18 June 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 41 comments

Last November 2, I posed a question to you, my loyal readers, that has concerned me for a long time: With respect to Ulric Dahlgren’s apparent plan to kidnap and/or assassinate Jefferson Davis during the March 1864 raid on Richmond, what did Lincoln know about this plan, and when did he know it? Eleven responses were posted, but three of them were by the same person, and I also answered a couple of comments. Thus, only about six of you weighed in on this important question. I was looking for other people’s opinions, and while a few of you gave them, most didn’t. I did so, hoping that your input might help me to finally draw my own conclusions as to the answers to these questions. As you can tell by the title of this post, I still haven’t figured this one out, and it’s entirely possible that I never will.

To recap: When Dahlgren was killed in an ambush, certain papers were found on his body that indicated that, in addition to freeing Union prisoners of war from Libby Prison and Belle Isle, the true object of the raid was to kidnap and assassinate Davis and his cabinet. A huge controversy raged that led to the very unusual step of Robert E. Lee being ordered to send over a letter to George G. Meade under flag of truce inquiring whether such was, in fact, the policy of the U. S. government and U. S. Army. Meade disavowed Dahlgren, and thus a controversy was triggered that rages to this day.

I’m finally up to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid in the bio of Ully Dahlgren, and have finally gotten myself back to work on the project. This is now forcing me to address this issue head-on, as I now must do so in order to complete the book.

Lincoln had a very close working relationship with Ully’s father, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. For the first few months of the war, Lincoln regularly called upon–and depended on–John Dahlgren to protect his safety, and Lincoln go to meet Ully as early as 1861. I am aware of several instances where Ully had an audience with Lincoln, Stanton or both at once. In May 1863, just after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Ully accompanied Joseph Hooker to Washington, and apparently pitched a raid on Richmond to the high command in person. The idea was rejected, but it proposed a deep interdiction raid on Richmond intended to free the POW’s and sever lines of supply and communication. He socialized with Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. All of this means that Ully Dahlgren had more and more unfettered access to the Oval Office than perhaps any other junior Army officer than any other soldier in the history of the United States.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon any biographer of Ully Dahlgren to try to figure out this riddle. I am persuaded that the so-called “Dahlgren Papers”–the documents that spell out the plan to kidnap and assassinate Davis and his cabinet–are real. I have seen enough exemplars of Ully’s handwriting to see the similarities, his father’s persistent and vigorous protests that the documents were forgeries notwithstanding. There’s not much doubt in my mind that had the opportunity presented itself, Dahlgren would have carried out his plan.

So, having determined that the documents are real, we then come to the $64,000 question of whether Lincoln knew. Political historian David E. Long of East Carolina University (who, quite coincidentally, practiced law here in Columbus for a time prior to getting his Ph.D.) is working on a book on the Kilpatrick-Dahglren Raid (for which I have provided him some material), and believes quite strongly that Lincoln not only knew, but that it was his idea and that he hand-picked Ully Dahlgren to be the instrument to carry it out.

I can’t get that far. Ully had a well-documented tendency to cowboy and even exceed his orders, getting carried away by the moment. He did so at Fredericksburg in November 1862, destroying two railroad bridges that should not have been destroyed, and the loss of which actually made Burnside’s logistics much more difficult once he finally did move on Fredericksburg. It’s entirely possible that General Meade was correct, that Dahlgren was cowboying when he wrote the orders, and that nobody above him in the chain of command had any clue that Dahlgren had such an ambitious scheme in mind for his expedition.

On the other hand, it’s also entirely possible that Stanton knew of the plan and approved it. Why else would a one-legged 21-year-old colonel who was just returning to duty after losing a leg from the knee down to a terrible combat wound be assigned to command a column of 500 cavalrymen when he’d never commanded anything that large in his life? And when Dahlgren was not a member of the command that was assigned to conduct the raid, the Army of the Potomac’s Third Cavalry Division (Dahlgren was a staff officer attached to army headquarters)?

Thus, it’s an educated guess that someone in a position of power knew of and approved the plan. The most likely candidate for that is Stanton, and not Lincoln; I firmly believe that the concept of plausible deniability would have applied here, and that Stanton kept this from Lincoln, who may well have rejected the idea. It’s also not in keeping with Lincoln’s nature and personality.

I’ve asked a couple of fairly prominent Lincoln scholars their opinions on this issue. Matt Pinsker, who teaches at my alma mater Dickinson College, does not believe that Lincoln knew and further believes that such a thing was not in Lincoln’s character. I also asked fellow blogger Brian Dirck, another prominent Lincoln scholar, his opinion, but Brian has never answered my question, so I cannot share his views with you.

So, there are arguments that cut both ways, and after years of gnashing my teeth over it, I remain uncertain as to the answer to this very important question. Like so much about Ully Dahlgren’s short and unfinished life, there are many more questions than answers. I think that’s what I find so compelling about him and his story.

Scridb filter


  1. Mon 19th Jun 2006 at 10:59 am

    I can’t answer the question, but suggest the H-Net discussion list “H-CivWar” might be another good place to fish for expertise. Their web face is here: http://www.h-net.org/~civwar/ Good luck on your quest!

  2. Chuck Siegel
    Mon 19th Jun 2006 at 12:32 pm


    I certainly am no expert on the subject, but I am one for proof when dealing with conspiracies. It is one thing to suspect another to prove.
    What I know of the raid is:

    1. Kilpatrick proposed the raid to free Union Prisoners
    2. The raid was approved by the administration
    3. There is no proof of the administration or even Kilpatrick ordering the burning of Richmond and the killing of the Davis administration.
    4. The only proof of the order for killing Davis and the cabinet is in Dahlgren’s hand, and it seems these orders were never mentioned to any of the troopers in his command (at least none of the 500 troopers said that such was the mission).

    The other things left are speculation.

    However, it should be noted that as the war was concluding and the Confederacy collapsing, the Lincoln administration did not order the killing of Davis or any of his cabinet and the Confederates were the ones who ended up burning Richmond.

  3. Mon 19th Jun 2006 at 2:17 pm


    I tried that back in November and got one response. It was disheartening.


  4. Mon 19th Jun 2006 at 2:19 pm


    You are correct on all counts, which is what makes all of this so intriguing.

    It was pointed out to me by a friend that Lincoln in fact was heard to say of Davis in early 1865 that he wished he would just quietly leave the country. In my mind, that’s pretty good evidence that he would not have ordered Davis’ assassination.

    Beyond that, it’s all piecing together circumstantial evidence.


  5. Chuck Siegel
    Mon 19th Jun 2006 at 5:50 pm

    I know several people who absolutely believe Lincoln ordered the killing of Davis and burning of Richmond without any proof at all. I always suspected it had more to do with their view of Lincoln (and by extension their view of government) than in any evidence that existed.
    Personnally I find it hard to picture Kilpatrick calmly unraveling a plan to Lincoln that he will ride to Richmond, free all the Union Prisoners, hunt down and kill the Confederate President and Cabinet, and burn Richmond for good measure before riding in triumph back to Washington at which point we’re supposed to think Lincoln says “great idea!”.
    It doesn’t sound like something Lincoln would do. Whatever you think about Lincoln, he was much smarter than that.

  6. Valerie Protopapas
    Tue 20th Jun 2006 at 10:45 am

    There are other things to be considered, not the least of which was the upcoming Presidential election. The destruction of the Confederate government would have been a great help to Lincoln’s re-election, ‘beheading’, as it were, the secessionist beast and – at least it was thought – bringing about a swift conclusion to the war as the military, bereft of governmental guidance, might well have decided to simply sue for peace rather than continue the war absent any true ‘nation’ for which to fight.

    I know that we have ‘idealized’ Lincoln since his martyr’s death, but he was a shrewd and ambitious politician. If he thought that there was a chance to get rid of (or capture) the Confederate government or at least the most recognizable names within it – Davis, Benjamin et al. – I don’t doubt for a moment that he would have taken the chance believing that the game was worth the candle.

