The Dahlgren Affair

Kilpatrick and his 3rd Division staff, March 1864 Photo Credit- Library of Congress

In 1864 the American Civil War was still raging.  The capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, was still tantalizingly close to Union forces, but as of yet out of reach.  There on an island in the James River was Belle Isle, a holding pen for Union prisoners.  Like most Civil War prisons, it was not a fun place complete with disease and overcrowding.  Since prisoner exchanges had been called off in June of 1863, the number of prisoners at Belle Isle grew to staggering proportions.  There were thoughts that a raid on Belle Isle could not only free Union soldiers from abominable conditions and death by disease, but free up fresh troops for a raid on Richmond.  This was the brainchild of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, but the Confederates got wind of the attack and his force was turned back before reaching their goal.

Against this back drop, enter a report in the New York Tribune that reporter Charles Dunham had exposed a plot to assassinate President Lincoln by the evil Confederate Colonel George Margrave.  The fact that George Margrave was entirely fictitious as was besides the point.  It made good copy.  Naturally, this report was greeted with concern at the highest levels of government.  Put these two things together in the mind of ambitious Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, and you get the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid on Richmond.

Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was dubbed a “boy general”, and his men had little to no respect for the reckless commander.  He was not shy about committing soldiers’ lives to obtaining his goals usually through frontal assaults, which were regarded by other officers as “for no good purpose whatsoever”.  So much though that he earned the nickname “Kill Cavalry”.  Called a “danged fool” by Major General William Sherman, Kilpatrick was still in command and put out word that he believed a raid on Richmond led by him would succeed.  Word was passed along and possibly with the help of a Republican Senator, Kilpatrick was invited to a private meeting with the president.  Lincoln must have liked the idea, so Kilpatrick was shunted to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to work out the details.  Ostensibly, the objectives of the raid were threefold:  sever Confederate lines of communication with their capital, free the Union prisoners at Belle Isle and get word of Lincoln’s recent amnesty proposal behind enemy lines.

Kilpatrick got command of 4,000 men and enlisted the help of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren.  Dahlgren was the son of a prominent rear admiral, and had just returned to active duty after losing a leg at Gettysburg.  Kilpatrick would attack from the north and Dahlgren would come at it from the southwest.  As a diversion, Brigadier General George Custer would attack the Confederate left.  However, Dahlgren was not just part of a pincer movement on Richmond.  He had been given secret orders and an address to visit which Kilpatrick marked with “approved” in red ink then signed.  Unfortunately, the raid was a flop as Kilpatrick failed to stop an approaching train from warning the city.  Dahlgren did not make it to that address or even Richmond.  He was killed near King and Queen County Courthouse on March 2, 1864.  His body was found by a 13 year old boy, William Littlepage, who rifled through his pockets looking for valuables.  What he found was a packet of documents, which he turned over to his teacher Edward Halbach.  Halbach read the documents with disbelief.

In the orders was outlined the plan to meet up with Kilpatrick’s forces and “destroy and burn the hateful city” of Richmond.  A second set of orders were even more explosive as they outlined plans to kill the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and the Confederate Cabinet.  The exact wording was as follows:

“We will try and secure the bridge to the city, (one mile below Belle Isle,) and release the prisoners at the same time. If we do not succeed they must then dash down, and we will try and carry the bridge from each side. When necessary, the men must be filed through the woods and along the river bank. 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.”

This went up the chain of Confederate command and was then released to the press on March 5, 1862.  People were appalled.  Despite the fact that the Civil War was the bloodiest and nastiest war fought up to that point, the thought of assassination was past the pale.  It was considered against the rules of war, which had been conducted with honor and as a “gentleman’s affair.”  Northerners were skeptical and generally believed the Dahlgren papers were a forgery.  Dahlgren’s father declared them completely false as his son would not be involved in such and they hadn’t even bothered to spell his name correctly.  However, privately some in the Union hierarchy, such as General George Meade, though they were valid.  The Richmond Examiner spoke for all of the south in their indignant rage saying, “The depredations of the last Yankee raiders, and the wantonness of their devastation equal anything heretofore committed during the war.”

It is plausible to believe in light of the accusations by Charles Dunham, Stanton and the others in the Cabinet may have entertained a similar assassination plot against Jefferson Davis.  However, it is not known how seriously they took the Dunham accusations.  It is also a mystery why they would put such a delicate operation in the hands of a commander who was known to be reckless.  Also, there is a question as to why Dahlgren did not destroy the orders after reading them.  It was put down to Dahlgren’s inexperience.  Again, why would you put such a controversial matter in the hands of an inexperienced commander?

In any case, the War Department claimed the papers were forgeries.  Union spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, used her contacts to secretly exhume Dahlgren’s body from Oakwood Cemetery and spirit it away so it could not be mistreated by the Confederates.  This prompted accusations that Dahlgren had “risen or been resurrected,” according to the Richmond Examiner.  Kilpatrick vehemently denied he had been a party to the secret orders and that they had been changed after he signed his name.  He lost command of his division and was put in charge of a brigade.  In the larger lens of the civil war, this affair is probably what sent John Wilkes Booth into a plot to kidnap President Lincoln.  This plan morphed into the assassination plot, which culminated in Lincoln’s death April 14, 1865.

ER