23 August 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 10 comments

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve spent a lot of time–and a lot of words here–discussing the question of what Lincoln knew and when he knew it with respect to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, and specifically, whether Lincoln knew of and approved of a plan to kidnap and assassinate Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, as certain papers found on Dahlgren’s body suggested.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the working draft of my take on this question here, and the next night, I supplemented that post with additional thoughts on the same question. Between these two posts, I laid out my thoughts on this topic in great detail, and figured that I had, at long last, tiptoed tuft to tuft across this particular morass. I was ready to move on.

I sent the working drafts of those portions of the manuscript that dealt with the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, including the appendix, which addresses the validity of the Dahlgren Papers themselves, to David W. Gaddy, one of the three authors of Come Retribution, a book-length study of the Lincoln Assassination. This book postulates that the Lincoln assassination actually was ordered and carried out by the Confederate secret service, in part to avenge the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid.

Dave Gaddy is a former intelligence officer, and he is quite knowledgeable about these events. Consequently, I thought I would get his thoughts on the working draft. I got much more than I bargained for in doing so. When Dave wrote me back, he laid out an entirely new angle on this for me that spells out a somewhat persuasive argument that Lincoln not only knew, he actually ordered the kidnapping and execution of Davis and his ministers.

To borrow a line from Michael Corleone, just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in.

Dave’s thoughtful letter to me prompted me to reassess some of thinking on this whole question. I’m still not entirely convinced that Lincoln knew, but I’m leaning a bit more in that direction than I had previously. I’m getting ready to go back and see about revising my take on these events once more. If Dave gives me permission to do so, I will post his letter here.

This question hovers over any biography of Ulric Dahlgren like the sword of Damocles. Much as I would love to duck this question altogether, it simply has to be addressed by anyone attemptin to tell the story of this young man’s life. There is no way around it, and I can’t think of any single question about the Late Unpleasantness that has in turn intrigued me and driven me crazy more than this one has over the years I’ve wrestled with it.

Scridb filter


  1. Wed 23rd Aug 2006 at 9:47 pm

    I agree that it’s something you need to address. I also find it impossible to believe that any secretary of war would dare order something like that on his own.

  2. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 11:28 am

    You know, I am wrong so often that it has become a habit. However, I think that this once I can actually take a bow and say, ‘I told you so!’. There was just TOO much involved to believe that the plan could have arisen from someone ‘in the ranks’ or even someone of importance in the Administration. Then, too, Lincoln’s upcoming election was so ‘iffy’ that he needed something decisive to insure re-election and certainly, the destruction of the Confederate civil government and the resultant collapse of its military operations would have been ‘just the ticket’, so to speak.

    Again, as I pointed out, the American military had a history of being subordinate to civilian rule. I cannot believe for a moment that Lee or any other Confederate general, deprived of an actual civilian government and in the ultimate chaos immediately preceding its destruction, would have considered himself in a position to continue the war. Once there was no more ‘Confederate government’, there would have BEEN no more war. It would have simply died out or at least that part of the war being waged by large armies would have ceased. As for guerilla activities, that is problematic, but the general conflict would soon have sputtered to a halt.

    And who knows? It might actually have been better for the South had that in fact happened. It certainly would have been a moral ‘black eye’ for Lincoln and his government, but it might well have saved thousands of lives on BOTH sides and millions of dollars of waste and destruction.

    So, here and now, I believe I have the right (perhaps for the first – and last – time in my life) to correctly point out, ‘I told you so!’


  3. Chuck
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 2:04 pm


    While I agree you must address the issue. You certainly do not need to speculate. Present the facts as they exist and let the reader decide.

    “Come Retribution” is an interesting book, but it gives the Confederate Secret Service a CIA capability that it simply didn’t have. All of the ‘threads’ in the conspiracy are speculative. Its the same as in the Kennedy Assassination. In fact, that is really what drives all of this, the idea that Americans love good conspiracy stories and they sell.
    To 20th Century americans its simply not possible that Ulric Dahlgren all on his own decided if he got into Richmond, he’d destroy it and hunt down and kill the Confederate Cabinet. Just like it’s simply not possible that L.H. Oswald may just have been the one in the book depository all by his lonesome.
    It’s got to be a huge conspiracy involving everyone, but yet they all manage to stay quiet and no evidence exists……but we know better, right (wink, wink).

