03 August 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 18 comments

My regular readers know that I’ve wrestled with the question of what Lincoln knew and when he knew it with respect to the Dahlgren raid has simultaneously bothered and intrigued me for a very long time. I have finally reached the point in my biography of Dahlgren where it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. Consequently, here’s my take on these events, reflecting concusions drawn after years of deliberation and taking into account the useful discussions we had here.

There remains one great, daunting question that any biographer of Ulric Dahlgren must tackle before leaving the subject. The ultimate question to be determined is whether Abraham Lincoln knew of Ulric Dahlgren’s plans in advance, and whether Lincoln approved them. In other words, what did Lincoln know, and when did he know it, to borrow the parlance of the Watergate era.

Southerners certainly believed that Lincoln not only knew of the plot, but that he approved it. Lincoln’s close relationship with Admiral Dahlgren was well known, and the esteem in which Lincoln held John Dahlgren was also well known. It was no stretch, therefore, for the average Southern citizen to conclude that Lincoln had something to do with the mission, given the choice of one-legged Ulric Dahlgren to lead the critical portion of the expedition. At the very least, they speculated, Lincoln knew of Ully Dahlgren’s plan, and his choice of Ully to command a portion of the expedition constituted a tacit endorsement of the plan.

These conclusions are understandable, and they are also logical. The question is, how well grounded in truth are they?

Lincoln understood that a harsh Reconstruction policy, combined with an aggressive prosecution of Jefferson Davis for treason, would ultimately do the country more harm than good. In a conversation with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at City Point, Virginia at the end of March, 1865, Lincoln told one of his famous parables to make his point, one of the President’s favorite tactics. Sherman specifically asked what Lincoln wanted to see happen to Davis once the war ended. “A man once had taken the total-abstinence pledge. When visiting a friend, he was invited to take a drink, but declined, on the score of his pledge, when his friend suggested lemonade, which was accepted,” Lincoln said. “In preparing the lemonade, the friend pointed to the brandy-bottle, and said the lemonade would be more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy; when his guest said, if he could do so ‘unbeknown’ to him, he would not object.” From this story, Sherman concluded that Lincoln’s thinly veiled desire was that Davis be permitted to slip out of the country “unknowingly” rather than to have him prosecuted for treason.

Admiral David Dixon Porter, who also attended the City Point conference, had a similar recollection. “My opinion is, that Mr. Lincoln came down to City Point with the most liberal views toward the Rebels,” he wrote in 1868. “He felt confident that we would be successful, and was willing that the enemy should capitulate on the most favorable terms.” Lincoln reported said, “Let ‘em up easy” in responding to a question about what his intentions for bringing the Confederate states back into the fold.

Given these declarations, it seems implausible that Lincoln would have approved the assassination of Davis and his cabinet. Lincoln was a brilliant and politically astute man, and he had to have known that such a policy would have ramifications for his own presidency. It defies logic, therefore, to conclude that Lincoln knew of and approved of Dahlgren’s plan before it was put into motion.

At the same time, a nagging element of reasonable doubt remains. Dahlgren visited the White House twice in the weeks just before the commencement of the raid, and on both occasions, he had extended private audiences with the President. There is no record of those conversations, and we will never know precisely what was discussed. It is, therefore, entirely possible that they discussed the plan, that Lincoln approved it, and then made certain that there was no written record of that approval that could be traced back to him. Since neither Dahlgren nor Lincoln survived, and because neither of them said anything about the subject that has been recorded, we will never know the truth.

Lincoln also knew that he was going to be in for a difficult reelection campaign, and he likewise knew that the population of the north was growing war weary. He was desperate to find a way to bring the war to a quick and successful conclusion, and he may well have concluded that a decapitation strike—one that would eliminate the Confederate political leadership—might bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Chop off the head of the snake, and the rest of the snake will die, provides an old cliché. It is possible that Lincoln had endorsed a plan that offered the hope—slim as it might be—that the war could be brought to a swift conclusion with less bloodshed than what would necessarily occur if the war was fought to a military conclusion. Again, Lincoln never said so specifically, and there is no record to evaluate.