    As additional proof of Lincoln’s none to benevolent attitude towards the Confederacy, there are many quotes in which the President approves of and even encourages the destruction of Southern property and culture, reminding Southerners that this was the price that they would have to pay for their ‘rebelliousness’. Lincoln’s attitude of reconciliation and reunion might have been what has been stressed by historians (most of whom come from the North), but that point of view was only openly expressed after the war was, for all intents and purposes, over. Before that, I do not doubt that the President would have considered the death and/or capture of high ranking Confederates to have been an entirely appropriate action, an opinion that was no doubt fostered and encouraged by men like Stanton and Dana, especially before the election of 1864. There can be no doubt that Lincoln was very much concerned about his re-election and anything that might have been seen as a ‘spectacular’ Union victory would have been welcomed.

    Finally, I cannot imagine that Ulrich Dahlgren OR his father would have set upon a course which they knew or even suspected would be distasteful or dishonorable in the eyes of a man whom both served faithfully. That would mean that there was something lacking in the character of both the older and the younger Dahlgren and there is simply nothing to suggest any such thing. Hence, it can be reasonably deduced that Dahlgren would have begun no such enterprise – and certainly he would not have been given the necessary troops and official blessings from his military superiors – if there were not a sure and certain knowledge among ALL concerned that the enterprise, having been successfully completed, would be greeted with the warmest of approval by the highest of officials – including the President.

    For Lincoln’s defenders, let me say this: you can’t have it both ways. Either Lincoln was so lacking in involvement with the prosecution of the war and the military that members of that body could feel free to make a policy so contrary to the ‘rules of war’ – and the Union Army was big on ‘rules’ (see General Order 100) – or he WAS involved and so was more than aware of what Dahlgren/Kirkpatrick were about in that last sortie against the enemy.

    And remember, the guy at the top doesn’t necessarily have to put things in writing or even give a direct order. He only has to let his faithful underlings know his desires and step aside to let ‘human nature’ take it’s course. This is called the strategy of ‘plausible deniability’ and it has worked for centuries. For instance, I seem to recall King Henry saying at dinner with his nobles one night something to the effect, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?!’ and Thomas aBecket became a martyr and a saint.

    V. Protopapas

  7. John D. Mackintosh
    Sat 24th Jun 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Although I have known the outlines of the Dahlgreen story for years, it is only recently that I have delved into, reading whatever I can, including the EIGHT HOURS BEFORE RICHMOND. Some of Dahlgren’s actions seem so contradictory–He stops at the home of Confederate Sec. of War James Seddon who, of course, was in Richmond and partakes of wine with his wife who remembers Dahlgren as a small child. Such a gentle, pleasant sitting in the parlor picture we have before us. Remarkably, if we accept the Dahlgren papers as authentic and not concocted by the Confederate government (nothing thus far convinces me to view them as fakes) he may soon have to capture or kill her husband if all goes according to plan.

  8. John D. Mackintosh
    Sat 24th Jun 2006 at 10:38 pm

    My apologies, my preceding post wasn’t complete but was accidentally sent when I tried to minimize and leave the room for a minute.

    Anyway, the contrast of the social scene at the Seddon home (Sabot Hill) vs. what was played out at the James River crossing of Jude’s Ferry couldn’t be more striking. There, finally reaching this vital ford only to be frustrated by raging high water, a frustrated and angry Dahlgren orders the hanging of the black guide who led him there. Bruce Venter in BLUE & GRAY say he was “perhaps inebriated.” To me, this seems to be the Dahlgren who was ready to kill Davis and his cabinet. What a contradictory person he seems to be and therefore he must be quite a challenge to write about but yet that makes him all the more fascinating. The Jones EIGHT HOURS book has a footnote from a Michigan officer who left behind a recollection in the 1880s regarding the hanging in which he makes it sound like the poor guide sadly agreed to his fate, dying without protest as Dahlgren reminded him he had not fulfilled his part of the bargain by taking him to a fording spot. Don’t you think this sounds like he really tries to put a gentle spin on what was a brutal act by Dahlgren?

  9. Sat 24th Jun 2006 at 11:32 pm


    Now, you get a sense of why I find this issue SO intriguing. I tend to think that Dahlgren intended to do this if the opportunity presented itself. Of that, I don’t see a lot of doubt.

    Where the issue arises is in determining who in the administration knew and approved.


  10. John D. Mackintosh
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 10:52 am

    Yes, that is the killer question, how far up did knowledge of and approval for the bloodiest part of thiis plan go. I hope when I am in Richmond next month to take some time off and venture up to what the King and Queen County locals refer to as Dahlgren’s corner where he met his end. No answer to the big question there but always fulfilling to walk where history happened.

  11. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 1:50 pm

    I’m sorry, but I cannot imagine how the Lincoln administration – including the President – could NOT have known, and therefore, approved of the plan. To believe otherwise is to also believe that the Union military acted on its own in matters far removed from simple battlefield strategy. The formation of a plan to murder the civilian authorities of an enemy nation was, frankly, unheard of in so-called ‘civilized’ warfare and one must remember the the Union army produced the Lieber Code – G.O. 100 – which went to great pains to determine what was and what was NOT acceptable behavior in wartime.

    Regarding G.O. 100, and going back to my own field of interest Confederate partisan commander John S. Mosby, there was much controversy as to whether Mosby and his command would or would not be sanctioned by that Code. Mr. Wittenberg has been kind enough when asked to opine to say that he believes that the 43rd and its commander would have been considered legitimate partisan troops under G.O. 100 and I’m more than willing to believe him. Nonetheless, obviously the forces and the civilian government of the Union at that time did believe that there were limitations to what could legitimately be done in war – and the murder of the civilian members of an enemy government does not seem to fall into that category. Yet, that is exactly what was planned in the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren raid and I cannot imagine how anyone can believe – especially as the raid was given support by superior military commanders – that the matter was nothing more than the brainchild of Kirkpatrick and still less of the younger and less experienced Ullrich Dahlgren!

    Furthermore, as Dahlgren was a frequent visitor to the White House as has been noted, he certainly could not have so greatly mistaken his host’s thoughts about such a matter so as to perform acts that would have been morally repulsive to the President! That might be true of someone who only knew Lincoln by reputation and therefore might believe that he would welcome the ‘beheading of the secessionist beast’, so to speak. However, apparently Dahlgren had a much more intimate knowledge of Lincoln and that fact leads one to believe that the President would not have been all that averse to the plan PROVIDED it was successful. If it failed – as it did – then all that had to be done was to deny any involvement and swear that the documents were Confederate forgeries designed to put the United States government in disrepute both at home and abroad. Indeed, that is EXACTLY what was purported by federal authorities!

    As I posited earlier, to even propose that the Administration – never mind the President – had no part in and was, in fact, unaware of the plot, is to strain credibility. It would have meant that the Union military was carrying on the war not only absent but in fact CONTRARY to the President’s cleary understood wishes. True, there were commanders who did not act as Lincoln would have wished them, but that was on the battlefield and did not involve such far reaching strategies as the murder of the enemy’s civilian government.

    V. Protopapas

  12. John D. Mackintosh
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Excellent points. As one who has a Master’s in hisotry, has studied it all l my life and works in the archival field, I tend to err on the side of caution in making judgments where we don’t have documentary evidence to direccly support such assertions. Your reasoned response has made me ponder the question and thus speculate that, given Sec of War Stanton’s propensity to go off “on his own hook” as they said in that century (as witnessed by his response to the Lincoln assassination and the degree of control he asserted by force of will rather than legal grounds) then it seems reasonable to assume that he could have authorized this on his own. It fits his “style” more than Lincoln’s. In saying that one must acknowledge that he had a great degree of confidence that if had resulted in the death of Davis and others, he would not have faced the wrath of Lincoln had such an ending not been in accordance with something Lincoln could have lived with. Perhaps, as someone else said earlier when they quoted Lincoln as saying he wished Davis would “quietly leave the country,” Lincoln would never have authorized such an act. If he was presented with a fait accompli. the South was convulsed by the fall of Richmond and the death of its politic leadership, and the war ended, Lincoln might not have asked too many questions and it could always be asserted that the deaths of the leadership occured amidst general mayhem and anarchy unleashed by the release of the prisoners and fall of the city. In other words, Stantion would try to excape the blame. All this speculation makes the entire Dahlgren episode all the more intriguing and one can only long for more to read on this fascinating subject.

