07 August 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 8 comments

There are more developments to discuss pertaining to the question of what Lincoln knew and when he knew it.

First, however, the good news: I just completed the first draft of the Dahlgren manuscript. After nearly a year of writing it, the first draft of this complex and fascinating young man’s life is complete. Plenty of work remains to be done; my writing style has always been to put things down on paper and then play with them, so I have lots of editing and tweaking to do. However, the first draft is, at long last, complete. It’s a great feeling.

I had an epiphany tonight about Stanton’s role, so I added a new paragraph to the chapter. By way of background: In February 1864, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commanding at Fortress Monroe, conceived of a plan to send Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar on a “lightning” raid on Richmond to free the POW’s from the east; Wistar was stationed at Yorktown and commanded the garrison there. With about 4,000 troops, Wistar advanced on Richmond to free the POW’s in February 1864, less than a month before the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid. His advance was detected, and the Confederates easily repulsed Wistar’s sortie. Recognizing that the element of surprise was lost, Wistar wisely broke off and withdrew. What’s important about his excursion is that many of the operative details were the same as what ended up in the Dahlgren Papers. Wistar penned a report that was endorsed and sent on my Butler.

Thus, Stanton was well aware of the Wistar raid and its objectives. I realized that tonight. Consequently, I added the following paragraph to my discussion, in the middle of my discussion about Stanton’s possible role in the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid:

The similarity between the failed Wistar expedition of February and the plans set forth in the Dahlgren Papers also suggests strongly that someone high up in the administration was well aware of the plan and had authorized it. Otherwise, why would Kilpatrick have been summoned to Washington for consultations with Lincoln and Stanton? And why else would one-legged Ully Dahlgren have been selected, other than the fact that he was known to be a reliable confidant of the President?

Then there’s this quote, from a letter by John Singleton Mosby, who met Wistar at a post-war party in Philadelphia: “On a recent visit to Philadelphia I met socially with General Isaac Wister (sic) of the Federal army,” recounted Mosby. “He informed me that the infernal purposes of Kilpatrick and Dahlgren were correctly disclosed in the papers found on Dahlgren’s body; that he was in command at Yorktown at the time, that Kilpatrick after his retreat from Richmond spent several days at his headquarters, that Kilpatrick, who was then ignorant of Dahlgren’s death, told him all his plans which were identical with what was stated in the Dahlgren papers. He also said that [General Benjamin] Butler once ordered him on a similar expedition but that he positively refused to go.”

This letter has a great deal of credibility. Wistar was in command at Yorktown, Kilpatrick did end up in Yorktown for several days after being repulsed from Richmond, and Butler had ordered Wistar to advance on Richmond to free the prisoners of war prior to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid. It appears, therefore, that Wistar’s claim that Kilpatrick in fact knew of and approved the plan to kidnap and assassinate Jefferson Davis and his cabinet ring true.

This certainly adds food for thought, doesn’t it?

Here’s one final factor that further reinforces my suspicion of Stanton. I deal with this in the appendix to the book, where the issue of the authenticity of the Dahlgren Papers is addressed. Like so many other things associated with the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, the fate of the Dahlgren Papers themselves remains a mystery lost to the ages. When the Confederate leadership abandoned Richmond on April 2, 1865, they took the Confederate archives with them in an effort to protect them. After Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army in North Carolina a few weeks later, he told the Federal authorities where to find the contents of the archives, and U. S. authorities took possession of the documents on May 16, 1865. Dr. Francis Lieber, head of a bureau in the office of the adjutant general, took custody of the documents for eventual publication and inclusion in the National Archives.

In November of that same year, Secretary Stanton ordered Dr. Lieber to turn over the Dahlgren Papers to him. Dr. Lieber responded on December 1, surrendering possession of four packages associated with the Dahlgren Papers, including Dahlgren’s notebook, the address to his men, a letter to Dahlgren marked “confidential,” and supporting documents gathered by the Confederate government to authenticate the documents found on Dahlgren’s body. These four packages then disappeared. There is no record of them remaining anywhere. When the official records of the Civil War were being compiled, a request was made for them, to be included. In 1879, the request for the Dahlgren Papers addressed to Adjutant General Edward Townsend came back endorsed, “No record is found upon the War Department books or files of the papers herein referred to.” Thus, once the Dahlgren Papers were delivered to Edwin Stanton in November 1865, they vanished. There has been no record of them since, other than a photographic copy that later surfaced in the Virginia Historical Society in 1975, and the accounts of them published in the Richmond newspapers in 1864.