A more likely scenario is that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton not only knew of the plan, but approved it. Stanton was well aware of the suffering of the prisoners of war, and he was under a great deal of pressure to do something about their plight. It is entirely conceivable that Stanton not only knew of and approved the plan, but that he might even have thought it up, ordered Dahlgren to implement, and that he never told Lincoln about it in order to permit the President to adopt a policy of plausible deniability.

As further evidence of Stanton’s probable involvement in conceiving and ordering the plan for the kidnapping and assassination of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, is the unlikely choice of Ully Dahlgren to command the critical portion of the expedition. It is important to remember that Dahlgren had never commanded anything larger than the detachment of 100 troopers who went to Greencastle with him on July 4, 1863, that the men of the Third Cavalry Division were not particularly familiar with him, and that he was clearly not in physical condition to undertake such a difficult mission. But for Stanton’s patronage, how else could Dahlgren have gotten such an unlikely appointment and such a critical role in the planning of the raid?

Likewise, and as set forth in detail in the appendix to this book, the Dahlgren Papers themselves, and the photographic copies of them delivered to General Meade with Robert E. Lee’s letters disappeared after the war, probably at Stanton’s direct order. Unless he had something to hide, why would Stanton have destroyed important historical evidence? Dahlgren was already dead, and the controversy had already raged for a year, so there was nothing to gain by destroying the documents other than protecting Stanton’s own reputation and legacy. If it could be proved that Stanton had conceived of the plan, then he would become the target of the controversy, and in the wake of the Lincoln assassination in April 1865, Stanton’s power grew even greater. He would have done anything to protect and preserve that power, and destroying the Dahlgren Papers would have been a wise move under those circumstances. It seems likely, therefore, that Stanton knew of the plan at least, and that he was likely its author.

There remains a third possibility: that there is nothing more here than what meets the eye. It is also entirely possible that Ulric Dahlgren dreamed the whole thing up himself without the authority or even knowledge of his superiors. Perhaps the Dahlgren Papers represent the desperate attempt of a crippled but brilliant young man to achieve further military glory that would probably be denied him otherwise. Dahlgren’s propensity for exceeding his orders is well-documented, and has already been discussed in some detail earlier in this chapter. Perhaps the Dahlgren papers represent the best-known episode of ill-advised opportunism of the war, and perhaps the Union high command was entirely justified in disavowing him and his scheme.

Well, there you have it. I wonder what y’all think of it?

Scridb filter


  1. John D. Mackintosh
    Thu 03rd Aug 2006 at 8:41 pm

    One word describes it….excellent! You present plausible but different individuals as the origin of the raid’s most controversial component and underpin each with reasons that support them. The way I am reading this is that you are mounting a coherent argument for either Lincoln ordered it, Stanton ordered it or Dahlgren played lone ranger, and letting the reader wrestle with the arguments presented for and against each. Unlike the argument against why Lincoln would have approved such a venture, I didn’t read anything that argued AGAINST Stanton as the mastermind behind this scheme. Also, what is postulated in favor of Dahlgren being the author isn’t as strong as the finger that points at Stanton; therefore, from this as it is written, the reader is to conclude that the author of the above is leaning towards Stanton, correct? Also, I noticed, no speculation on this being something that both Kilpatrick and Dahlgren jointly dreamed up. I think I remember you writing on here that, rightfully so, the U. Dahlgren biography will make very little reference to the Kilpatrick portion of the three-pronged raid. What was the relationship like between Kilpatrick and Dahlgren? Could Kilpatrick, generally viewed as reckless to a fault, have influenced Dahlgren’s thinking if the Lone Ranger scenario has merit?

    Enjoyed reading this very much and looking forward to the end product. Thanks for laying this out in the midst of what I know is a very busy week.


  2. Thu 03rd Aug 2006 at 10:06 pm

    Thanks, John. This only represents a portion of the conclusion, but since it’s an issue we’ve dealt with here at length, I felt it appropriate to let everyone know how I finally tackled this issue when forced to confront it in detail.

    If it wasn’t obvious, my personal opinion is that Lincoln probably didn’t know, for reasons of plausible deniability, but that it’s not only quite likely, but probable, that Stanton not only knew, but that he actually ordered it.

