November, 2005

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?

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I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The county seat of Berks County is the City of Reading. When Bvt. Maj. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg resigned his commission in February 1865, he settled in his wife’s home town of Reading. Her family, the Heister family, was one of the leading families of Berks County, and they were wealthy, prominent citizens. Thus, it made sense that Gregg, who grew up in Huntington, Pennsylvania, would settle in Reading.

Berks County, in turn, readily and enthusiastically embraced David Gregg, treating him as a favorite son. The old soldier became a regular on the rubber chicken circuit, and he wrote extensively about his service in the United States Army. He became a leading leading citizen of the community, and was very active in the community. General Gregg died in 1916, and was buried in Charles Evans Cemetery. In 1922, the citizens of Reading raised money to erect a handsome equestrian monument to the general just a few hundred yards from his final resting place. I used to have a photo of the monument on this web site, back in its original configuration. I will see about having that photo restored somewhere on this web site.

David Gregg played a major role in developing my interest in Civil War cavalry. My family doctor’s office was right across the street from that handsome equestrian monument, and I saw it every week when I went in for my allergy shot. It always impressed me. It’s also caddycorner from the Berks County Historical Society, a place that naturally drew me in. It turns out that there is a large collection of General Gregg’s documents in the collection at the Historical Society, and I have spent some time reviewing them.

Not far from my parents’ house is a subdivision where all of the streets are named after prominent Pennsylvania generals, and sure enough, there is a Gregg Street. One of the local VFW posts is the David M. Gregg Post. Even though I was born 45 years after the general’s death, he still loomed large over the community of Reading, and as a boy, I was driven to find out just who this guy was whose name was plastered everywhere. In the process, I began learning about Civil War cavalry operations.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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