02 November 2005 by Published in: Union Cavalry 13 comments

For a number of years, I have been fascinated by Ulric Dahlgren. He’s a young man who definitely had “the right stuff,” to borrow a line from Tom Wolfe. He had all of the tools to become a truly great cavalryman. A colonel at 21, he was dead at 22, having been completely disavowed by the Army.

In May 1863, just after the Battle of Chancellorsville, then-Capt. Dahlgren accompanied Joseph Hooker to Washington when Hooker went to consult with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln. At that time, Dahlgren was serving on Hooker’s staff. Because his father, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, was a close friend of the President, the young captain had unprecedented access to the White House and to Lincoln, certainly more so than any other 21-year-old captain.

During that meeting, Ully Dahlgren pitched a raid on Richmond to the President and to Stanton, proposing to free the POW’s being held on Belle Isle and in Libby Prison. The proposal was rejected for lots of reasons, but Ully Dahlgren continued to harbor his idea.

In the winter of 1863-64, Judson Kilpatrick revived the idea, and Ully Dahlgren, then in Washington and still recuperating from the loss of a leg to a terrible combat wound on July 6, 1863, eagerly signed on to the project. The raid was approved by Lincoln and Stanton over the objections of Cavalry Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, and over the objection of Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. In short, the raid had the specific approval of the highest echelons of the Union command, right up to the White House itself. Dahlgren led a column of the raid, which was intended to enter Richmond, free the POW’s, and then head down the Peninsula.

On March 2, Ully Dahlgren was killed in King and Queen County when he was ambushed by home guards and elements of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. On his body were found certain incriminating documents, which were published verbatim in one of the Richmond newspapers. This triggered an extraordinary exchange of correspondence:

April 1, 1864

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Commanding Army of the Potomac:


I am instructed to bring to your notice two papers found upon the body of Col. U. Dahlgren, who was killed while commanding a part of the Federal cavalry during the late expedition of General Kilpatrick. To enable you to understand the subject fully I have the honor to inclose photographic copies of the papers referred to, one of which is an address to his officers and men, bearing the official signature of Colonel Dahlgren, and the other, not signed, contains more detailed explanations of the purpose of the expedition and more specific instructions as to its execution. In the former this passage occurs:

We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first, and having seen them fairly started, we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us and exhorting the prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape. The prisoners must render great assistance, as you cannot leave your ranks too far or become too much scattered, or you will be lost.

Among the instructions contained in the second paper are the following:

The bridges once secured, and the prisoners loose and over the river, the bridges will be secured and the city destroyed. The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and cabinet killed. Pioneers will go along with combustible material.

In obedience to my instructions I beg leave respectfully to inquire whether the designs and instructions of Colonel Dahlgren, as set forth in these papers, particularly those contained in the above extracts, were authorized by the United States Government or by his superior officers, and also whether they have the sanction and approval of those authorities.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee,

Not surprisingly, this letter triggered a flurry of correspondence and exchanges among the Union high command. On April 17, Meade responded:

April 17, 1864

General Robert E. Lee, Comdg. Army of Northern Virginia:


I received on the 15th instant, per flag of truce, your communication of the 1st instant, transmitting photographic copies of two documents alleged to have been found upon the body of Col. U. Dahlgren, and inquiring “whether the designs and instructions contained in the above extracts, were authorized by the United States Government or by his superior officers, and also whether they have the sanction and approval of these authorities.” In reply I have to state that neither the United States Government, myself, nor General Kilpatrick authorized, sanctioned, or approved the burning of the city of Richmond and the killing of Mr. Davis and cabinet, nor any other act not required by military necessity and in accordance with the usages of war.

In confirmation of this statement I inclose a letter from General Kilpatrick and have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Geo. G. Meade,

Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, the overall commander of the failed cavalry raid on Richmond, wrote:

April 16, 1864

Brig. Gen. S. Williams, A.A.G., Army of the Potomac:


In accordance with instructions from headquarters, Army of the Potomac, I have carefully examined officers and men who accompanied Colonel Dahlgren on his late expedition.

All testify that he published no address whatever to his command, nor did he give any instructions, much less of the character as set forth in the photographic copies of two papers alleged to have been found upon the person of Colonel Dahlgren and forwarded by General Robert E. Lee, commanding Army of Northern Virginia. Colonel Dahlgren, one hour before we separated at my headquarters, handed me an address that he intended to read to his command. That paper was indorsed in red ink, “Approved,” over my official signature. The photographic papers referred to are true copies of the papers approved by me, save so far as they speak of “exhorting the prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city and kill the traitor Davis and his cabinet,” and in this, that they do not contain the indorsement referred to as having been placed by me on Colonel Dahlgren’s papers. Colonel Dahlgren received no orders from me to pillage, burn, or kill, nor were any such instructions given me by my superiors.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. Kilpatrick,
Brigadier-General Volunteers

And with that, the United States Army disavowed Ulric Dahlgren and a great controversy began that continues to rage to this day.