    To answer your question: I have perhaps two paragraphs on Kilpatrick’s role in the raid in the narrative, largely because the specifics of is portion of the ride simply isn’t all that germaine to a biography of Ully Dahlgren. Consequently, I don’t go into much detail at all.

    There really is no record of the relationship between Kilpatrick and Dahlgren. We really don’t know what it was like. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that Kilpatrick might have been a bit put out over having this one-legged young colonel foisted upon him. That wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

    I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it. As I said, I have spent a very long time hashing out these issues and coming to a final conclusion about it.


  3. Lanny
    Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 4:56 am

    Dear Eric,

    I believe John is right. You have made an excellent survey of the options and the relative strenghts and weakness of each.

    As the paper trail is non-existent (at least for us) and with the absence of a “Deep Throat”, all we can do is speculate based upon who we think could have known and our perceptions of each person’s character (again, character matters!).

    Like you, I doubt Lincoln had any role in the affair. Besides being a man of compassion and ethics, he was too shrewd a politician not to see the possibility of what finally did happen and to realize that his denial, pausable or not, would not prevent an inglorious accusation from sticking to him. Now, if Lincoln were Nixon . . . (now there’s an angle for the “what if” novelists–the Civil War with Nixon as President).

    Perhaps Dahlgren composed the papers thinking, or wishing, he had heard the President say a sentence here, thought he saw a wink there, later reflected upon a joke told and, with his own creativity and ambition, wrote his legacy in infamy.

    All told, you have summarized rather nicely all the options. Thank you for sharing your well-reasoned conclusions.


  4. David
    Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 6:39 am

    You are operating on the assumption that the plan, if there was a plan, included capturing AND killing the Confederate leadership. There, of course, is the possibility that Linclon and Dahlgren discussed capturing the leadership only and that Stanton and/or Dahlgren enhanced the plan to include killing them. Again, we have no evidence to demonstrate this, but it is a possible scenario you may wish to address.

  5. Chuck
    Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 2:22 pm


    Please don’t take this wrong or think I’m trying to be an a*&hole, because I enjoy your books tremendously.
    I am troubled by the conspiracy chapter above.

    You are writing a book backed by in-depth factual research on the life of Ulric Dahlgren. You spent years researching and gathering those facts to tell the true story. It therefore seems to me unfortunate to dedicate an entire chapter on mere speculation and feelings.
    I of course defer to your knowledge on Ulric Dahlgren and your forthcoming book will I’m sure be definitive. But in terms of these meetings/orders what are the facts? In my opinion That is what you should present and let the reader determine how he/she feels. Maybe put your personal thoughts in an endnote.

    The conspiracy presentation above reminds me of many of the authors that write about all the conspiracy theories on the the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations. Too much guilt by association. No facts to back up speculative conversations and activities. Could have, would have, might have.
    In this case it reads like watergate…Lincoln becomes Nixonian and Stanton his John Mitchell.
    Ulric Dahlgren merely one of the burglars.
    You have left the 19th century and veered into 20th century american conspiracy thought.

    In this chapter, we are asked to consider that because Dahlgren had two meetings with Lincoln ergo they may have discussed killing Davis. Is that provable?

    We are virtually told, based solely on belief, that Stanton specifically ordered the killing of Davis and his cabinet. Is there proof?

    You spend a huge amount of time on the conspiracy theories and only at the end do you throw in the paragraph that maybe, just maybe, none of the preceeding conspiracy happened and Dahlgren was just glory seeking.

    Do you really want your book to end on conspiracy theories?

  6. Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 4:37 pm


    You are, of course entitled to your opinion, and I respect that opinion.

    From where I sit, I see no way to write this book–or to do an honest assessment of Ulric Dahlgren’s life–and the way he died–without addressing this topic. I simply see no way not to touch on the subject and deal with it. All I can do then is to state my opinion–based on years of research and some rational analysis, and that’s what I’ve done. Anything else, I fear, begs the question and leaves a huge hole in the book’s conclusion.

    I just don’t see a way to avoid addressing the topic. And, I have gone out of my way to say that there is no way to know, but that I am suggesting the only logical conclusion that can be drawn.