Unless it was to cover his tracks, why would Stanton have caused the Dahlgren Papers to disappear when there is no evidence that any other such documents are also similarly missing?

The more I delve into this mystery, the more intrigued by it I find myself.

Scridb filter


  1. John D. Mackintosh
    Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 10:18 pm

    Food for thought, you ask? More like feast for thought, especially the letter from Mosby. I don’t think that has been used in any previous works on the raid, has it? Is that letter from a secondary source or from a manuscript repository? Of course, if credible, that draws Kilpatrick into the depths of this entire affair.

  2. Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 10:29 pm


    The Mosby letter has never been used by anyone before. I believe I am the first to have found and used it. It is in a collection of unedited and unabridged collection of Mosby’s letters that was published by the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society of Richmond, and is not a secondary source in any sense of the word. It’s quite a find, and I’ve been sitting on it for a long time, trying to figure out how best to use it.

    As you say, it certainly casts a lot of doubt on Kilpatrick.


  3. Bill Bergen
    Tue 08th Aug 2006 at 7:39 am



    Remember, too, that there was something of a rivalry at this time between Butler and Stanton. Butler absolutely had to be kept in the Lincoln camp because he was perhaps the key pro-war Democrat. It was known that he was sniffing out a run for president, and Lincoln sent emissaries to sound him out about the vice presidency and being secretary of war. Butler rebuffed both overtures, preferring to further his ambitions by winning victories on the battlefield (this is in Longacre’s Army of Amateurs). See also my comment on what I found in the Fletcher Pratt biography of Stanton in the long stream of comments in the thread a few weeks ago soliciting our opinions on this matter. In that bio I found that Stanton in this period was up to his elbows in prisioner-of-war matters.

    Also, the Wistar expedition was accompanied by a demonstration by the Army of the Potomac at Morton’s Ford. Sedgwick, in command of the army at the time, opposed the move as ruining perhaps the best prospect of crossing the Rapidan and advancing directly on Lee. The high command’s “told you so” approach to this failure probably reinforced the idea that whatever the next step was to be it would have been done outside regular channels.

    What intrigues me, and I am sure you have examined this thoroughly, is what, if anything, Kilpatrick said about the raid at the time or afterwards. What led to his being transferred out of the Army of the Potomac? He was just the sort of indiscreet individual who might have said something somewhere that would shed some light.


  4. Tue 08th Aug 2006 at 9:21 am


    That’s just it–for once, Kilpatrick WAS discreet. Other than what Wistar recounted, there is nothing at all documented other than the letter that he wrote disavowing Dahlgren. Just this one time, he kept his mouth shut.


  5. Chuck
    Tue 08th Aug 2006 at 11:50 am


    Just a couple of questions for clarification (and be devil’s advocate):

    Did Wistar himself ever write an account of the discussion he had with Kilpatrick?

    Mosby’s account seems to imply that Wistar had been ordered “on a similar expedition” that included killing Davis (Mosby also writes that Wistar stated ‘he refused to go’, when in fact he did go, but failed), does any evidence exist that Wistar was specifically ordered to kill Jeff Davis and Cabinet?
    If not, Wistar’s mission is much different than that which is stated in the Dahlgren papers on the important point of murdering the Confederate Government.

    When the Confederacy was crumbling and Davis and his cabinet was running for their lives was an order ever issued to hunt them down and kill them? Even after Lincoln was assassinated (and Stanton was arguably in charge), was such an order issued? If not, why not. It certainly would have been easy to kill Davis in the Georgia hinterlands and state later he was killed trying to flee.

    Stanton, Butler, Kilpatrick being unsavory individuals can easily be put into such a conspiracy. But by doing so, doesn’t the discussion then move off Dahlgren and his culpability (he simply becomes a pawn in a greater conspiracy ala Oswald)?

  6. Tue 08th Aug 2006 at 3:32 pm


    Interesting comments, as usual.

    Wistar did not leave an account of the conversation with Kilpatrick that I have been able to locate. His post-war memoir–a very large book–has a gap in it from the end of his expedition in February 1864 to the beginning of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. It’s almost like he made a conscious choice not to delve into the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid at all.

