Art. I hope this little stream-of-consciousness rambling of mine has given you the insight you were looking for.Scridb filter
After the favorable response that my post on Henry Washington Sawyer of last week, I realized that this story was so compelling that I had to tell in full detail. Consequently, I have proposed to Dana Shoaf, the editor of both America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, an article that tells the story in detail. I spent most of the afternoon working on it today, and think that the full version is a very compelling story.
I will keep you posted as to progress. Hopefully, Dana will like it and will want to run it in one of the two magazines.Scridb filter
I just signed a contract with The History Press for a second installment its Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. The first, of course, is my Brandy Station project, which is just about finished. The manuscript is pretty much done, subject to some feedback from old friend Clark B. “Bud” Hall. I had a nearly finished manuscript that was looking for a publisher when I signed that contract.
This project, however, is completely different. This one starts from scratch, and will be titled The Battle of Yellow Tavern: Jeb Stuart’s Last Battle, and will be a study of Phil Sheridan’s May 1864 raid on Richmond, with particular focus on the May 11, 1864 Battle of Yellow Tavern, where Jeb Stuart received his mortal wound. It will cover the raid, including Beaver Dam Station, Yellow Tavern, and the fight at Meadow Bridges on May 12. It will also address Stuart’s death, funeral, and burial at Richmond’s famous Hollywood Cemetery, and will include a driving tour.
The problem with Yellow Tavern is that the entire battlefield has been obliterated. An Interstate highway cuts right through the middle of battlefield, and that which was not destroyed by the freeway is now either a commercial development or a couple of different residential subdivisions. The monument to Stuart’s wounding is stuck between houses and looks like it’s actually in someone’s yard (which it is, to be honest). The tavern itself is long gone. The only part of the original battlefield that remains intact is the intersection of the Mountain and Telegraph Roads. It’s a testament to what happens when no foresight at all is exercised and a battlefield is permitted to be obliterated. Perhaps it can provide a lesson to all of us of the importance of foresight with respect to battlefield preservation.
I have already undertaken gathering primary source material, and will keep you all posted as to the progress of the project as my research proceeds. This is another of those projects that I have always wanted to tackle, so this is another of those labors of love for me.Scridb filter
Dan Hoisington, my publisher for the Dahlgren bio informed me today that the book continues to be delayed, and apparently will be for another week. The bindery screwed up and apparently they had to be re-done. The book is now significantly late, thanks to the bindery screw up. Dan says he believes it will finally ship next week. Let’s hope so. I’m getting tired of waiting for it…..Scridb filter
For those of you who read Gettysburg Magazine, the new issue is out. Issue 41–hard to believe it’s been more than 20 years since I bought issue 1 in Gettysburg–contains the usual interesting stuff. The first article is one of mine. It’s title “A Charge of Conspicuous Gallantry: The Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station”. The title is pretty self-explanatory, and represents one of the few instances where the magazine has run a piece dedicated to the Battle of Brandy Station as the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign rather than the main battle in Pennsylania. Thanks to publisher Andy Turner for doing a fine job with the article.Scridb filter
On Monday, Dan Hoisington, the publisher at Edinborough Press, the publisher of my Ulric Dahlgren bio, informed me that he had approved the blue lines for the book and had returned them. He indicated that the printer was running about two weeks for printing and binding, so it would appear that the book is on track for the end of June release date that I’ve been promising. As this book was one of my labor of love projects, I am particularly eager to see the final product in print.
Stay tuned.Scridb filter
Dan Hoisington, the owner of Edinborough Publishing, told me tonight that my biography of Ulric Dahlgren goes to the printer tomorrow. That marks the culmination of six long years of work on that project, and it’s the culmination of a labor of love. I can’t wait to see the book in print.
It’s due out by the end of June. I will keep everyone posted as to progress, and it will shortly be available for pre-order on my other web site.Scridb filter