  13. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 5:54 pm

    But again, you are not taking into consideration DAHLGREN’s point of view. Would he – a young and rather inexperienced man wanting glory (nothing wrong there) and to be a ‘hero’ to both his father and those (like Lincoln) whom his father held in esteem – have been willing to ‘go off’ with Stanton and do something diametric to Lincoln’s moral principles? Even if the war had been ‘won’ by such a tactic, might not Lincoln have been horrified by its use and therefore no ‘glory’ been attached to the men who brought it about? I’m sure that old Abe would have accepted the end of the war, but that didn’t mean that he would embrace and glorify those who brought it about by dishonorable means!

    Nor can we use the argument that the matter could have been presented as something happening inthe ‘general mayhem and anarchy’! That might have been great for the public via the press, but Lincoln would have KNOWN better. One can hardly imagine Dahlgren – never mind Kirkpatrick – entertaining a vow of silence about the matter if it resulted in an end to the war! So if we are to believe that Lincoln stood above (or outside) the entire affair, we must be willing to believe that Dahlgren would have willingly acted contrary to the very principles for which his father and his father’s hero – Lincoln – stood. I find that VERY hard to believe unless the young man was as malignant and many in the South believed him to be!

    Nor is it wise to continue to create about Lincoln a sort of ‘hagiography’ that seeks to hide his less pleasant and noble characteristics. Lincoln, like every other man, had his weaknesses. He was ambitious and, as I previously noted, accepted and encouraged the type of ‘total warfare’ that Sherman and Sheridan brought to Georgia and the Shenandoah – hardly ‘civilized’ or worthy of commendation by ANY stretch of the imagination. After the war, John Mosby – who had embrace the Union and an end to all hostility – and suffered for his outspoken support of Grant and later Hayes by being driven from his home in Virginia – stated that Sheridan had waged a ‘barbaric war’ for he not only destroyed foodstuffs but the tools with which to grow food even though the war was in its last days. Sheridan, according to Mosby, burned mills for which there was no flour assuring starvation for non-combatants long after the war was over. Mosby said that according to the way Sheridan waged war, it was permissable to kill women as they could have become the mothers of soldiers and children as they could grow up to BE soldiers. That was the type of war Sheridan waged and it was blessed by both Grant AND Lincoln.

    Most of all, we must keep in mind that Lincoln was very much worried about the chances for his re-election and, I believe he was willing to do just about anything to insure same for the sake of the restoration of the Union (if you want to put a better ‘face’ on the matter). The destruction of the Confederate government would have been seen as a Union ‘coup’ and would have insured the President’s re-election. Maybe he was willing to let Stanton ‘go it alone’ for the sake of appearances, but I cannot imagine that Stanton could have taken with him the entire Union military establishment or at least that critical part of it that authorized and supported the Dahlgren-Kirpatrick raid.

    V. P.

  14. John D. Mackintosh
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 7:04 pm

    You make some very convincing arguments. As a Southerner, I have grown up hearing a number of different views on Lincoln expressed, some not what you would term “mainstream.” I suppose I have tended towards a view of him that is more charitable than two of my colleagues at work for him the mention of the name “Lincoln” is like a red flag! That said, he used some harsh methods when he felt they were justified–the hangings of the Lakota at Mankato, Minnesota in the aftermath of the Great Sioux Uprising comes to mind.

    Mosby’s comment that you cited is especiallly interesting, as he has hit at the heart of this entire argument for total war, that once you start there are no boundaries or limits to it, you therefore lose any attempt to occupy any ethical/moral high ground and open yourself up to having the same treatment meted out to your civilians, should the enemy be capable of delivering it. In the 1990s I remember the conservative columnist Joseph Sobran (wrote with the National Review, our local paper here in S. Carolina carried his syndicated column) wrote a piece condemning the use of not just the atomic bomb but all indiscriminate bombing raids in WWII that took the lives of civilians, citing the usual litany–London, Dresden, etc. This was considered a highly unusual opinion for a staunch conservative. As someone who attends a church that was burned by the troops of General Kilpatrick at they occupied Lexington, S.C. in February of 1865, I can appreciate sensitivity to needless suffering for civilians.

    Another intriguing point to consider–what if the Dahlgren Raid had succeeded by carrying out the worst case scenario part–death of the Confederate civilian leadership. If “general mayhem” wasn’t accepted as the culprit, perhaps the law of unintended consequences might have played out–immense anger in the South that would have galvanized, not weakened, Southern resistance and actually rekindled the Southern war effort; horror among many in the North that would have backfired against Lincoln and those for war, and revulsion in Europe. This sounds like something for Harry Turtledove to write about, not me.

  15. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 8:51 pm

    Several things here: firstly, Mosby is an especially interesting commentator since his ‘brand’ of warfare was itself considered ‘beyond the pale’ (although he did conform to the Lieber Code for partisan warfare). Mosby was accused by Sheridan and Grant of being a thief and an outlaw, a ‘barbarian’ who didn’t ‘abide by the rules’. Indeed, the latter ordered him and his men hanged without trial and that sentence remained for Mosby even after the Custer matter ended the indiscriminate hanging of his men.

    Northern newspapers accounts of Mosby tell of him butchering prisoners by hanging, burning, shooting and chopping them up with his ‘huge saber’. Of course, they also made him over 6 foot tall, dark and hairy. The truth is that Mosby was about 5′ 1″ or 2″ tall and never weighed any more than 128 pounds at his ‘fighting best’. He also had dark blonde or ‘sandy’ hair and aside from a short period in late 1862, early 1863 and then at the end of the war was clean shaven, so one can see that the papers were not all that accurate!

    Furthermore, Mosby’s treatment of his prisoners was such that many of his best friends after the war were Union officers whom he had captured and the retaliation he felt obligated to perform on men from Custer and Powell’s commands after the hanging and shooting of his men at Front Royal was so distasteful to him that many years later when the matter was raised, he became incensed and said that he certain did NOT ‘enjoy’ doing it anymore than a man would ‘enjoy’ whipping a child when that became necessary. Mosby had three men hanged and three shot – the fourth had been allowed to escape – but all three of those shot lived . The eye-witness accounts of the matter point out that none of Mosby’s men wanted to take part in the executions and Mosby himself – unlike Custer who stayed to watch – went in the opposite direction from the place where the men were to be left as an example of what would happen if the hangings continued. Mosby’s letter to Sheridan requested an end to such barbarism and, in fact, no more of his men were hanged although doubtless, had he fallen into Sheridan’s or Grant’s hands, his fate would have been sealed.

    On the other hand, Sheridan’s men and others who were found in the Valley burning homes were executed out of hand; they were given no quarter as they were not considered soldiers, but renegades deserving of death. In this matter, Mosby was quite without regret as he considered war on ANY civilian on EITHER side of the conflict to be barbaric. Mosby protected all of the civilians in ‘his’ Confederacy (as it was called) no matter which side and there was no surer way for one of his men to be summarily returned to the regular army (or summarily shot) than to do something to a civilian. One young man as a ‘joke’ turned over the milk pails of a Quaker (Unionist) farmer and Mosby sent him packing. He said he was ‘morally unfit’ to serve with his command.

    At the second meeting between Mosby and Union officers after Appomattox, he was told that if he did not surrender his command AND himself (he was denied the parole offered to all other Confederate officers and so his fate was very uncertain) the Union army would reduce ‘Mosby’s Confederacy’ to ashes. The Gray Ghost was stunned! He had arranged for a cease fire and an end to hostilities until he could determine what to do as he had no experience in such matters, so the partisans were not attacking Union forces and he had already told General Chapman that he was permitting those who wished to in his command to surrender and seek parole. Upon hearing this dire threat, all that the astonished Mosby could say was that he could ‘not prevent’ the action and immediately after, disbanded the 43rd Battalion and went into hiding for some months until he was eventually able to secure a parole. But the threat to destroy what were certainly innocent civilians (Mosby’s men having removed themselves to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the war being for all intents and purposes over) in order to force Mosby’s surrender was just another example of the type of ‘total war’ that seriously removed any ‘moral high ground’ from the Union cause.