    I think you’re misreading things. After the failure of the K-D Raid, a punitive expedition into King and Queen County was ordered, and I believe Wistar was referring to that. Alternatively, it might have been another instance after the K-D Raid. I don’t read that statement as suggesting that there was only one instance.

    I am unaware of any such order being issed to hunt Davis down and kill him. I doubt it would have happened–I think that the Radicals intended to hold a show trial for treason, and Davis was obviously going to be the star of that show. If you hunt him down and kill him, then there’s no show trial.

    You are quite right that it is possible that Dahlgren was a patsy.

    And you again point out the complexity of this situation and why it is so fascinating.


  7. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 10th Aug 2006 at 3:09 pm

    Ah, gentlemen. Finally somebody brought up John Mosby – and it wasn’t me (I?). In any event, you can believe Mosby or at least believe that what he said he himself believed to be the truth. One of the man’s more endearing (and disruptive) qualities was absolute honesty. Oh, he could dissemble for the purposes of military strategy – such as telling General Stoughton that Stuart’s cavalry had captured Fairfax – but when it came to recounting the facts as he knew and/or believed them to be, you can be sure that he is not lying even when mistaken.

    I don’t think that Dahlgren was ever a motivating factor but rather, because of his youth, ambition and connections – and his obvious courage as evidenced in combat – he was considered a great addition to the raid. Unless I am mistaken, he was surely more of an idealist than Kilpatrick and thus would have pursued the raid as long as there was any hope of its success while K. might have determined that things didn’t look good and turned back to save his own hide.

    But the inclusion of Dahlgren must also, I think, implicate more than Stanton. If Stanton was involved – and I don’t for a minute doubt it – the LAST person he would have wanted on any such raid was a young man (or ANY man) close to Lincoln UNLESS LINCOLN ALREADY KNEW OF THE PURPOSE OF THE RAID! If I’m trying to keep something a secret from Mr. Wittenberg, I would not purposefully involve his secretary in the matter lest she let the secret slip either before or after the fact. In the same way, if Lincoln WAS ‘ignorant’ of the raid and/or its purpose and would have been totally opposed to the plan, then you wouldn’t want to use someone like Dahlgren – who, together with his father, was intimate with the President.

    Mr. Wittenberg has mentioned that Kilpatrick, despite his other less than sterling qualities, could in fact be discrete. But one has to wonder how poor Ully would have fared under Lincoln’s stern gaze had he returned from a successful raid and accomplished something that so many people assert would have been an anathema to the the President. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Better by far to have let some other person go with Kilpatrick (God knows there were enough such soldiers and officers) who had no problem with the goal of the raid and no connection with Lincoln. As it was, Dahlgren’s very PRESENCE implicates Lincoln simply because of the relationship among the three men – Lincoln, Ully and his father.

    The only COUNTERING argument that can be made, to my mind at least, is that Dahlgren was chosen for that very reason – that is, to implicate Lincoln and make it impossible for him to reject the actions taken and rebuke those involved. How could Lincoln have done that to young Dahlgren had he been successful and returned alive? Indeed, how could he even admit that the thing had happened after the young man’s death without implicating himself in the matter?

    As for Stanton ‘hiding’ or ‘destroying’ the papers: if he did – and again, I don’t doubt it – he may well have been acting on LINCOLN’s behalf as well as his own. Frankly, I don’t think he was much bothered by the object of the raid and would have accepted Davis’ death as a great victory for the Union. On the other hand, Lincoln’s martyrdom raised him beyond the level of a mere politician (however good) or even a statesman and into the realm of a ‘civil saint’. It could well be that Stanton – who was most moved by the President’s death – might have determined that he would allow nothing to smear Lincoln’s reputation posthumously and so made certain that nothing remained that could be traced to the dead President however indirectly. That makes more sense to me than to suppose that Stanton would have given a fig if people thought he wanted Davis and the Confederate government dead – which, in fact, he probably did!

    Was Dahlgren a ‘patsy’? It depends upon what you mean by that. I believe that he supported the raid and its objectives. On the other hand, his choice as a participant is definitely suspect. Was he chosen to implicate (and thus silence) Lincoln or was he chosen BY Lincoln because he thought that they young man had ‘the right stuff’ to do a dangerous and rather dirty deed ‘for the good of the country’? I guess we will never know unless some NEW letter or documents is unearthed.

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