    As I stated before…..what is the actual proof that Lincoln knew about it and ordered it? For that matter, what is the actual proof that Jeff Davis ordered the murder of Lincoln?

  4. Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 3:35 pm


    There is none, and my basic belief that Lincoln neither knew nor ordered it has not changed a bit. Dave gave me food for thought, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to include some of his letter in the notes to my Dahlgren work. However, I remain firmly convinced that if there was such a conspiracy, it originated with–and got no farther than–Stanton.

    Dave’s given me permission to post that portion of his letter here, and I will do so this evening.


  5. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 3:36 pm

    I’m sorry, but I must disagree most profoundly. To believe that Lincoln had absolutely no part in or knowledge of the matter simply boggles the mind. It presents so many loose ends and preposterous suppositions as to render the theory entirely too problematic. The only theory MORE absurd is that it was all planned by space aliens.

    I don’t suppose that the Confederate Secret Service was fantastic, but they were certainly good enough to do considerable damage if for no other reason than that it was very simple for spies and sabateurs to move from the South into the North (and vice versa). There were also double and in some instances TRIPLE agents, people who played on both sides and/or changed sides with bewildering speed. Therefore, I don’t think that it’s wise to dismiss Mr. Conrad and the rest of that aspect of the matter. After all, not EVERY Southerner was either a ‘hayseed’ or a cavalier.

    As for a ‘huge conspiracy’, why not? Lincoln’s death – as I have posited before – made him into a secular saint. Many is the person in the Union – such as E. Stanton – who would have been willing to go to his or her grave rather than blacken Lincoln’s memory by associating him with the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raid. Furthermore, as many ‘conspiracy theories’ of the past have simply been pooh-poohed into obscurity, it is not reasonable to assume that NO ONE ever mentioned Lincoln’s involvement in the matter. Remember Lafayette Baker’s charge that Stanton and others in the Adminstration were involved in Lincoln’s assassination? That has been simply written off even though Baker’s admissions and charges were made on his death bed and death bed confessions have, in precedent, a certain legal legitimacy, I believe. I have no doubt that if someone were to come upon a diary of Stanton’s or any of the others implicated by ‘conspiracy theorists’ that ADMITTED involvement in Lincoln’s assassination, it too would be rejected simply because historically we are committed to a certain view of the events and do not wish to have to rethink history.

    If Dahlgren had in fact GONE ‘on his own’ to Richmond, I would be willing to concede the point – but he didn’t. He went with other soldiers, indeed, quite a number of other soldiers and he had been a frequent visitor at the White House for some time prior to setting out with those other soldiers. That means that there was at least both ‘opportunity’ and ‘means’ which, I believe, are two of the criteria for establishing a ‘conspiracy’; that is, proving a connection between possible ‘conspirators’.

    ‘Wink, wink’ all you like, but the evidence that Lincoln was involved at least in SOME way with the plan, though circumstantial, is to my mind, overwhelming. Indeed, it would take far more ‘winks’ to determine otherwise than to determine that such is the case.

  6. Chuck
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 4:23 pm


    I look forward to reading the letter.

    Valerie, as I stated earlier, if you have proof I’d like to see it. It doesn’t do any good arguing back and forth over possibilities, probabilities or whatever. My take is that you will always, no matter what, believe Lincoln ordered it. Nothing I say will change your mind, and I really don’t want to change your mind. You have your ways of determining truth.
    I personally just like to see actual proof when people are accused of doing things such as ordering people murdered before I condemn them.
    BTW, I don’t believe Jeff Davis ordered Lincoln’s murder either, even though there are many who believe ‘evidence’ exists of that.

  7. Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 4:40 pm


    To begin, you say it boggles the mind to think Lincoln had no part in the plan, and then you end your essay by admitting that the evidence of Lincoln’s knowledge or involvement is “circumstantial.”