    As for Lincoln, interestingly enough, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a civil liberties jurist, is quite adamant that Lincoln was wrong to prosecute the war. He said that the President should have permitted secession because the well known internecine fighting which took place among the southern states even BEFORE secession would soon have brought all or most of them back into the Union for economic reasons if for no other. Indeed, Virginia NEVER would have seceded had not the federal government made it clear that it intended to send troops across that state to attack the Carolinas. Napolitano said – and I wholeheartedly agree – that it was this threat of assault on these none-too- confederated states that actually UNIFIED them and caused them to fight for some four bloody years until they were overcome by the overwhelming strength and wealth of their foe. However, that did not END the conflict at least in men’s hearts which – as you noted among your friends – is still quite active more than a century and a half later!

    As for bombing: someone pointed out that there was a considerable number of Germans who were against Hitler as his methods became known. These people might have supported the allies – until the bombing of Dresden which was a moral atrocity. The point then was, as long as NO side had any moral superiority, heck, why not fight for the Fatherland? Such attacks often stiffen resistance and lengthen conflicts.

    In the Mexican War, General Scott did not permit his men to rob and oppress the locals. Indeed, he often fed them and gave them medical assistance. So kindly did he treat the indigenous population, that there was very little guerrilla activity against American troops because the local Mexican people saw them in a positive light even though they were fighting against Mexico. Had Scott ill treated the locals, his supply lines and communications would have received the same attentions from guerrillas that happened to the Army of the Potomac in Northern Virginia from the likes of Mosby, McNeill and White.

    V. P.

    Oh, and by the way, I was born and brought up in New York City and adjacent Long Island where I still live, so I have no sectionalist leanings that influence my point of view. Just a note.

  16. Sun 25th Jun 2006 at 9:04 pm


    This is not about Mosby. It’s about Ulric Dahlgren and his plot to kidnap and assassinate Jefferson Davis. It most assuredly is not about the firebombing of Dresden.

    Please keep it on point, or else this discussion will end.

    Thank you.


  17. Valerie Protopapaas
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 6:22 am

    Sorry, my fault.

    But actually, my post wasn’t about Mosby per se, but about THE TYPE OF WARFARE being waged as the war went on. I used Mosby‘s example because I know the story. To me, what was being done – doubtless in this case with Lincoln’s approval – was such that I find it hard that anyone would have a problem believing that Lincoln would have approved of the plan being considered here. It is not direct evidence, surely, but it is corroborating evidence that the older concepts of the waging of war -especially against civilians – as I presented in Scott’s behavior towards civilians in Mexico, had long since gone by the boards.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that any truly objective conclusion can be drawn if Lincoln is ‘elevated’ to the status of martyr for the Republic. He must be seen and viewed as a human being, an ambitious politician in the context of his life at the time, not a civil icon and secular saint.

    I believe also that the ‘Mosby stories’ clearly demonstrate that there was a schizophrenic understanding of the nature of warfare in the North. The ‘depredations’ of Confederate ‘guerrillas’ like Mosby were condemned while the same types of action (and worse) by both Northern guerrillas (and, yes, they had some) and regular troops were considered perfectly acceptable methods of winning the war. This attitude certainly must bear on any attempts to determine if the military and civilian leadership of the time would have not only accepted but supported an attempt to murder the Confederate government and burn its capitol.

    The facts we DO know are simply this: there WAS a plan and those in charge were given assistance by the military in the attempt to carry it out. We also know that the Union military used tactics that have come to be known as the waging of ‘total’ war – of which this plan can be certainly considered a reasonable part. We know that Lincoln expressed acceptance of the damage being inflicted on Southern civilians and, like Sherman, told Southerners that what was happening to them was the result of their pride and stubborn refusal to surrender and submit. We know that Lincoln was a very real participant in the planning and execution of the war. We know that Ulrich Dahlgren was a frequent visitor to the White House and that his father was intimate with the President – facts which must lead us to believe that the young man knew well enough what Lincoln would – and would not – accept in the way of tactics and strategy.

    Given the above, I don’t see how anyone can make a case for Lincoln’s ignorance and/or lack of involvement in the matter other than for reasons of protecting the man’s ‘legend’.

    V. P.

  18. John D. Mackintosh
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 8:49 am

    Sorry, Eric, definitely in danger of lurching off topic, especially as I feel Hiroshima, Dresden, etc. WERE all justified but don’t want to get into that.

    Let me say that Valerie makes an excellent case for Lincoln having known about and approved all aspects of the Dahlgren Raid. Yet, any and all such assertions fall short of getting the ball across the goalline without some type of primary source documentation. Or, even some opinions from those close to Lincoln and Stantion, the kind of statements that swirl around other controversial figures such as Marcus Reno. Even if you think Lincoln signed off on the raid, we must all so follow the criteria that Lee did when faced with the question of executing the captured remnants of Dahlgren’s command–intent isn’t the same as actually carrying out the act.

    Does anyone know if there are any tours of the principal sites associated with the Dahlgren portion of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid? Ideally, perhaps someone will put together a symposium on many of the questions examined here, include authorities on Lincoln, Stantion, Eric to speak on Dahlgren, followed by a full day of tours taking in related sites and concluding at Dahlgren’s Corner. Perhaps such an event has already taken place and I have missed it!

  19. Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 9:09 am


    Actually, Prof. David Long of East Carolina University asked me to help him lead one in the fall, but I have a wedding to go to that weekend and had to decline.

    I do think that it would it would make for a great program.


  20. Valerie Protopapas
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 9:46 am

    This is definitely a case of ‘circumstantial evidence’ as opposed to a ‘smoking gun’. Yet we all know that people are convicted in courts of law daily on circumstantial evidence alone – no eyewitnesses (and they’re not always an evidentiary ‘slam dunk’ either!) or video-tape or DNA evidence or signed confession need be found if there is enough evidence to prove guilt in the case within the limits of ‘reasonable doubt’. Frankly, as I have opined, I cannot FIND any point of ‘reasonable doubt’.

    Of course, the case might have been different had the matter taken place far from Washington – say in the Western theater. In that instance, the difficulties of communication and the distances involved might mean that a local commander determined to follow a questionable strategy without bothering to ‘clear it with the bigwigs in D.C.’. But the entire affair is within a short distance of Washington and involves men who are both defending the Capital and the United States government and attacking the primary agent of the Confederate resistance, Lee’s Army of NORTHERN Virginia. One therefore must seriously doubt that anything of consequence could take place absent the knowledge of the participants’ superiors – and that, perforce, ESPECIALLY in a matter of such grave import – must include Lincoln.

    I would only ask that those who entertain grave doubts about Lincoln’s involvement please give their reasons – other than the mythology that has grown up about the man down through the years and originates in his assassination. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, then many of his actions through the war – the suspension of various Constitutional guarantees such as the right of habeas corpus, and freedom of speech, association and the press to name just four BIGGIES – might have come under much more close scrutiny. Indeed, the question might have been asked about Lincoln with respect to Dahlgren’s plan that has been asked of a number of MODERN Presidents, to wit: ‘what did he know and when did he know it?’


  21. Bill Bergen
    Tue 27th Jun 2006 at 8:23 am

    I hesitate to engage in a discussion which unavoidably involves one person’s hardened opinion of Lincoln against another’s. I concede completely that in the lack of any proof we will never know one way or another, and on that blank canvas anyone can paint anything they want.

    However, my reading of human nature is that people tend to act in the same patterns over and over, and I simply see no pattern in Lincoln’s behavior which would support such a wild, risky, and blood-thirsty scheme as that of Dalgren’s. Policy toward civiliams–if that is how to term the actions of hundreds of different commanders in thousands of places in enemy territory–is an entirely different matter from the authorized capture and murder of a rebellious territory’s leaders. And let’s turn it around. I have been utterly unconvinced by the efforts of many to tie Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government to Lincoln’s assassination and for the same reason: I see nothing in Davis’ behavior that would be consistent with such a scheme. I am also skeptical for a more general reason. My reading of history is that conspiracies are hard to keep secret forever, and to believe that a conspiracy existed without any hard collaborating evidence is to disregard the very human motivation of, well, disclosing one’s secret knowledge.

