20 November 2007 by Published in: General musings 2 comments

On October 8, I posted the good news that the long-overlooked diaries of Lt. Col. Theodore H. Lyman of George Gordon Meade’s staff had finally been published.

After an embarrassingly long delay, I finally got around to buying a copy of it tonight. The first thing that I did was go to the index to see whether there were any references to Ulric Dahlgren or to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In a prior post here, I set out the unusual correspondence sent across the lines under flag of truce, asking whether the Dahlgren Papers represented the policy of the United States government. Here’s what Lyman wrote about that episode on April 18, 1864:

Last night Gen. Meade showed me the photograph copies of the Dahlgren orders, said to have been found on his body. There was an address and a sheet of memoranda. In both, reference was made to killing Davis and cabinet and burning the city. The address was signed “U. Dahlgren”. With it was a letter from Lee asking if the U.S. or Gen. Meade gave or approved such orders? The whole was dated Ap. 1 and sent by flag of truce, endorsed by J.E.B. Stuart, that a reply could be sent to Lightfoot Ford. Gen. Meade replied that no such orders had been given or were approved by him or the U. S. & enclosed was a letter from Kilpatrick saying that he had examined the men with Dahlgren who all denied hearing any such address. Gen. K further stated that he had endorsed “approved” in red ink on an address similar to this, but without the obnoxious passages. Gen. Meade however told me he considered the weight of evidence in favor of the authenticity, and plainly said he did not consider Kilpatrick a trustworthy person.(emphasis added)

This passage appears on pp. 123-124 of the book.

Wow. I never doubted the authenticity of the documents. I’ve got an appendix in the Dahlgren bio that should settle the question of the authenticity of the Dahlgren Papers once and for all. In addition, I’d concluded in my own mind that, aside from Meade lying to protect his subordinates, Kilpatrick was intimately involved in the plot, but this really causes me to reconsider things. I’ve now come to the conclusion that one of two things happened here.

First, and most likely, is that Kilpatrick and Edwin Stanton cooked up the scheme to kill Davis and his cabinet, and that they sucked the unsuspecting Ulric Dahlgren into the plot, and that when he was conveniently killed, they were able to keep their skirts clear by blaming it all on him, knowing full well that there was nobody else to contradict them.

The less likely scenario is that this was something that Kilpatrick and Ully Dahlgren cooked up on their own without the sanction or permission of the War Department or the high command of the Army of the Potomac. I view this as far less likely, largely because Dahlgren only joined the expedition after it had been approved by both Lincoln and the War Department.

It certainly is tantalizing. I think, however, that I’ve now concluded definitely that Dahlgren ended up being a patsy in a bigger game being played by Stanton and Kilpatrick, and this last little piece of evidence clinches it for me.

My original conclusion to the Dahlgren bio was a bit wishy-washy, in that I presented the options and left it to the reader to decide. Stephen W. Sears read the manuscript for me (and wrote a really nice foreword for it) and persuaded me that I should actually draw a conclusion and argue it, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. It’s now going to say that I believe that Dahlgren was a patsy who ended up a victim of the scheming of Kilpatrick and Stanton.

Scridb filter


  1. Valerie Protopapas
    Mon 26th Nov 2007 at 9:01 pm

    I claim no great knowledge of the War of Secession, but I do have some knowledge of warfare in general and aside from technology, the actors in the drama have not changed nor has the strategies changed all that much since the first blows were struck with sticks and stones. The idea in any war is to WIN and to do so as quickly and economically as possible. And while subsequent to the Age of Enlightenment people began to (erroneously) believe that they could be ‘civilized’ even while waging war, the fact is that war has NEVER been civilized.

    In days gone by, most warring factions understood that to strike the head was the means by which the war or at least the engagement was quickly ended. Hence, Richard III dies on Bosworth field, Leonidas dies at the Gates of Fire and both Charles I and Louis XVI perish in what are ACTUAL ‘civil wars’ (ours was not) in the hope that by so doing, their monarchies will cease to exist.

    To my mind, there is no reason for all the fuss and furor about the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raid, including such questions as, was it real and, if so, who was to ‘blame’. God knows, had it succeeded, both men would have been lauded and praised as having brought to an end a dreadful fratricidal war as I doubt very much with the Confederate civil government gone, Lee and other West Pointers leading the armies of the South would have remained in the field. Remember, the American military model was based upon Washington’s determination that the military must serve the civilian, not vice versa. Does anyone see Robert E. Lee or even Joe Johnston as American Oliver Cromwells?

    By the time the raid took place, the nation was mired in blood with no end in sight. More importantly, Lincoln was coming up for re-election. To win, he knew that the people of the Union required hope that the war would soon end and that their efforts would be crowned with victory under his leadership. And for that he required something to give them that hope. Certainly, the ‘plan’ would have done so had it been successful. That in and of itself is a tremendous ‘motive’ for all concerned including Lincoln, his cabinet and his military leaders. Casting one’s eyes down upon two second tier offices like Dahlgren and Kilpatrick and expecting that they were the sole originators of the business seems feckless to the point of silliness. I would say that such might be the case if the two of them stole off with a few close friends to try a ‘raid’, but there were far too many troops involved including explosives experts along for it to have been a matter of some lower echelon officers’ grab for glory.

    This is especially true when one looks at Ulrich Dahlgren. His father was an admiral of the United States Navy and therefore, the young man knew and understood discipline, honor, loyalty and obedience. He was intelligent, brave, well educated, of good character and apparently had become rather intimate with the President after losing his leg in battle. Indeed, he was the antithesis of Kilpatrick whose morals and honesty were questionable at best and absent at worst. Yet, he certainly knew what he was doing during the raid for to suggest otherwise is to make him into a witless tool whether it be of Stanton or Kilpatrick and that doesn’t seem to match what we know of the man. It came as no shock to him nor did he consider it to be ‘dishonorable’ – and my point is, WHY SHOULD HE? It was a rather desperate plan, to be sure and made worse by whomever was in charge not making sure that no incriminating documents could fall into the hands of the enemy if things went awry. But from the point of view of morality, when one considers what went on in Georgia, the Carolinas and the Shenandoah Valley to name just three ‘theaters’ of vicious, bloody, deplorable war waged against civilians, it seems ludicrous to make of this particular operation anything worse than it was – an effort to destroy the Confederate government in order to end the war.

    Ergo, why look for ‘patsies’ or ‘culprits’ at all? Why not simply accept the fact that the Union government at some level – and I believe that level to be the very highest – determined to try an audacious plan, that those involved found men whom they believed could bring the plan to fruition and then proceeded to try to implement it. They failed, but had they succeeded, as noted, I’m sure it would be presented in all the history books as the turning point of the war and a great victory rather than an embarrassing episode that requires the production of suitable scapegoats! At least that’s how I see it.

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