Dahlgren Still Alive? The Raid a Complete Success? Unfounded Federal Hope to be Squashed

March 6, 1864 (Sunday)

While the Southern press was outraged over Col. Ulric Dahlgren’s plot to assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet before burning Richmond to the ground, the Northern press took a different approach. The New York Times declared the raid a “complete success, resulting in the destruction of millions of dollars of public property.” This was fairly true. Of course the Times did not know that the true and official object of the raid was to free Union prisoners held in Libby Prison and on Belle Isle. It also could not know of Col. Dahlgren’s assassination scheme.

Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren
Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren

News of Dahlgren’s death and plot were slow to come across Union lines. In fact, throughout the day, General Judson Kilpatrick, who had led the raid, was convinced he was still alive. “Colonel Dahlgren, with about 100 men, has been heard from to-day,” he wrote to Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, “he was then near King and Queen Court-House. I shall send my men to assist him.” Kilpatrick had received Dahlgren’s last dispatch, dated March 2nd.

Kilpatrick had made it to Fortress Monroe, where General Benjamin Butler made his headquarters. That afternoon, Butler informed President Lincoln that Dahlgren was indeed alive, based upon the dispatch, several days old. This must have been good news to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, Col. Dahlgren’s father, who had been in Washington nervously awaiting news of his son’s fate. Word that the raid had not gone as planned had already filtered back in to the capital, but only the fate of Kilpatrick was known. It had been speculated that Dahlgren was captured, but now it seemed he was alive and free.

Meanwhile in Richmond, the body of Col. Dahlgren arrived by train at York River Station. A Confederate officer who had been captured by Dahlgren only to escape was brought forward to positively identify the body, which he did. The affair with the body, having already twice been buried, might have then ended. Typically, an officer’s body, especially one who had been the son of a Rear-Admiral, would have been sent North to his family. In the case of Col. Dahlgran, however, the railroad car in which his coffin was shipped was opened to the public.

The Richmond Examiner, a couple of days later, gave a horribly inaccurate account of the body.

“Stripped, robbed of every valuable, the fingers cut off for the sake of the diamond rings that encircled them. When the body was found by those sent to take charge of it, it was lying in the a field stark naked, with the exception of the stocking. Some humane persons had lifted the corpse from the pike and thrown it over into the field, to save it from the hogs. The artificial leg worn by Dahlgren was removed, and is now at General Elzey’s headquarters. It is of most beautiful design and finish.”

While it could have been construed that the press was trying to stir sympathy for the dead Federal, nothing could be farther from the truth. They were reveling in his demise and treatment. In truth, the body had been buried in a shallow grave and then placed in a coffin at the request of several Confederates who were with the party that killed him. His body was probably clothed, though a few articles of clothing were no doubt stolen. Only one finger had been cut off, and this was to steal a gold band, not a diamond ring. Grisly, yes, but not enough for the Examiner.

George Meade isn't buying it.
George Meade isn’t buying it.

“Yesterday afternoon,” the article continued, incorrectly referring to March 7, “the body was removed from the car that brought it to the York River railroad depot, and given to the spot of earth selected to receive it. Where that spot is no one but those concerned in its burial know or care to tell. It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friend and relative at the North need inquire no further; this is all they will know – he is buried a burial that befitted the mission upon which he came. He ‘swept through the city of Richmond’ on a pine bier, and ‘written his name’ on the scroll of infamy, instead of ‘on the hearts of his countrymen,’ never to be erased. He ‘asked the blessing of Almighty God’ and his mission of rapine, murder and blood, and the Almighty cursed him instead.”

The editor was, no doubt, very impressed with himself over the parody of Dahlgren’s address to his men.

Perhaps, however, a more accurate account was given by Lt. Col. John Atkinson, who was tasked by Davis to handle the reburial. Lt. Col. Atkinson arrived at the depot and “was shown the body of a man in a rough, undressed pine coffin, and found it marked in stencil on the lid of the coffin with this name – ‘Ulric Dahlgren’.” […] The lid of Dahlgren’s coffin when I saw it had been removed, and was lying by the side of the rough box in which the body had been placed. He was apparently a young man, of about twenty-three or twenty-five years of age, dressed in an unbleached cotton shirt, and in green pants, apparently uniform pants. He had one leg cut off near the knee by a surgeon. There was no evidence of his having been shot apparent, as he was lying on his back in the coffin.

“I at once had the lid of the coffin screwed on, and it was placed in the wagon, which proceeded immediately to Oakwood for burial. He was buried near the entrance, a young sapling only marking the grave, and there we left him, as we supposed, until the great resurrection.” President Davis had warned Atkinson never to reveal the site of the burial.

Davis had also requested General Lee’s opinion about what to do with the prisoners captured with Dahlgren. His Cabinet wish for them to be executed, while he was the only one of them opposed. Lee’s reply seemed to put the question to rest.

“I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands,” wrote Lee. “Assuming that the address and special orders of Colonel Dahlgren correctly state his designs and intentions, they were not executed, and I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute a crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, and he killed. I do not think it, therefore, to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions.”

Lee was in fine form, delivering one of his finest letters. “I think it better to do right,” he concluded, “even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.” Lee even went as far as to say that in their own Southern armies, they had men just as cruel as Dahlgren. He warned of retaliation, and how history might remember them all.

To the north, Union General Meade had been in Washington, returning to his command in the evening on this date. When he arrived at his headquarters, a March 5th copy of the Richmond Sentinel – perhaps the only paper that did not reprint the Dahlgren Papers – was sitting upon his desk. Though it spoke nothing of the plot to assassinate President Davis, it told the news that Col. Dahlgren was dead.

Lee acting the gentleman.
Lee acting the gentleman.

“The Richmond Sentinel of March 5 (yesterday) has been received,” wrote Meade to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that night, “which announces the capturing at King and queen of a part of Dahlgren’s party, reported 90 men, and that Colonel Dahlgren was killed in the skirmish. I fear the account is true.”

To his wife, Meade also confided: “You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.” Whether Meade was writing of Colonel or Admiral Dahlgren was unspoken – perhaps with was both.1

“I think it better to do right,” Lee concluded, “even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.” [March 6, 1864]

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p182, 222-223, 649; “Col. Ulric Dahlgren, the Defeated Raider” by John Wilder Atkinson, as printed in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 37; Richmond Examiner, March 8, 1864; The Dahlgren Affair by Duane Schultz. []
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