02 January 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 2 comments

As my regular readers know, I am working on writing a biography of Ulric Dahlgren. I’ve reached an especially interesting phase of his brief but controversial life that demonstrates, in a nutshell, the paradox that was Ulric Dahlgren. On November 7, 1862, Franz Sigel ordered Dahlgren to take 100 hand-picked cavalrymen and go on a reconnaissance in force into the town of Fredericksburg. Making a ride of 50 miles, Dahlgren boldly dashed into the town on November 9, learned the enemy dispositions, skirmished with Confederate cavalry, and then, on the way out of town, burned the Aquia Creek & Fredericksburg Railroad bridges over Potomac and Accokeek Creeks. He then withdrew and made it safely back to Sigel’s headquarters, with a loss of 1 killed and 4 missing. It was a bold and daring raid that contributed accurate intelligence to Burnside as he began his movement toward Fredericksburg. However, he had not been ordered to burn the bridges. Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, who commanded the troops assigned to the defenses of Washington, to which Sigel’s Eleventh Corps was assigned, endorsed and forwarded Dahlgren’s report of this action, with this note: “Respectfully forwarded. A very gallant affair. The burning of the bridges was very unnecessary.”

In fact, it was not only unnecessary, it ended up harming Burnside’s efforts to take the town of Fredericksburg and then caused problems for Herman Haupt and the U. S. Military Railroads. Thus, Dahlgren’s Fredericksburg raid was a mixed bag. It was a bold dash into the town that brought back important military intelligence, but at the same time, it ultimately created problems because he exceeded his orders. This episode plainly foreshadowed the sort of scenario that not only cost him his life in 1864, it also triggered one of the Civil War’s greatest controversies, which still rages to this day.

All of this got me thinking about the ultimate issue of whether an officer who takes the initiative and exceeds his orders, and ultimately causes problems as a consequence, is a problematic officer. In Dahlgren’s case, I think that he was. I think that, in spite of his obvious courage and talent, he tended to be a bit of a cowboy. For instance, after years of evaluating the question of the so-called Dahlgren Papers found on his body when he was killed, I have come to the conclusion that it’s quite likely that he cooked up the scheme to kidnap and assassinate Davis and his cabinet on his own, that he didn’t tell anyone (although it is possible that he told–and got approval from–Stanton), and that in so doing, he was exceeding his orders. It’s the burning of the bridges at Fredericksburg on a much larger scale.

In a heirarchical organization such as an army–which depends on discipline and the very concept of subordinate officers obeying the lawful orders of their superiors–there is not a lot of room for cowboying. In fact, an insubordinate junior officer, no matter how talented, has no value to an army if that officer cannot be relied upon to obey the lawful orders of his superior. Such is the case with Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom I have demonstrated was largely useless in any capacity but independent command because he refused to serve under almost anybody else’s orders.

At the same time, officers have to have some latitude to interpret and apply their orders as dictated by circumstances. If, for instance, an objective has already been destroyed, or cannot be reached for whatever reason, that officer must then do what he can in order to comply with at least the spirit of his orders, if not the letter of them. Army doctrine teaches this; improvisation is an important part of the training of the modern military officer.

I have, therefore, been forced to face the ultimate question with respect to Ully Dahlgren: given his well-documented tendency to cowboy, I can’t help but wonder what sort of a military career he would have had if he had survived the raid on Richmond in March 1864. In a lot of ways, I think he was like George A. Custer: courageous to a fault, who threw caution to the wind, who was a charismatic leader, but who ultimately was too tragically flawed by his own boundless ambition to fulfill the promise of greatness. Like Custer, his boundless self-confidence, courage, and boundless ambition cost him his life in combat, and both died lonely and ultimately useless deaths and suffered the mutilations of their corpses as a consequence.

All of which makes me wonder just how many other officers met the same fate with their careers…..

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  1. Dave Kelly
    Mon 02nd Jan 2006 at 11:31 pm

    It’s an interesting question. Not one readily answered. It’s hard to differentiate judgement issues if you don’t have all the facts related to how the players determine their actions. Wind up deducing motives from demonstrated tendencies again. I think your instincts in the case of Custer and Dahlgren are fair.

    In the case of the Fredericksburg Raid one wonders what Dahlgren knew of the intended plans of his superiors regarding movement towards the city. Had it been made clear to Dahlgren that his raid was intelligence gathering in anticipation of movement in that direction I would presume he would understand that the destruction of bridges wasn’t to the benefit of his command. In the absence of a clear conops such an officer took it upon himself to hurt the enemy given the opportunity. So where was the operational shortfall in this circumstance?

    It has been noted that Stuart’s first ride around McClellan before the 7 Days also was unsolicited and had negative consequences because it hastened McClellan’s orders for a change of base before Lee struck. As a result Lee misconstrued McClellan’s line of retreat (to the James instead of Williamsburg.)

    I don’t think the answer to this dilema in command and control is demanding simple obedience to orders, as the orders may be deficient in scope or purpose to begin with. Modern command and control procedures do in fact expect that the order give some sense of intent of the mission and how it relates to a scheme of maneuver. Issue bad instructions and you get what you give.

    So we have several issues here in fact. Command and control on the one had. Cowboy subordinates on the other.

  2. Mon 02nd Jan 2006 at 11:38 pm


    I do think it’s a fair comparison. I tend to think that had Ully Dahlgren survived the war, he would have ended up with a commission in the Regular Army in the years after the war, and I suspect he would have had the same issues that Custer had. I likewise think that he might have met an untimely end just as Custer did.

    As for the Fredericksburg expedition, I believe that Dahlgren knew what the expedition was all about. In his report, Dahlgren wrote, “I started from Gainesville, on the morning of the 8th instant, to Fredericksburg to ascertain the force of the enemy at that place, and then to examine the Aquia Creek and Fredericksburg Railroad on the return.” So, that suggests to me that he knew exactly what was going on and what the object of the mission was. Instead, he destroyed the bridges and exceeded his orders.

    I agree with the rest of your conclusions, as well as the contrast between command and control on one hand and cowboying subordinates on the other.


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