    As for V.P.’s citing of Lincoln’s Constitutional excesses–and there were many–no one seems to recall that the Confederate government did exactly the same thing to its people, and often did it sooner and in more drastic ways. And again, such policies have a whole different moral character than that authorized capture and murder of a rebellious territory’s leaders.

    Another factor to be considered is how astute a politician Lincoln was. Time and again he navigated between a complex set of conflicting political viewpoints and kept together a coalition that would have broken down quickly under a less talented leader. He was understandably cautious and the opposite of rash, and Dalgren’s scheme was nothing if not that.

    Let’s look at a couple of specifics concerning Lincoln’s behavior. Eric mentions the story of Lincoln suggesting that he hoped that Davis would just disappear (i.e., emigrate) after he fled Richmond. He realized that making Davis a martyr by imprisoning or killing him would do little to further his view of reconstruction. If memory serves, that story comes from Grant’s Memoirs and involves Lincoln telling a tale about a preacher who did not drink but who stated that he would not mind if some whiskey was added to his lemonade “unbeknownst to him.” Such a parable rings true, as it just the sort of way Lincoln made his points as documented by hundreds of those who heard him. Grant saw in that story, which Lincoln during his visit to Petersburg in April 1865, clear direction that he was not to devote undue resources to running down Jeff Davis and capturing him. Consider, too, the case of Clement Vallandingham, the prominent northern Copperhead. Ambrose Burnside, in his usual dunderheaded sort of way, arrested him for treason while he was in command of the Department of the Ohio. Lincoln had him quietly taken to the picket line in Tennessee and sent to the south, a gentle and politically adept response.

    If I am relatively confident about Lincoln’s behavior, I am not so about Stanton. In early 1864 he was going through a bad stretch. Benjamin Butler had been sounded out about taking his job because Lincoln needed Butler’s support in the upcoming election. (The vice presidency was also mentioned.) He was in the midst of weird purging of leadership at all levels, pushing Meade to shed corps commanders, interfering with—of all things to be paying attention to—the management of West Point, conspiring with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to undermine Meade and the top leaders of the Army of the Potomac. Still, there is a difference between these internal political maneuvers and approving Dalgren’s plan. Picking up again on patterns of behavior, I am unable to recall any mention of Stanton considering any scheme as remotely wild as Dalgren’s. But he was capable of erratic and absurdly aggressive behavior, and it seems much more plausible that he would have given at least implicit approval to the plan and that he would not have told Lincoln who, he would suspect, would have been appalled. It also seems impossible to me that Meade or anyone in the high command of the Army of the Potomac knew. They would have been completely horrified by such behavior and would have protested. Though they were under siege by the Joint Committee’s shenanigans that did not stop their protests about supporting Butler’s ridiculous scheme to take Richmond that required a demonstration from them (the disaster of Morton’s Ford was the result).

    So I guess, Eric, that I come down on your view of Dalgren as secretive, vainglorious Cowboy. This whole adventure evinces nothing so much as testosterone-poisoned actions of man in his twenties.

  22. Valerie Protopapas
    Tue 27th Jun 2006 at 9:30 pm

    I might agree if Dahlgren acted alone, but I seem to remember that he had quite a few fellow soldiers with him including Kirkpatrick whose own behavior was hardly a model of restraint. How did they get where they were going? Did NO ONE know about their little peregrinations in the Union army or the federal government? Did they ‘sneak off’ alone taking with them some troops who simply followed the orders of two officers? And who made Dahlgren, a relatively unknown and untested soldier, a colonel anyway? To believe that the whole thing represented the plans and efforts of a young cowboy and an older adventurer is simply not a reasonable deduction. Someone ‘in charge’ somewhere knew that this raid was going to happen and supplied the necessary men and equipment to carry it out.

    Going back to John Mosby for JUST a minute (forgive me Eric), neither Kirkpatrick nor Dahlgren were in Mosby’s position, that is, independent commanders who could do as they chose without leave from higher-ups and then answering for the consequences of their actions if they were egregiously unwise. Now a UNION Mosby going for Davis and the Confederate government (or, for that matter, Mosby himself going for Lincoln and the UNION government) is believable. His command and others like it did pretty much as they chose and then dealt with the ‘fallout’ at a later date. Does anyone – including the biographer – present Col. Dahlgren in that light? WAS he a ‘guerrilla’? If not, then we’re back to ‘square one’.

    I do not say that the Confederate government was any less egregious in its approach to civil rights than the Union. I simply point out that the Union government – with Lincoln at its head – was certainly NOT acting according to the very Constitution for which the war was ostensibly being fought and that very fact must weigh heavily on any consideration about whether or not this plan would have been countenanced at the highest levels of government. Frankly, I think that the answer to that question is ‘yes’. Furthermore, the examples used here about Lincoln – his desire for Davis to flee the country and avoid becoming a martyr – are AFTER the war is won, not before. At the time of the Dahlgren raid, the end of the war was definitely in doubt and Davis (who wasn’t going ANYWHERE at that time) represented all that against which Lincoln was waging war! In short, Davis was a legitimate target if one ‘forgot’ all the old rules, rules which were going by the board on a daily basis anyway as the conflict descended into total war.

    True in sheer military terms, the war was already won, but there were other considerations, not the least of which was the butcher’s bill being paid by Union soldiers and the growing discontent about the war by the electorate ESPECIALLY after the Emancipation. The war did NOT gain popularity when it was seen not as an attempt to save the Union but as an attempt to free the slaves. The behavior of the draft rioters in New York was a clarion call to many in the federal government that Northern civilians were becoming increasingly unhappy with the war and at the time of Dahlgren’s raid, Lincoln’s re-election was hardly a ‘sure thing’. The decimation of the Confederate government and the burning of Richmond (remember, the slogan for most of the war in the North was ‘On to Richmond!’) would have been a great coup for Lincoln and would have assured his victory in November of 1864.

    Desperate times call for desperate measures and I do not believe that Lincoln – if he was in fact so strong an advocate of victory by the Union as his defenders believe – would have turned his back on such a plan since its success – while meaning the death of a few men and one city burned – might have saved the lives of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of soldiers on BOTH sides and the end to the destruction of property North AND South. True, it was a radical departure from what had before been considered the ‘civilized’ way to wage war, but by 1864, I think that most everybody – INCLUDING Lincoln – realized that there IS no ‘civilized’ way to wage war.

    V. P.

  23. Bill Bergen
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 7:02 am

    Dahlgren certainly did not act alone, and I did not mean to imply that he did. Obviously he had help, and clearly the authority to select 500 of the best cavalrymen came from Washington and not from the high command of the Army of the Potomac. I simply find it hard to believe that an order to kill Davis and his cabinet plus burn Richmond came from Lincoln. The actual Dahlgren papers emphasize that a primary purpose of the raid was to free US prisioners on Belle Isle, and that purpose alone would have probably given him the authority to put the expedition together. Meade’s investigation did not find any evidence of specific orders from above (the orders were all in Dahlgren’s handwriting, with nothing to suggest who higher up the command chain might have formulated them). Meade, however, confided to his wife that “Kilpatrick’s reputation, and collateral evidence in my possession, rather go against” the theory that Dahlgren acted on his own. Kilpatrick claimed he had seen the papers but that they had been altered to include the assasination order, but he probably knew more than he said.

    Like Eric, I believe the papers genuine, but we cannot know the extent to which the orders reflected discussions in Washington and who participated in those discussions. When the orders were seized after the war, Stanton made sure that the originals were destroyed and he could have been protecting his reputation and that of his boss. Or he could have simply been acting to protect himself or one of his subordinates. We will probably never know.

