‘…And Jeff Davis and Cabinet Killed.’ – Dahlgren’s Plot Discovered!

March 4, 1864 (Friday)

“There,” exclaimed Lt. James Pollard, “you have killed Col. Dahlgren!” After the volley, delivered by a hodge-podge of Rebel cavalry and home guards, a thirteen year old boy named William Littlepage crept through the darkness to the scene of the ambush. Perhaps he was searching for a souvenir of Kilpatrick’s raid on Richmond, or maybe he was simply curious. The first body he came to held a small box of cigars and a notebook with some small amount of loose leaf papers within it.

Dahlgren would have had some explaining to do.
Dahlgren would have had some explaining to do.

After the boy handed them to his schoolmaster, Edward Halbach, Lt. Pollard warned, “His men were devoted to him, and I would advise you all to take care of yourselves now, for it the Yankees catch you with anything belonging to him, they will certainly hang us all to the nearest tree.”

Through the night and early morning of the 3rd, the papers remained unread as no one was apt to strike a flame. The Federals riding with Dahlgren on his flight from Richmond had scurried off for the time being, but no one could say when they might return. And so they waited until morning. Come first light, they were able to read.

The first sheet appeared to be a speech written out to his men. It contained your typical boasts and bravado, and written upon stationary of “Cavalry of the Third Division.” They also contained the line: “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.” The assembled Confederates must have breathed a sigh of relief that the Yankees had been turned back.

The next few pages, however, were something altogether different. Some of it was written up the same stationary, while others were jotted down on small slips. Together, they seemed like a general outline for Dahlgren’s part in the raid, including a schedule, and an agreement for a guide. Nestled within all of this were the details about what to do once his column was within Richmond:

“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.”

Mr. Halbach kept them on his person, while others buried the Union dead, including Col. Dahlgren, who was laid to rest in a very shallow grave. Through the morning, various Federal troopers were rounded up and taken prisoner. One took notice of the haphazard manner in which his colonel was buried, and demanded that it be done properly. Mostly, he was ignored, but Halbach felt pity and helped to find a coffin, even carving Dahlgren’s name on a wooden board.

Welcome back, old cranky friend.
Welcome back, old cranky friend.

Around 2pm, he met again with Lt. Pollard. After reading, the officer requested that Halbach surrender them to his care. Halbach, at first, refused. His plan was to mail them to the newspaper. Pollard, however, wanted to take them to Richmond, and would be able to get there sooner than Halbach would. Still, it took some convincing for Halbach to turn over Dahlgren’s effects.

The following morning, Lt. Pollard arrived in Richmond, showing the papers to his division commander, Fitz Lee, to whom he also handed Dahlgren’s wooden leg. The general was outraged and immediately took the papers to Jefferson Davis, who was to have been murdered along with his cabinet.

The President seemed to hardly care at all, and jokingly turned to his Secretary of State, saying, “This means you, Mr. Benjamin.” He told Lee to just file them away, and seemed more than satisfied to just let the whole issue rest. But others were not so jovial.

General Braxton Bragg, who had been somehow promoted to Davis’ own military advisor, wanted to hang all the prisoners who had accompanied Dahlgren. “It has occurred to me,” wrote Bragg to Secretary of War James Seddon, “that the papers just captured from the enemy are of such an extraordinary and diabolical character that some more formal method should be adopted of giving them to the public than simply sending them to the press. My own conviction is for an execution of the prisoners and a publication as justification; but in any event the publication should go forth with official sanction from the highest authority, calling the attention of our people and the civilized world to the fiendish and atrocious conduct of our enemies.”

Rare photograph of Judah Benjamin sans smile.
Rare photograph of Judah Benjamin sans smile.

Seddon, Davis, and soon enough, General Robert E. Lee would shoot down the execution idea. It was Samuel Cooper, the Confederate Adjutant-General, who saw to it that they were photographed and sent to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, where they appeared in their unaltered entirety the following day.

As for the rest of General Judson Kilpatrick’s men, they made their way down the Peninsula to the shelter offered by Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe. On this date, President Lincoln had been joined by Admiral John Dahlgren, father of the deceased colonel. “Admiral Dahlgren is here,” wrote Lincoln to Butler, “and of course is very anxious about this son. Please send me at once all you know or can learn of his fate.”

At this point, all anyone in the Federal army knew for sure was the Dahlgren was that Dahlgren never linked up with Kilpatrick – though quite a few of Dahlgren’s men managed to do so. The only clue to his fate was the vague and erroneous report of an officer with a wooden leg being captured along with 100 of his men. The truth, of course, would soon be learned, along with a controversy like no other before it.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p209; The Lost Cause by Edward A. Pollard; History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry by Richard Lee Tuberville; “Statement of Lieutenant Bartley, of the United States Signal Corps” concerning the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren Raid against Richmond as printed in the Detroit Free Press, March 11, 1882; Private and Official Correspondence Vol. 3 by Benjamin Butler;Generals in Blue and Gray, Volume 2 by Wilmer L. JonesThe Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz. []
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