15 November 2014 by Published in: General musings 9 comments

With appreciation to Peter Tsouras, who brought this to my attention.

One of the sadder moments of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid occurred when Col. Ulric Dahlgren ordered his column’s African-American guide, Martin Robinson, hanged because the column had had difficulty finding a workable crossing over the James River in Goochland County, on its way to Richmond. The unfortunate Robinson, scapegoated by Dahlgren, was hanged from a small tree, and his body was left there when the raiders moved on.

Pete Tsouras brought another episode to my attention today. I had missed this during my work on Ulric Dahlgren, which is unfortunate. It’s a tantalizing peek at a story that problem deserves further investigation. The following appears in Series 2 of the Official Records, vol. 6, part 1, pp. 1053-1054:

RICHMOND, March 15, 1864.

Brigadier General JOHN H. WINDER:

SIR: I have examined the papers in the case of one Tom Heath, a freeman of color, who was imprisoned in one of the military jails of this city on the 5th instant. Heath is a resident of Goochland County and is charged by a gentleman of the highest respectability and veracity with having acted as a guide to the enemy during the recent raid of General Kilpatrick and Colonel Dahlgren through Goochland. The only witness I learn against the accused is a son of Mr. S. D. Fisher, whose testimony, in the absence of other witnesses, would not be sufficient proof of the overt act of treason, although there is no doubt of Heath having adhered to the enemy, giving them aid and comfort. His offense is one of so grave a character that I regret to say he cannot, I fear, be successfully prosecuted for treason. The act of Congress of the 15th of February, 1864, providing for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in certain cases, will enable the Secretary of War to inflict the punishment of imprisonment upon the accused. He has clearly been guilty of the crime of communicating intelligence to the enemy, giving him aid and comfort and holding intercourse with the enemy without necessity and without the permission of the Confederate States, and he may therefore be imprisoned and denied all recourse to the writ of habeas corpus. As hard labor for the benefit of the Confederate States should be superadded to the punishment of imprisonment, I have no recommend the immediate reference of the papers in this case to Judge Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of War, who will issue the necessary orders for the imprisonment of Heath. The crime with which he is charged is one of such frequent occurrence that an example should be made of Heath. It is a matter of notoriety in the sections of the Confederacy where raids are frequent that the guides of the enemy are nearly always free negroes and slaves.


C. Sney.

[First indorsement]


Richmond, March 18, 1864.

Respectfully forwarded to the Secretary of War.



[Second indorsement.]

MARCH 18, 1864.


This man, a free negro, piloted Dahlgren in Goochland. But one witness can be had to prove guilt and Mr. Aylett asks to have him confined and put to labor, denying recourse to habeas corpus. Recommendation approved.


[Third indorsement.]

MARCH 25, 1864.

Refer to Brigadier-General Winder to have him detained in custody and placed at hard labor work in a secure place and for other attention.

By order:


I had never heard of this incident involving Tom Heath previously. He was apparently imprisoned and put to hard labor for the crime of guiding Dahlgren’s column on its way through Goochland County. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate anything further about him or his travails, but what an interesting episode this is.

There were two freed blacks who helped Dahlgren make his way through Goochland County. Martin Robinson paid with his life. Tom Heath was imprisoned at hard labor. Never let it be said that the war in Virginia was easy on civilians.

Scridb filter


  1. Thomas Jones
    Wed 19th Nov 2014 at 2:47 pm

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, in this case at least, that the Confederates valued law and life more highly than the Yankees. Heath was imprisoned rather than executed by the Confederates, though suspected of treason to the South, because they knew he would have to go to trial if they pressed for treason and they couldn’t be sure of the result. Robinson was executed (summarily?) by the Union on suspicion of misleading Dahlgren. Have historians examined the legality of Dahlgren’s action? Thanks for this interesting post.

    Tom Jones, Charlottesville

  2. dan
    Thu 20th Nov 2014 at 11:38 am

    >…was executed (summarily?) by the Union

    Hi Tom,

    Dahlgren’s summary execution of Robinson for apparent incompetence (and perhaps the suspicion of sabotage, too?) is no more representative of “the Union” than Henry Wirz’s maltreatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville was representative of the South.

    These were acts of individuals that are not necessarily representative of the culture or political policies of their countries. In these cases, I don’t think that they are.

    Dahlgren, as commander of a raid into enemy territory, had extraordinary authority – suggesting that his excessive use of that authority is representative of a lack of appreciation for life on the part of the North doesn’t seem correct.

    Best Regards,

  3. Thomas Jones
    Thu 20th Nov 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks, Dan. Good points. I meant to be clear–by saying “in this case at least”–that I was just talking about the handling of Robinson and Heath during and after the Dahlgren raid. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. No need to drag out poor tired old Henry Wirz just yet. Can anyone recommend a good book that covers how Dahlgren dealt with Robinson? Unfortunately, Eric W.’s bio of Dahlgren is priced beyond my budget on the online sites (time for a new issuance?) and is not available at the UVA or our local library. Tom

  4. John Foskett
    Sat 22nd Nov 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Tom: Regarding this:

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, in this case at least, that the Confederates valued law and life more highly than the Yankees.

    “Not hardly”. Let’s keep in mind that there were folks in the CSA who considered using yellow fever and smallpox as weapons at various points. There was the November, 1864 attempt to burn down NYC. And that’s entirely aside from the racist killing of surrendering/surrendered black troops. Everybody knows about the Crater and Fort Pillow, but there were other incidents, as well. Poison Spring is one example. In his 2013 book Richmond Must Fall, Hampton Newsome uncovered evidence that following a clash on October 27, 1864 at Nine Mile Road outside Petersburg, Gary’s Rebel cavalry murdered several POW’s from the 1st U.S.C.T. I’m not sure how any of this shows “valuing law and life”. It shows the exact opposite. The murders of POWs were worse than the conduct which earned General Yamashita a noose after WWII.

  5. John Foskett
    Sat 22nd Nov 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Tom: After i posted, I read your second post, so the limitation of your statement is appreciated. I do think (as dan suggesrs) that it makes little sense to issue broad statements about a group or side “valu[ing] law and life” more highly than the other, especially based on such a localized incident. As I’ve pointed out, there were enough incidents where Confederate combatants literally murdered in cold blood surrendering troops or POWs that any broad statement about that side “valu[ing] law and life” is rejected out of hand.

  6. Thomas Jones
    Sun 23rd Nov 2014 at 8:14 pm

    John, thanks for the tutorial on southern atrocities; I was totally unaware of any of this stuff. I’m glad you found an occasion to share this. -)

    Good news: I have located a copy of Eric’s biography of Dahlgren, which comes highly rated. I look forward to reading about the raid and the incident with Robinson and seeing if my impression is correct “in this case, at least.” Maybe it won’t be. I don’t want to dismiss any possibility out of hand.

  7. John Foskett
    Mon 24th Nov 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Tom: You won’t be disappointed with the book. But I’ll wager Eric’s disappointed that he’s not getting royalties on those resale prices. 🙂

  8. E Browne
    Thu 27th Nov 2014 at 8:54 am

    Eric, Any update on the demolition of the McMansion at Fleetwood Hill. I have searched but found no articles about any recent demolition. Is that house still there? If so, what’s taking so long? Thanks

  9. Thu 27th Nov 2014 at 1:18 pm

    The McMansion is completely down. The final clean-up of the site is underway.

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