    Constitutional debates and detours in Mosby discussions are interesting, but have limited relevance to this question. While, again, I concede that anything is possible, it does seem incumbent on those who insist that Lincoln was involved do what I have done and search for any specific incident in Lincoln’s life that would suggest that he was likely to have approved such a risky and bloody scheme. To the contrary, the more I think about it, the more I can come up with incidents that support the idea he would not have even implicitly supported such a raid. Still, as the saying goes, absence of evidence cannot be taken as evidence of absence. I have found nothing in Lincoln’s behavior to support the idea he would do something this risky, but stand ready to be corrected.

  24. John D. Mackintosh
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 8:15 am

    I have tried posting replies to this discussion, only to have them spam blocked but here goes again. Last night, I went back and reread some of Stephens Sears insight into the raid. He points out that Lincoln was strongly motivated by the desire to spread printed amnesty appeals among Viriginia civilians and to allevaate the suffering of the prisoners. He also hoped that the raid would CAPTURE Davis and cabinet. Lincoln would seem totally contradictory to hold out hopes that the amnesty appeals would drain support for the Confederates on the one hand, while at the same time authorizing the raid to make martyrs of Davis and his cabinet, an act that was certain to both anger and alienate what Lincoln perceived werre a number of half-hearted Confederate warriors. I think it was either Stanton that authorized this aspect of the raid or perhaps the duo of Kilpatrick/Dahlgren cooked it up as a bold gamble, an added undeclared dividend to the entire episode. Eric, how was Dahlgren mentally and emotionally at this point in the war, having lost his leg, was he bitter and seeking revenge and a dramatic end to the conflict, filled with the kind of emotions that can surmount reason as well as direct orders?

  25. John D. Mackintosh
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 9:59 am

    Thought I would add to my reply since it wasn’t spam blocked earlier. I was looking at the Amazon reviews for Schultz’s lackluster THE DAHLGREN AFFAIR that I read some six years ago. The first review more or less also reviews Vanderbilt English professor Hershel Gower’s CHARLES DAHLGREN OF NATCHEZ, the story of Ulric’s uncle who moved south long before the war for business reasons, married, became part of the South and fought accordingly as a Brig. Genl. over Mississippi troops. The reviewer, Jennifer Southern, implies that Gower’s work shows that “no one was surprised that he (Ulric) would have concocted and tried to pull off the killing of Davis and the burning of Richmond.” She also states that this book discusses Ulric’s prewar visits to Natchez and his “arrogance” as she descibes it. I ordered a Amazon merchants copy of CHARLES DAHLGREN to delve into this some more. Incidentally, Ulric’s other uncle spent the war in England, spying on Confederate purchases of arms and munitions. Quite a family.

  26. Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 10:13 am


    I tend to agree with your analysis, and I think I’m coming to the conclusion that Stanton knew and approved, that Lincoln might have wanted Davis to just disappear, but that he would never have set the precedent for an assassination, and that mostly, Dahlgren was cowboying.

    This dialogue has been most useful to me in helping me to resolve some of these issues.


  27. Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 10:15 am


    Ulric’s letters don’t reflect any particular bitterness. In fact, he was quite determined to live as normal a life as possible.

    What is clear is that his attitudes hardened significantly between Fort Sumter and 1864, probably as a consequence of the horrors that he witnessed in the field. I think that’s more of a factor than the loss of the leg.


  28. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 10:36 am

    The papers are very interesting. If Dahlgren acted alone even absent assistance from Kilpatrick, why carry such incriminating evidence around with him? Without the documents, if he were taken or killed, it would just be another ‘raid’ such as happened on both sides fairly continually. ESPECIALLY had Dahlgren been captured, having such documents on his person was a sure path to the gallows, hardly a ‘glorious end’ for the young man.

    On the other hand, if Dahlgren was going to try to convince freed Union soldiers to murder the civilian government and burn the city – and there had been escapes before which did not end in such mayhem – wouldn’t he have needed something to convince those men that they were acting on the order of ‘higher authorities rather than the murderous dreams of a young Colonel’? Those documents – albeit they contained so ‘smoking gun’ signatures – do carry with them the conviction that this was not a ‘lone ranger’ type of action, but a planned, calculated strategy of war blessed by Union leadership both military AND civilian.

    As for Lincoln’s ‘amnesty’ plans: certainly he was more than willing to use whatever means at his disposal to end or shorten the conflict. If amnesty worked, use amnesty. Where that DIDN’T work, I see no reason that he would not be willing to use less ‘humane’ means. God knows, the people in Virginia and Georgia had first hand evidence of Lincoln’s ‘wrath’.

    I fear that people see this as a criticism of Lincoln. It’s not. This was total war, albeit, Dahlgren’s plan codified and put in plain text what had only been thought about before. The ‘chivalric’ days of Union and Confederate picketts sharing coffee between engagements had long since gone. Civilians and their way of life had been targeted. Union soldiers used Southern churches as stables. It was just one more piece of evidence regarding the growing emnity between the sides, an emnity that has not yet – at least on the part of some of those in the South – come to an end. In fact, some cities in the Union were targeted by Southern troops and guerrillas for destruction in response to Sherman and Sheridan and not for any military objective – Chambersburg and Lawrence were instances of ‘pay back’, not strategy. Hatred between the sides was growing. Many in the South who had once longed for a peaceful resolution and would have embraced Lincoln’s ‘amnesty’ were digging in for the long run as news of the destruction in Georgia and the Shenandoah became known.

    Lincoln saw that if the war continued at such a slow pace even if that pace were to lead to ‘eventual victory’, not only might he lose the election, but the people of the Union might lose their resolve to wage the war and accept secession just to stop the bloodshed. The death or capture of Davis and other Confederate leaders would have been a real VICTORY for the Union and I see nothing inherently immoral or evil if Lincoln had seen the matter in the same light.


  29. John D. Mackintosh
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 12:47 pm


    You have provided some solid insight into Lincoln as a “political animal” in trying to, as I think you see it, remove the halo that surrounds him. Let me take that view of him as a master practitioner of realpolitik to argue that such a trait is the very reason he would not have authorized such a raid, all ethical and moral consideratons aside:
    1. If the raid did result in the deaths of Davis and his cabinet, they would be greater Southern martyrs than Jackson ever was, assuming their deaths were seen as deliberate slayings and not an accident of war. I think many in the South would have approached the war with a new resolve and vigor.
    2. Considering that Alexander Stephens spent very little time in Richmond during the war and didn’t even have an official residence there, he would most likely have escaped unharmed ( although I don’t know precisely where he was during the raid) and would thus work to restore some form of civilian Southern government, either in Richmond or in an untouched city further South, perhaps Raleigh or Columbia.
    3. The Southern military would still be intact on land and sea, having received a fresh motivation to continue fighting. They would suffer from the loss of the War Department hierarcy in Richmond, if that Department was physically destroyed, and also from whatever key industries in Richmond that had been damaged or destroyed. The fighting forces themselves though would have remained intact.
    4. Lincoln might well have perceived that if he were seen as the culprit in the death of the Southern civilian leadership, the North would have surrendered the moral high ground they had occupied with much of Europe, especially Britian. Might not the long-sought recognition of the South have taken place?
    All arguments about his character aside, for these very practicial considerations that would surround such a high risk gamble, I think that Lincoln would have refrained from authorizing the worst case scenario of the Dahlgren Raid. All things considered, I think the aftermath of a successful Dahlgren Raid would have played out in a way that would backfired on the Union cause with ultimate results quite differently thatnthose sought.

  30. Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 12:56 pm


    Not to downplay Valerie’s arguments, I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head here. It’s an extremely cogent analysis and I think it passes muster.


  31. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Not so fast! You are giving to Lincoln and his military, insights that they might not have had at that time. Hindsight is always 20-20!

    Davis (and Benjamin) were the driving forces of the Confederate Government and therefore Stephens whereabouts is immaterial. The mere fact that he WASN’T in Richmond speaks volumes to his leadership status. True, there would have been howls of anger at their deaths, but consider: Lee was NOT General-in-Chief, but General of the Army of Northern Virginia alone. Only later in the war was he placed in that position and it was without any importance by that time anyway. Throughout the South there were other generals, often at each other’s throats as can be seen by many mistakes and missed opportunities on the part of the Confederate military. Who would have stepped into the breech here? Lee was not everyone’s fair haired boy and not every general in every Confederate force would have accepted his leadership even had he stepped forward to offer it (see below). With a divided military leadership, the Union military would have had a field day among its distracted foe!