I am convinced that the documents were real, and I am likewise convinced that Dahlgren intended to do just what he proposed if the opportunity presented itself. There is some evidence that suggests that Kilpatrick lied in his March 16 letter (imagine that) and that he not only knew of Dahlgren’s plan, but approved of it.

The question, therefore, is just how much did Lincoln know, and did he approve the assassination of Davis and his cabinet as a means of shortening the war? Clearly, there is no written record to indicate his knowledge or approval, but that may have been intentional in order to provide for what’s commonly called plausible deniability. Some suggest that the raid was approved by Stanton and Lincoln for the specific purpose of using the chaos caused by the freed prisoners to take out Davis and his cabinet.

I tend to think that plausible deniability was at work. I think Stanton knew and approved it, without telling Lincoln.

I wonder what others think?

Scridb filter


  1. Mike Peters
    Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 12:03 am


    What credence do you give to Gen. Marsena Patrick’s secondhand account which claimed, by way of Capt. McEntee, that the papers found on Dahlgren were indeed valid & that the death of Jeff Davis was one of the mission’s goals?


  2. Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 9:58 am


    It’s just one of a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence that, when you add them all up, make a pretty powerful case.


  3. Dave Kelly
    Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 11:40 am

    Blaming Stanton is certainly plausible. His radicalist tendencies would seem to relish that sort of retribution. But it’s still hard to see state policy tipping towards black flag tactics.

    Recall how the use of landmines got nixed.

    When the South declared they would enforce slave insurgency laws by hanging white officers a quid pro quo threat made that go away (at least formally).

    That and the impression that no secret can survive in Washington DC makes it difficult to believe that any member of the national command would approve such a course of action.

    (Meade’s wrote that although he was compelled to accept Kilpatricks official rebuttal he thought him a liar.)

  4. Will Hickox
    Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 1:13 pm

    Hard to believe a “right stuff” guy like Colonel Dahlgren would be foolish enough to carry such inflammatory information on his person while on a dangerous mission deep behind enemy lines.

  5. Will Hickox
    Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 1:22 pm

    I would be interested in hearing the evidence that these documents were genuine. As I stated above, it seems unfathomable that Dahlgren could be so boneheaded. And was the “burning and killing” message really so complicated that Dahlgren would have to write it down in order to remind himself? Mind you, I concur in the belief that Stanton and Kilpatrick were probably not above such schemes, but based on the information presented in this post, I suspect a rebel propagandist at work.

    Eric, what are your reasons for believing the papers are genuine? Did the handwriting match Dahlgren’s? Does the wording sound like other things he wrote? This is fascinating stuff.

  6. Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Please take a look at fortyrounder.blogspot.com for an interesting perspective on the Dahlgren affair.

  7. Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 3:28 pm

    Interesting point, Dave, and one I had not considered. Thanks for chiming in.

    Meade also wrote to his wife that he hated hanging Ully Dahlgren out to dry but that he felt he had to do so for the good of the service.


  8. Christ Liebegott
    Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 3:43 pm

    Could it have been possible that the sentance regarding burning the city and killing Davis and cabinet was added AFTER Kilpatrick approved the orders? While I have little respect for Kilpatrick (and really could picture him giving such orders) it could have been Dalgren all along who wanted to play Northern super hero.

  9. Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 9:32 pm


    There are lots of things that lead me to my conclusion.

    There’s the passage from Marsena Patrick that Mike Peters cites. There’s a confirmation by a trooper who rode with Dahlgren. Most importantly, Virgil Carrington Jones had the photos of the documents checked out by a handwriting analyst before his book _Eight Hours Before Richmond_ was published in 1959, and the handwriting analyst, who had lots of examples of Dahlgren’s writing to compare it to (all of his letters to his father are in the Library of Congress), wrote that it was a match.


  10. Thu 03rd Nov 2005 at 9:33 pm


    It is entirely possible. It’s possible that Dahlgren added them later, although I doubt it. I tend to think it’s possible he was cowboying and told nobody.


  11. Mac
    Fri 31st Mar 2006 at 1:16 am

    Regarding the raid by Dahlgren:

    Lincoln was a hands on politician and I am sure he knew all about the plan to burn and kill, as did his staff and generals.
    Gasp! Gasp! Not possible! –you say. Well, go to your history books and read about Lincoln’s disregard for the writ of habeas corpus; which as a result, caused alot of clanking jail doors and almost caused the incarceration of the Maryland state legislature; had it not been for the intervention of General Scot. What’s the point? The point is:
    if one can disregard the rule of law, one can certainly approve of the Dalhgren affair to include the murder of Jefferson Davis and the burning of Richmond.

  12. Neal
    Mon 31st Mar 2008 at 3:45 pm

    What do you make of the fact that the signature was different than the way he signed any other document?

  13. Mon 31st Mar 2008 at 5:26 pm

    The answer is really rather simple. Signing “U. Dahlgren, Colonel” was the standard way for a field grade officer to sign official correspondence. It would be entirely normal to sign that way.


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