06 February 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 11 comments

I’ve long maintained a deep and abiding interest in Hubert “Leatherbreeches” Dilger. As a student of the Eleventh Corps, I’ve had a chance to study Dilger’s actions at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in some detail, and I’m convinced that there was probably no better company level artillery officer on either side during the Civil War than Dilger. Dilger’s stand in the Plank Road at Chancellorsville–just his six Napoleons against Jackson’s whole corps–is one of those wonderful stories that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Dilger was awarded a Medal of Honor for that stand, and rightly so.

He probably also should have been awarded one for his work at Gettysburg on the first day, also. His performance that day was just as spectacular. At one point, he personally sighted a gun, pulled the lanyard, and said, “I”ve spiked their gun for them.” The Confederate OR’s talk about how a Confederate gun on Oak Hill was put out of commission when it was struck on the muzzle by a Union artillery shell. That would have to be the shot fired by Dilger.

Legend also has it that Dilger fired the shot that tore Bishop Leonidas Polk apart on Pine Mountain during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Some recent evidence suggests it wasn’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Dilger did fire that shot–he was that good an artillerist.

After the war, Dilger settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he raised a large family. One of his sons, Anton Dilger, although born in Virginia and a U. S. citizen, went to college and medical school in Germany. Anton spent an idyllic childhood on the family farm in Virginia. Like his father, Anton was a superb horseman. Anton Dilger, physician, U. S. citizen, and fiercely loyal to the Fatherland, became a useful tool. He was recruited by the German government and sent back to the U. S. to act as an agent provacateur.

Taking up residence a scant six miles from the White House, Anton Dilger’s task was to develop and implement a campaign of biological warfare against his own country. Specifically, he was sent to the United States to engage in germ warfare against his countrymen. His target would be the horses and cattle supplied to the Allied armies by the then-neutral United States, and Dilger set about cultivating anthrax bacteria and Pseudomonas mallei, the germ that causes glanders, a crippling equine disease. Fortunately, Dilger’s scheme failed and his plot was unsuccessful. He died of the Spanish flu at age 34 during the global pandemic of 1918.

Anton Dilger’s nefarious scheme has been documented in a new book by a journalist named Robert Koenig titled The Fourth Horseman: One Man’s Secret Campaign to Fight the Great War in America. I first learned about this book from a post on David Woodbury’s blog (thanks for making me aware of this book, David) and ran out and bought a copy. I’m working my way through it.

It’s really a fascinating read. Koenig focuses on German issues, and writes well. He made good use of surviving members of the Dilger family, and has done a good job of telling the story. His Civil War materials are not entirely accurate; he relied on a biography of Hubert Dilger written by one of Leatherbreeches’ great grandsons, and it’s not particularly accurate in its telling of the story of Dilger’s Civil War service. If you can get beyond that–and I highly recommend doing so–it’s a fabulous story and filled with lessons that have to be learned. That a foreign agent could do this kind of work–and nearly succeed–literally in the shadow of the White House is a terrifying prospect at best. And that the son of a true American hero–a Medal of Honor winner–could act as a saboteur for a foreign government is even more unfathomable.

I highly recommend this book. It’s filled with important but chilling lessons with an amazing connection to the Civil War.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 3:54 am

    Eric,

    I’m glad to see your thoughts on this. I have it on my “to buy” list, but to this point have only read the review in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was curious to know how well the author treated the necessary Civil War background (that’s often a disappointing aspect when the CW is tangential to the main subject, and shortcuts or oft-repeated misconceptions cause you to wince a little). But as you mentioned, this is a fresh enough story to rise above those distractions (if you have faith that people more knowledgable about that era aren’t wincing too).

    Every now and then you learn of something like this, and feel stunned to have never heard any hint of the story before. Funny how thoroughly we compartmentalize history.

    David

  2. Brian S.
    Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 11:10 am

    Eric,

    This is completely off topic, but you mentioned in a previous post about maybe writing a book about the 11th Corps at Gettysburg. I was wondering how that project is coming along? Brian

  3. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 11:13 am

    David,

    Agreed. And I definitely recommend buying it. Thanks again for making me aware of it; but for your blog entry, I probably never thought to read it.

    Eric

  4. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 11:16 am

    Brian,

    Actually, it will cover the Eleventh Corps at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg which will be titled Bad Moon Rising: The Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but it’s going to be a while–five years at least. I have a LOT more research to do, although I’ve already got quite a bit of good material.

    Eric

  5. Brian S.
    Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Eric,

    I’ve been thinking about researching and writing about military topics for awhile now and I’ve almost convinced myself to jump in. The last straw was, and still is constantly reading about your projects on this blog, as well as other blogs, namely J.D.’s and Dimitri’s. I just wanted to say that. It’s a lot of fun reading about the process of writing a book and the ups and downs you go through.

  6. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Eric,
    Now you’ll get an indignant letter from CCR!

    Drew

  7. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Brian,

    By all means, please do. The only way you’ll ever know if you’re up to the task is to try.

    I’m glad you find something rewarding here. I appreciate your taking the time to indulge my rantings.

    Eric

  8. Wed 07th Feb 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Drew,

    LOL. Bring it on. 🙂

    Eric

  9. Scott
    Thu 08th Feb 2007 at 8:41 pm

    Dilger also made a splendid contribution to halting the Confederate advance up the Warrenton Turnpike at Second Bull Run on August 30, securing Pope’s “line of retreat.”

  10. rkoenig
    Sun 11th Feb 2007 at 4:18 am

    Which account of Hubert Dilger’s Civil War exploits would you recommend as being the most accurate? As you know, there are numerous books and articles that detail or at least mention his horse artillery tactics at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. And, of course, there are many other stories – including the tale of his court martial for insubordination – that are seldom covered in Civil War histories.
    Thanks for mentioning my book, “The Fourth Horseman.” As you pointed out so eloquently, Hubert Dilger’s Civil War heroism is tangential to the books’s main topic: the emergence of Hubert’s son Anton C. Dilger as a spy for Imperial Germany and as a key figure in the origins of 20th century biological warfare/sabotage. Because the main target of that sabotage was war horses being shipped from the U.S. to Allied armies in Europe during World War I, researching the book required a great deal of work in archives related to the Great War; the British Army’s Remount Service; the fate of German-Americans between the Civil War and the Great War; the history of modern microbiology; veterinary science and military veterinary records; the post-war Mixed Claims Commission investigation (re: German sabotage during WWI); and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
    Even so, the story of the family itself is compelling, and I tried to tell it in an interesting fashion. How is it that the son of a German immigrant who won America’s highest military honor during the Civil War could become a spy and saboteur for its implacable enemy during World War I and be awarded the Iron Cross for espionage and sabotage against the United States?

    — Rob Koenig
    Pretoria, South Africa

  11. Sun 11th Feb 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Rob,

    Thanks very much for writing; it’s nice to know that folks are reading this blog. I thoroughly enjoyed your book and am personally grateful to you for telling such an important story. I can only hope that the obvious lessons of this book have been learned by the U. S. government, but doubt that they have.

    Thanks again for writing, and please keep up the good work.

    Eric

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