    Furthermore, the Confederacy itself was divided and that’s why I agree with Judge Napolitano that if Lincoln had just ‘sat tight’ and awaited the results of the efforts to create a true ‘nation’ of eleven (or rather TEN) when you remove Virginia!) disparate states, it is quite probable that no war would have been fought. The death or capture of Davis and Benjamin would have resulted in CHAOS in the Confederacy. Hated as Davis was by many other Southern leaders – military AND civilian – he was the ‘spearhead’ of the Confederacy. His absence would have meant confusion, distraction, disillusion and most probably an end certainly to a concerted military effort to preserve secession. Sure, some would have fought on, but on the whole, most states, with Davis gone and the capital burned, would have begun to look at how they could ‘cut their losses’ and stop the whole thing. I certainly think that that would have been a very real point of view in the North at the time and given the ‘iffy’ nature of the coming election and the slow grind (and butcher’s bill) of the war, it would have been a smart move to at least TRY it. What had they to lose at this point? The South couldn’t hate the North that much more than it already did.

    In fact, to many Southerners, the death of Davis might have been seen as a godsend allowing them to lay down their arms with some honor while pointing (however ineffectually) to the moral depredations of the North as a sort of emotional sop. The military could have declared that without a civilian government in place and active, they had no reason to go on fighting (remember, America’s military was predicated on CIVILIAN leadership; the nation had never been a military state!) and so could have laid down their arms without yielding up any of their precious honor. Lee would NEVER have ‘stepped in’ as a military dictator. If you think Dahlgren’s plan was contrary to LINCOLN’s morality, Lee as de facto leader of the Confederacy was even more contrary to HIS morality. Without a working civilian government, Robert E. Lee might well have chosen to end at least his and his troop’s participation in a war for which he had no great liking in the first place.


  32. Bill Bergen
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 1:32 pm

    I think John’s points are well-taken, and to them I would add that Lincoln was in trouble on the right and the left (the extent those labels had meanings then) in 1864. Conservatives, mostly Democrats, angered by Constitutional abuses and extending the war beyond perserving the Union, thought they could win by nominating a moderate-to-conservative general. They got that in McClellan who ended up, in part by Lincoln’s own deft maneuvering, running on a platform that McClellan himself repudiated. Lincoln helped bring that about by splitting the Democratic party, and a major tool in that effort was retaining such incompetent Democrats in uniform as Banks and Butler. The left, mostly Radical Republicans, was so angry at what they saw as Lincoln’s moderation that they began organizing around Salmon Chase, one of their own, and then Charles Fremont.

    Lincoln’s political position in early 1864 was precarious, and he was anxious to avoid to further aggravating either side, and again I have trouble seeing this cautious and astute politician taking such a gamble especially, as John points out, capturing Davis and his cabinet would not necessarily end the war. I think of his words to Hooker before Chancellorsville when, apparently worried about Hooker’s blowhard tendencies, counsels the general to “beware of rashness.” And I continue to wait for anyone to come up with a specific incident or statement by Lincoln that would suggest that he harbored the sort of wrathful thoughts that would be consistent with approving or sponsoring Dahlgren’s raid. Once can cite plenty of such instances in the writings and statements of Union military leaders–Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan–and political leaders–Chase, Stanton, and the Congressional Radicals. But not in Lincoln’s . . .

  33. John D. Mackintosh
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Yes, Valerie, I agree that Alexander Stephens was hardly someone to excite most people but he would have been the leader and people instinctively rally behind a vice president at the time a chief executive is slain, as many of us witnessed in 1963 (I am fifty, so I have a child’s memory of the death of Kennedy).

    Furthermore, what was more important in 1865 in giving rise to the perception that the war was over–the fall of Richmond or the surrender of the Army of Northern Viriginia? I know they were both linked and in close proximity to one another but it was Lee’s surrender that cut to the quick those who still held hopes of an independent Confederate States, even though other forces such as those of Johnston and Kirby Smith were still in the field. With a successful Dahlgren Raid, you would still have had Lee’s army intact, the civilian leadership killed but Stephens alive; Richmond would have been occupied, burned but then most likely quickly abandoned by the raiders as they had accomplished their purpose and were not in sufficient number to hold it against an aroused Confederate military. Viewed in this light, I still don’t think the Dahlgren Raid would have acheived the decisive result of collapsing the Confederate cause and ending the war.
    Eric and everyone else, I have enjoyed this discussion immensely. Often, speculative history is something I don’t delve into too much but it has really helped me consider the questions surrounding Dahlgren from a number of different angles.

  34. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 5:01 pm

    I don’t follow that it – the destruction of the existing Confederate government – wouldn’t have meant the end of the war. Remember, this was a ‘confederacy’ and that means by it’s very nature, a loose group of states often with conflicting agendas, mandates and desires. Virginia didn’t secede, after all, until the Federal Government made it plain that troops would be sent across that state to attack those states already in secession. Until that time, many in Virginia did not wish to leave a Union that they considered their State to have been foremost in founding! There was no great ‘unified’ group here. Indeed, they became unified, really, only when attacked and even then there was enough in-fighting to reasonably assume that once any semblance of a ‘government’ – and especially Davis, the ‘poster boy’ of secession – was no more, the whole thing would have quickly unraveled as each State sought to protect as much of its property and citizenry as possible.

    Even the most superficial knowledge of the Confederate military shows the conflicts within it. Many believe that Lee spent more time pacifying his underlings than fighting the Yankees! The same held true in the Union army, obviously, but that army was maintained and governed by a strong central government with a line of succession as mandated by the Constitution. The death of Lincoln did not end the federal government because that government was of long duration (considering the circumstances, of course) while the death of Davis would have left the very amorphous Confederate government quite literally, headless.

    I’m sorry, but I am beginning (?) to see a defense of Lincoln that has more to do with hagiography than history. No, it simply COULDN’T have been Lincoln! Stanton? Certainly. Dana? Baker? Sure, but honest Abe? No way! Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Unless, of course, Lincoln was a pawn of those around him – and I don’t think that was the case nor do I believe that his most ardent admirers would hold that position either. Put another name to the man in the White House with the facts as they are known and I think most people would believe that the plan originated in the Administration – although not necessarily with the President – and that the Administration – INCLUDING the President – signed off on it in hopes of bringing a bloody conflict to an early end.


  35. Bill Bergen
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 6:07 pm

    I confess to be an admirer of Lincoln, and I have grown to admire him more as I have learned more about him. But I like to think I know him warts and all, and I never said that Lincoln could not have been involved. He might have been, and as you say, his lawerly mind could well have had construed a justification for approving Dahlgren’s plan. I completely concede that as I have written in other posts.

    My skepticism about Lincoln’s involvement reflects my experience that one can almost always perceive a repeating pattern of behavior in people’s lives. If you study a famous person’s life long enough, events and statements begin to point to a consistency in the character for that individual. There can be growth born of experience and age, but the behavior, the mindset, stays remarkably constant in most people.

    Lincoln could be ruthless in his pursuit of political goals and terribly ambitious at times, and he had the sort of wide-ranging intelligence that could fathom all manner of means for winning the war. He was capable of duplicity when it served his purpose.

    But nothing I or, apparently, anyone else, can recall anything about Lincoln that suggests he exhibited at any time the sort of personal vindictiveness and risky “go-for-broke” mindset that would have been involved in approving Dahlgren’s raid. In fact, as I have pondered this question over the last two days, examples keep coming to mind that point to the opposite, to the caution, the self-control, the masterly ability to analyze situations and see them as they are and not as one would wish them to be. It could have happened, but Lincoln approving Dahlgren’s raid would have been most out of character. All I am saying—and limited conclusion it is—is that in the absence of any hard evidence, one should give the benefit of the doubt to that which reflects the pattern of behavior, and not the exception.