    And, for the record, I don’t end the book there. There is, in fact, more to the conclusory chapter, and this is only one portion of it.

    Thanks for the input. It really is appreciated, and I have carefully considered your comments for most of the day before responding. I just don’t see how I can finish this book and not address this issue.


  7. Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 4:38 pm


    Your point is well-taken, and frankly not one I had considered. I will take a longer look at it this weekend, and will incorporate some discussion of it, as I think it’s necessary to do so in order to complete the analysis.

    Thanks for the suggestion.


  8. Chuck
    Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 5:33 pm


    I understand you must address the topic, and I really hestitated on bringing it up lest I look highly critical.
    But as you can see from the previous posts, everyone loves to discuss conspiracies. And everyone has an opinion.
    I just hope that all the hard work you put in on all the previous chapters of Ulric Dahlgren’s life doesn’t get glossed over in the public’s mind to a concentration on the conspiracy theories at the end.

    In any case, I look forward to reading it (and the book on Stuart’s Ride as well)!

  9. Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Hard to believe that Stanton, or Dahlgren, would mount a rogue operation like this on their own. As you mentioned, it has all the earmarks of a special operation authorized at the highest levels — especially the leader, with political connections, sent down for this raid alone. Most serving officers would probably have balked at the idea of killing Davis and his cabinet.

    I’m certainly not an expert on CW White House politics, but it does seem that Stanton and Lincoln worked quite well together. I would take a look at Stanton’s record — are there any other instances where he set up some sort of initiative on his own without telling the president? Did he have a habit of freelancing? If so what was Lincoln’s reaction? IAC he never seems to have said or done anything to reprove Stanton for it.

    Like FDR, Lincoln was a dissembler, and while he did not shrink from the dirty details of war and politics, he did take pains to disassociate himself from them, preferring to rely on trusted subordinates. Example: you usually don’t see Lincoln’s name associated with Sherman’s making Georgia howl, or the Burning in the Shenandoah, but Lincoln obviously knew about it and tacitly approved.

    As far as his postwar policy goes, I’m not sure that makes a case for his war policy, which I read as being “Harsh War, Just Peace.”

  10. Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 9:41 pm


    I don’t think it will, as it represents only about four pages of a 100,000 word manuscript. In the big scheme of things, it’s just a handful of pages.

    I really do appreciate the thoughtful input and thank you for it again.


  11. Fri 04th Aug 2006 at 9:42 pm


    I’m not aware of any other such instances, but I think your point is valid.

    It’s this sort of feedback (and that given by Chuck) is why I put this up–I was looking for legitimate criticism and am quite pleased to have received it.


  12. John D. Mackintosh
    Sat 05th Aug 2006 at 8:47 pm

    Interesting insights from all. My two cents….Writing a book on Dahlgren without examining these questions would be akin to writing a book on the Little Big Horn and not trying to come to some sort of conjectural “conclusions” as to the whys and hows of the the fate that befell the five Custer companies. Yes, we can never know the full answers to Lincoln/Stanton/Dahlgren but their is great enjoyment in the mental exercise of taking a stab at figuring it out, just as there in doing the same with that fracas that took place on the banks of that river in Montana.

  13. Bob
    Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 7:57 pm

    The Lincoln parable of the lemonade made me wonder – Lincoln seems to have been opportunistic enough to have used a story like that to illustrate a desire for Davis’s convenient escape in spring of 1865, and it seems that he might well have equally used the same story in spring of 1864 to cover for his desire to see Davis executed in Dahlgren’s raid. Lincoln’s situation in early ’64 was a lot riskier and different than a year later, when he could better afford to be magnaminous in a certain victory.

    While speculating, I must confess that every time I think of the Dahlgren plan with respect to the Confederate government my mind wanders forward a year to the Lincoln assassination, which has been viewed by some as a planned Confederate Secret Service retribution for what might have been done a year earlier. And if your hypothesis is true with respect to Stanton, the same type of case could be made for the role of Judah Benjamin in those last desperate days of the Confederacy, whom one could certainly see preserving Davis’s own plausible deniability. Benjamin had taken the heat for Davis a number of times.