    Circumstantial evidence may point to a conclusion, but it falls far short of anything resembling proof. Making dramatic conclusions based on circumstantial evidence may drive book sales (Lincoln was gay!), but it makes for bad history.


  8. Bill Bergen
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 5:20 pm

    So, Eric, can we see the evidence? Without it, it seems too early for “told you so.”

    Ever since you posed this question, I have been looking for anything that would suggest that Lincoln directed or knew about a scheme that involved murdering his Confederate counterpart. It is a fascinating question that I doubt it will ever be resolved fully, and as I have repeatedly said, and you judiciously put it, we cannot rule out that Lincoln at least knew of the plot. Still, the continued lack of any evidence had led me to come down pretty much where you did in your working draft.

    As you know, I found a surprisingly deep and detailed involvement by Sec. Stanton in prisoner-of-war matters, and especially in regard to those Union prisoners held in Richmond. This involvement was particularly intense in early 1864, and suggests that he had focused on those prisoners as a problem to be solved. That would tend to support the thesis that he had a major hand in the raid, at least to the extent of trying to free those prisoners.

    But I have also found something else: distaste by Stanton for wild and risky schemes, and distaste for “hell for leather” fighters. He advocated more aggressive generalship, but not recklessness (and surely the K-D raid, even absent the scheme to capture or murder Confederate civilian leaders, was reckless). Nor was he generally one to initiate military operations (the sole exception was the rapid conveyance of the 11th and 12th corps to fight at Chattanooga.) Having not studied Stanton in-depth before, I was surprised by this. Welles thought that Stanton was a bit of a coward, an assessment picked up by other chroniclers. Of course, he could have been overruled by the President. The problem here is that, by all evidence, Lincoln was considerably more cautious, both politically and militarily, than Stanton and by 1864 had some grasp of what cavalry might be expected to accomplish.

    The Mosby letter you posted on August 7 suggests, perhaps strongly, that the orders to kill Davis came from above. As an attorney, you know the problems inherent in such hearsay, but let’s suppose that Mosby reported accurately and that Kilpatrick was loose-lipped with Wistar and that Wistar reported Kilpatrick’s words accurately years after the fact. That means that someone in DC wrote, or at least dictated, the orders.

    One problem is that the actual wording of the order lacks any similarity with language used by Stanton or Lincoln, or any military authority for that matter: “We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape. . . The City it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.” Dahlgren could have somehow tried to cover the language of his orders to protect higher-ups, but it strikes me as much more likely that it is a creation of a 20-something glory-seeker. Did someone give him verbal orders? Did someone give him a hint of what he wanted the raid to accomplish?

    Other questions arise with the Mosby account. Was Kilpatrick ever actually under Butler’s orders? How likely was it that Kilpatrick would have been so close-lipped with everyone but Wistar, a non-West Pointer?

    Yet . . . Undermining my own thesis is that Wistar’s raid included as an objective capturing Davis, perhaps as a hostage to free the Union prisoners. Butler apparently obtained this approval from Lincoln and Stanton. I was surprised that Lincoln and Stanton could be that aggressive, even that reckless. That approval may, or may not, be explained by the status of the originator of the proposal. Butler was someone at that point to appease at all costs lest he turn his wandering eye toward seeking a presidential nomination.

    Put another way, my research has found little to support my original notion that Stanton was at least indirectly behind any scheme that included killing Davis. That has moved me slightly off my previous supposition and more towards the individuals with documented “cowboy” tendencies: Kilpatrick and Dahlgren.

    But, keeping an ever-open mind, I await what, I hope, will be more evidence.


  9. Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 6:32 pm


    The problem is that there is very, very little evidence. What little evidence there is is all circumstantial. Consequently, we’re left to make educated guesses.

    As for the Wistar thing….it was post-war, and it sounds to me like there simply was no reason not to talk about it in 1870. I do, however, find it interesting that Wistar said nothing of the sort in his post-war memoirs.


  10. Bill Bergen
    Thu 24th Aug 2006 at 9:21 pm


    Just looked up Wistar’s entry in Generals in Blue. Odd how he basically disappears from the records after Cold Harbor and resigns in August. Affords no light at all.


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