    About the idea that to believe Lincoln could not have known is to believe he was the pawns of the other people, the President was shrewd enough to let other people think he agreed with them and that they had influence. But, as we all know, pawn he was not. However, Stanton was skilled at playing all sorts of double games simultaneously and had played them for years in Washington. Look at his Janus-faced behavior as attorney general in the last months of the Buchanan administration. Look at his history of erratic behavior. Look at his befriending McClellan while working hard to get him dismissed. Look at what other matters he kept from Lincoln. Look at the vendettas he pursued against all sorts of people. For all his talents, he was a hater, one who had to manufacture enemies where none existed. My guess—and guess it must remain—is that he made the raid happen and that Lincoln did not learn anything about Dahlgren’s plans beyond freeing prisoners.

  36. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 28th Jun 2006 at 8:34 pm

    Lincoln’s previous behavior is neither a guarantee of his behavior in this matter because Lincoln found himself and the country of which he was the elected President in an unprecedented position. One could no more use Lincoln’s past as a measure of what he would do here than one could use the past actions of the United States military once the war became more than the ‘six week conflict’ that many on both sides believed it would be – at least in theory. This was virgin territory; no one had ever BEEN there before. As the nation itself was a virgin concept – a government of, for and by the people, so the war that Lincoln feared might end ‘the great experiment’ in self government was itself virgin territory.

    True, there had been civil wars before, but the War Between the States – a name which I believe is more accurate than that most used – was unique insofar as the relationship of the combatants was concerned. This was not a matter of one ‘faction’ of the country vs. another ‘faction’ – Cavaliers vs. Roundheads – nor was it a religious conflict in the true sense of that term. Yes, there were ‘factions’ and yes, to a certain extent, there was a ‘religious ferver’ involved, especially in the abolitionist movement. But there can be no doubt that the many reasons for the eventual conflict were unique to both place and time. Therefore, Lincoln’s past behavior simply could not be used except in the most fundamental way as a true guide to what he might do in a crisis during the war.

    For instance, I’m sure that Lincoln would not have agreed to poisoning the water supply of some Southern city or for the ruthless murder of non-combatants and civilians a la Quantrell in Lawrence. Such immoral and obscene acts would have been rejected out of hand even had the President been convinced that the war could be ended by their use. On the other hand, however, a strike at the ‘head’ of the enemy was not all that problematic morally. Davis and his government were considered ‘criminals’, not adversaries. That is obvious even from the press coverage. While the military leaders of the Confederacy were somewhat ‘covered’ in their treason by their position as underlings of a CIVIL authority – the situation that had been in place in the United States since its founding – the CIVIL authority which had produced and now directed secession was considered treasonable by the United States Government and therefore had no such ‘cover’. Ergo, Davis et al. were fair game at least in the legal sense. In the same way, Lincoln was ALSO fair game although not in the sense of being a traitor and criminal, but in being Commander in Chief of an enemy nation. The President of the United States is NOT a ‘non-combatant’.

    There had already been concern in both the military and civilian leadership of the Union that a certain ‘independent’ command of the Army of Northern Virginia (I won’t say directed by what Confederate commander) might sneak into Washington and either kidnap or even assassinate the President which has to mean that the thought of an assault by military elements on an enemy civilian government was not an unheard of concept or unconsidered at least in the North. If Lincoln’s men were concerned about the Gray Ghost, as Lincoln termed him, and what he might do to Lincoln and/or others in Washington, where is the ‘great leap’ of thought needed for those within the Administration to see the possibility of turning the situation around and sending UNION military units to Richmond to accomplish the same thing. Indeed, given the state within the Confederacy of which Lincoln and his Administration were well aware, such a plan – though dangerous insofar as further widening the scope of the conflict – had a great deal of merit. And that merit grew as the conflict lengthened, casualties mounted and the people in the North began to question the noble cause.

    Finally, I simply cannot imagine two seminal things: [1] Ulrich Dahlgren – after becoming as intimate with Lincoln as Mr. Wittenberg has noted – just deciding on this strategy and being given carte blanche to go off without anyone knowing just WHAT it was that he was trying to do. That makes Dahlgren a comic book figure and eveyrone in the Lincoln Adminstration and the Union military idiots! Dahlgren – as I have already mentioned – was not an independent commander like White or McNeill or Mosby or Quantrell. He was ‘regular army’ and, as such, had to have the necessary orders to be given the men and equipment he had with him when he died (or was he alone? I think not!) and [2] That members of the Administration – Stanton, Dana, Seward or whomever – came up with this plan, approached Ulrich Dahlgren and Kilpatrick – or more importantly, approached their MILITARY SUPERIORS – made arrangements for the raid and sent them off while Abraham Lincoln was totally in the dark about the matter. For one thing, if the plan worked, just how were they going to explain the matter to Lincoln? Or, perhaps did they think that if the thing succeeded, he would be happy enough to overlook their little indiscretion of leaving the President out of a major policy decision? And if they believed that to be the case, that ALSO says something about Lincoln; that is, that he really wouldn’t mind much what they did as long as it worked.

    No one is saying that Lincoln was a monster and cruel to people around him, but he wasn’t Mahatma Ghandi either. Read his comments about the destruction committed by Sherman in Georgia. Lincoln was in a unique situation. He HAD no ‘historical record’ from which to gain much in the way of insight into his predicament. He was being forced to take chances and make decisions that might well be considered beyond a man with his limited experience. He certainly did not make much use of his first Vice President, a man with considerably MORE national experience. He was a man of moods, subject to depression and melancholy. He had great instincts, but he was also deeply flawed. As a man, I can easily see him considering this plan (whoever thought it up) BEFORE it was initiated. He may even have chosen young Dahlgren as the kind of ‘noble youth’, the son of a much admired father, whose boundless ambition and past bravery might well carry such an audacious plan to fruition. Frankly, I see that as much more likely than the other scenarios presented here. There is just too much ‘backup’ by the regular military in Dahlgren’s raid to permit it to be considered the brainchild of a ‘lone gunman’.


  37. Bill Bergen
    Thu 29th Jun 2006 at 5:36 am

    There is nothing further I can add to my comments. All I can say is I disagree with your point of view in more ways than I can count, and I will just leave it at that.

  38. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 29th Jun 2006 at 9:42 am

    That’s what makes a great debate. If we all agreed about everything, how dull would that be?


  39. John D. Mackintosh
    Fri 30th Jun 2006 at 8:22 am

    Think I am all out of anything to contribute at this point as well. I will await the arrival of the CHARLES DAHLGREN biography I ordered and pass along anything relevant to our discussion on the raid.

  40. John D. Mackintosh
    Wed 12th Jul 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Herschel Gower’s CHARLES DAHLGREN OF NATCHES arrived last week. There are a number of references to Ulric but nothing really earthshaking. In 1860, a poet named Lucy Virginia French was struck by the condesecnding remarks he made about a mountain girl and “remembered him as an arrogant young man with patronizing ways toward the people of the little mountain community.” p. 38. The autoor discusses the outline details of his raid and death, noting that he was mourned by Dahlgren family members in both the North and South. Ulric’s Southern Uncle, Brig. Gen. Charles in Confederate service, attempted to intercede to have the body of his slain relative exhumed and returned north for proper burial but emotions were so high that this idea was not approved in Richmond. The author states that only two men knew the whereabouts of his body after the nocturnal burial. His post-war exhumation/reburial is dealt with extensively in EIGHT HOURS BEFORE RICHMOND. Other than that, looks like an intersting book about a remarkable family but nothing dramatic is revealed about the character and drive of Ulric. I look foward to Eric’s book for much greater insight.

  41. Bill Bergen
    Tue 01st Aug 2006 at 9:16 pm


    It may not be of much use, but I came across a passage in Fletcher Pratt’s Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Norton, 1953 that discusses Stanton’s heavy involvement in the prison-of-war issue in late 1863 and early 1864. See pp. 336-339. Unfortunately, it is nowhere attributed, but may reflect material from Stanton’s own correspondence (a major source for Pratt) and the OR. If true, and I there are so many particulars here to make it credible, then it is obvious that Stanton had a very good idea of what was happening at Libby Prison and other confinement sites in Richmond.

    I picked this book up years ago in DC and only now got around to reading it. Time for a new biography of old Edwin!

    Hope this helps.


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