    Very interesting post, Eric, and thanks for giving your fans the opportunity to comment on your work in progress.

  14. Bill Bergen
    Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 8:29 pm


    Absent any harder evidence to the contrary, your conclusion will, I think, stand the test of time. Excellent, judicious treatment.

    Lincoln certainly gave tacit approval to the destruction wrought by Sherman and Sheridan. Both these occurred months later–and under a whole different set of circumstances–than the Dahlgren raid. And tacit approval of laying waste to Confederate resources is a whole different proposition than okaying the murder of one’s counterpart.

    As for Stanton and Lincoln’s relationship, there was closeness and admiration on both sides. However, they often disagreed, and worked around each other. Stanton was never the insider that Seward and others became, and he was quite capable of doing underhanded and secretive things that Lincoln did not know about. I find it only barely plausible that he could have sanctioned Dahlgren, however, but I think that slightly more likely than Uric acting completely on his own.

    This entire useful discussion has sent me on a tangent looking into Stanton’s relationship to the Radicals during 1863-1864. I may have something original to report this fall.



  15. Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 8:37 pm


    You’re very welcome. I think you all now have some sense of why this whole topic so intrigues me, and why I’ve spent years gnashing my teeth over it. It’s very much like peeling an onion–you peel away one layer and find many more underneath.


  16. Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 8:38 pm


    I think your analysis is spot on.

    There will be more about this later tonight….

    I look forward to hearing the results of your investigation into the relationship between Stanton and the radicals.


  17. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 12th Aug 2006 at 2:48 pm

    I think that the LEAST likely scenario is Dahlgren acting alone. Unless he was a raving lunatic or a blithering idiot – neither of which seems likely – not only would he not have conceived of such a plot himsef (and by so doing place both his father and the President in untenable moral and political positions), but he most probably would not have followed Kilpatrick (if the plan had been his) into any such situation for the same reasons.

    The second least likely scenario is that powerful persons in the Administration acted absent the President’s ‘blessing’ and knowlingly contrary to his wishes. The reason for my conclusion? Simple! The choice of Ulrich Dahlgren as a participant. As noted in my comment on RMR2, no one in his right mind would choose someone personally close to the President for such a task knowing that the President would disapprove and put an end to it should he have learned of it prior to its execution.

    Frankly, with all this ‘new’ information, the scenario that MOST fits the facts involves Lincoln’s involvement. The only thing here is, was it active or tacit. Did Lincoln conceive of the plan or, having heard of its conception give his active blessing for its follow through – or, having learned of what was afoot, did he merely walk away and take no direct part either in its completion or its prevention. No matter which of these scenarios is ‘the truth’, the fact is, Lincoln WAS involved and virtually (if not actually) from the ‘get-go’.

    Furthermore, if Stanton did destroy the papers afterward to my mind simply makes Lincoln’s involvement all the more clear. Stanton was not the kind of man who would have been concerned about public knowledge that he was involved. Indeed, he might have been quite proud to have been so had the matter been successful. On the other hand, Stanton was apparently very moved by Lincoln’s death (as I have already stated) and would have done anything to prevent his memory being tarnished. So the destruction of the Dahlgren papers is far more likely to have been Stanton’s attempt to keep Lincoln’s name out of the whole shameful affair.

    Mr. Wittenberg also cites my point about Lincoln wanting to end the war before he came up for re-election given the war-weariness of the North. He further cites my point that Lincoln would probably have concluded that once the Confederate GOVERNMENT was gone, the ‘secessionist beast’ would have been headless and probably the whole movement would have simply ended once Southern military leaders had no more civilian government to lead the effort. America’s military had, from the beginning, been subservient to civilian rule (thank you, George Washington!).

    So, on the whole, I can see nothing in what is known so far that in any way absolves Lincoln of involvement other than the myths and cult grown round the man since his assassination. Had he died an old man in his bed, perhaps more objectivity might be displayed in this matter by those who simply refuse to believe that ‘Honest Abe’ could have done such a thing.

  18. John Stephenson
    Tue 19th Sep 2006 at 11:19 am

    Does anyone know whaere I can find a map of Dahlgren’s Raid?


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