The Dahlgren affair
Did it set Lincoln’s assassination in motion?
In late February 1864 Union raiders launched an audacious attack on Richmond. Their objective was the release of Union prisoners held at Belle Isle, in the James River at Richmond, and at Libby Prison, within the city. The raiders had a further objective, the nature of which became immediately controversial and has never been fully resolved.
The commander of the raid was General H. Judson Kilpatrick, called “Kill-cavalry” for his harsh treatment of enemy soldiers and reckless deployment of his own. Kilpatrick had proposed the raid to Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, the Union secretary of war, and received approval to lead 3,500 men against the Confederate capital. A second column of 500 was headed by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, a twenty-one-year-old who had lost his right leg below the knee in the Gettysburg campaign. Dahlgren had spent months recuperating and, having determined he could grip his horse adequately with his left leg and his right knee, was eager to return to action.
The raid began with gusto but soon mired down. Snow, sleet and rain made travel difficult, and high water rendered fords impassable. Dahlgren blamed a black man he had dragooned into service as a guide, accusing the man of deliberately leading his column astray. He summarily hanged the unfortunate fellow. While Kilpatrick was falling back toward Union lines, Dahlgren ran into a nighttime ambush. He was killed; his men were captured or scattered.
The next day a thirteen-year-old boy in the Richmond home guard discovered Dahlgren’s body and rustled through his pockets. He found papers that included some handwritten orders on stationery with the identification “Headquarters Third Division, Cavalry Corps” printed at the top. The boy turned the papers over to his superiors, who passed them up the line until they reached Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president called in members of the Richmond press and showed them the orders; copies were published on March 5 in the Richmond Examiner, which made the most of them.
“FULL DISCLOSURE OF THE ENEMY'S PLANS; RICHMOND TO BE DESTROYED; THE PRESIDENT AND HIS CABINET TO BE KILLED,” blared the Examiner’s headline.
The first order was signed by Colonel Dahlgren. “Officers and men,” he declared. “You have been selected from brigades and regiments as a picked command to attempt a desperate undertaking—an undertaking which, if successful, will write your names on the hearts of your countrymen in letters that can never be erased, and which will cause the prayers of our fellow-soldiers now confined in loathsome prisons to follow you and yours wherever you may go. 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 released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.”
A second order was more specific, explaining who would carry incendiary materials and how the city would be approached. “Everything depends upon a surprise, and no one must be allowed to pass ahead of the column,” it continued. “Information must be gathered in regard to the crossings of the river, so that should we be repulsed on the south side we will know where to recross at the nearest point. All mills must be burned and the canal destroyed, and also everything which can be used by the rebels must be destroyed, including the boats on the river.”
This order also included directions for destroying the city and dealing with Jefferson Davis and the Confederate leadership. “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.”
Residents of Richmond were naturally appalled that the Yankees intended to burn them out of house and home. Some were so upset that they disinterred the corpse of Dahlgren and mutilated it. Beyond that, the order to kill—to assassinate—President Davis and his cabinet appeared to confirm the belief of most Southerners that Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans were no better than John Brown, the notorious terrorist.
Questions at once arose as to where the orders originated. Few believed that a twenty-one-year-old colonel had such authority. The order seemed in keeping with Judson Kilpatrick’s reputation, but even a general couldn’t concoct something so beyond the realm of ordinary warfare as this. It must have come from Edwin Stanton. And if the war secretary gave the order, President Lincoln must have known about it.
Republican papers in the Northern rejected the whole chain of reasoning. The purported orders were fakes, they said. The papers had been forged. The Union leadership would do no such thing.
The Union leadership itself—Lincoln and Stanton—didn’t go that far. They declined to comment. But General George Meade, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, sent assurance to General Robert E. Lee, his counterpart at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, that the orders did not have the sanction of the Union leadership.
Jefferson Davis didn’t comment at the time, but he and other Confederate leaders watched during the following year as the Union army of General William Sherman captured Atlanta, which shortly went up in smoke, and blazed a path of destruction across Georgia to the sea. In the burning glow of hindsight, an authorized order to torch Richmond seemed entirely plausible. And if that was plausible, so was the assassination order which it contained.
Davis’s secret agents appear to have plotted against Lincoln’s life, perhaps motivated by what they believed was Lincoln’s attempt on Davis’s life. Nothing came of those Confederate plots, but John Wilkes Booth, who had connections of some sort with the secret agents and doubtless knew of the Dahlgren affair, picked up where they left off and completed the assignment.