March 5, 1864 (Saturday)
It ran in every Richmond newspaper – The Last Raid of the Infernals: Their Plan Unveiled. Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper saw to it that the papers recovered from the body of Union Col. Ulric Dahlgren were photographed and published verbatim by anyone with a printing press. The newspapers did just that, penning their own editorials to fan the flame.
The Federals had attempted a raid upon Richmond, led by General Judson Kilpatrick. It had failed utterly, but its crowning demerit was that upon the dead body of Col. Dahlgren was found, among his effects, a handwritten paper calling for Jefferson Davis and his cabinet to be assassinated and the city burned – rules of civilized warfare be damned. My all appearances, this was authentic, though nobody could tell how high up the chain of command it went. Was it from Kilpatrick? General Meade? Henry Halleck? Even President Lincoln? It was impossible to say, though that didn’t stop the Richmond press from speculation.
For the most part, they held close to Dahlgren, and though their rhetoric was fiery, they stopped short of implicating the entire Federal government. But they did not stop short their calls for retaliation. The Richmond Inquirer, for example, already had their own answer.
“Should our army again go into the enemy’s country, will not these papers relieve them from their restraints of a chivalry that would be proper with a civilized army, but which only brings upon them the contempt of our savage foe? Decidedly, we think that these Dahlgren papers will destroy, during the rest of the war, all rosewater chivalry, and that the Confederate armies will make war afar and upon the rules selected by the enemy.”
“Are these men warriors?” Asked the Richmond Whig of the raiders. “Are they soldiers, taken in the performance of duties recognized as legitimate by the loosest construction in the code of civilized warfare? Or are they assassins, barbarians, thugs who have forfeited (and expect to lose) their lives? Are they not barbarians redolent with more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen?”
Col. Dahlgren’s first name, odd for even Victorian times, was seized upon. And swiftly he became Ulric the Hun. The Richmond Daily Examiner echoed the Whig, while somehow managing to outdo it:
“Our soldiers should in every instance where they capture officers engaged in raids characterized by such acts of incendiarism and wanton devastation and plunder, as this last raid as been, hang them immediately. If they are handed over as prisoners of war, they at once come under the laws of regular warfare and are subject to exchange…. therefore we hope that our soldiers will take the law in their own hands…by hanging those they capture.”
Through the day, as the Richmond populace learned of the seeming intent of the raid, President Davis and his cabinet sat down to discuss their next move. Most were in favor of executing the prisoners captured in both Dahlgren’s and Kilpatrick’s columns. Davis, however, was not.
“A discussion ensued,” recalled Secretary of State Judah Benjamin in 1866, “which became so heated as almost to create unfriendly feeling, by reason of the unshaken firmness of Mr. Davis, in maintaining that although these men merited a refusal to grant them quarter in the heat of battle, they had been received to mercy by their captors as prisons of war, and such were sacred; and that we should be dishonored if harm should overtake them after their surrender, the acceptance of which constituted, in his [Davis’] judgment, a pledge that they should receive the treatment of prisoners of war.”
Benjamin was most definitely laying it on thickly in portraying Davis as savior, though the general facts are there. Davis, through Secretary of War James Seddon, wrote to General Robert E. Lee, for a bit of guidance. The politicians in Richmond were hardly used to dealing with prisoners of war. Lee, on the other hand, dealt with them on a daily basis.
“My own inclinations are toward the execution of at least a portion of those captured at the time Colonel Dahlgren was killed,” wrote Seddon, never mentioning Davis’ opposition to their executions. “The question of what is best to be done is a grave and important one, and I desire to have the benefit of your views and any suggestions you make make.” It would not take Lee long to reply.
One thing did come out of the Cabinet meeting, however. Davis decided that Col. Dahlgren’s body must brought to Richmond. The morning following his death, he had been buried in a shallow grave, and then subsequently disinterred, given a pine coffin and reburied a bit deeper in the earth. For whatever reason, Davis wished to examine and identify the body.
Meanwhile, the press would continue their dark eulogies:
“And they came and the Almighty blessed them not, and Dahlgren is dead and gone to answer for his crimes and several hundred of his partners in the plot concocted so deliberately are now our prisoners. They every one richly merit death….” 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p217-218; Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 5, 1864; Richmond Whig, March 5, 1864; Richmond Inquirer March 5, 1864; Richmond Daily Examiner, March 5, 1864; “The Responsibility of Andersonvill Rests with the Abolitionists” letter by Judah Benjamin to the London Times, as published in 1868; The Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz. [↩]