Purloined poison letters
Fake or real, they raised hell
BY JOSEPH L. GALLOWAY
But for the consequences, Union Army Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's poorly planned and badly executed raid on Richmond, Va., in the winter of 1864 would barely rate a footnote in anyone's history of the Civil War. A Moe, Larry, and Curly kind of caper, it failed utterly. Among those who paid the price was a dashing boy colonel, Ulric Dahlgren, and on the contents of his pockets would center a scandal and a mystery that endure to this day.
The raid on the capital of the Confederacy had been conceived by Kilpatricka commander so wanting in skill and luck his men nicknamed him "Kill-Cavalry." At the heart of the scheme was a plan to free more than 1,500 Union officers held prisoner in an old warehouse in Richmond, plus an additional 10,000 Union enlisted men jammed into a swampy prison camp on the ill-named Belle Isle in the James River. The plan was a long shot, but better than no shot at all. Pressured by daily tales of starving prisoners, President Abraham Lincoln personally authorized it.
In late February 1864, Dahlgren, who had lost his right leg in a skirmish after the Battle of Gettysburg, asked for a job with Kilpatrick. He was 21 and the youngest Union colonel. The son of Rear Adm. John Dahlgren, a friend of President Lincoln, Ulric was made deputy to Kilpatrick and given command of one of two flying columns of cavalry. Dahlgren was charged with penetrating Richmond, freeing Union prisoners, and visiting chaos upon the city.
Richmond-bound. On February 28, Kilpatrick led 3,600 Cavalry troopers across the Rapidan River riding south toward Richmond. The next day Dahlgren split off, taking 460 men wide to the west, aiming to cross the James River 25 miles above Richmond and push on to the city's lightly defended southern portals. Kilpatrick was to strike at the northern approaches while Dahlgren freed the prisoners.
Nothing went as planned. The James was too high from winter rains to cross at the chosen point. Continuing toward Richmond, now on the wrong side of the river, Dahlgren ran into Southern militiamen, who forced him to turn to the north. He tried to link up with Kilpatrick, who had reached Richmond's outer defenses. Kilpatrick fought a halfhearted skirmish until Confederate militia resistance stiffened. With that, "Kill-Cavalry" fled, abandoning Dahlgren to his fate.
Most of Dahlgren's men would ultimately reach Union lines, but in a freezing rain, the colonel and about 100 men were separated from the rest. On the night of March 2, the Confederates ambushed them. The first volley killed the young colonel.
The story should have ended there, but it didn't. A 13-year-old member of the Confederate home guard searched the body for valuables and found what would go down in history as the Dahlgren Paperstwo folded documents and a pocket notebook. The lad turned his find over to his commander, Capt. Edward Halbach. At daylight on March 3, Halbach looked over the papers and was appalled. "We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape."
An address to his troops on Cavalry Corps stationery was even more explicit: "The City it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed."
Until this point, though terribly bloody, the Civil War had been a gentleman's affair, fought by gentlemen's rules, with flags of truce and gallant messages between opposing commanders. The Dahlgren papers seemed a wholesale violation. Richmond newspapers screamed the news of the North's barbarity: "The Last Raid of the Infernals!"
Some demanded the summary trial and execution of the captured raiders, but Gen. Robert E. Lee counseled against it. Instead, he ordered a set of photographs of the papers made and sent to Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander. The papers, Meade told his wife, seemed a "pretty ugly piece of business." He ordered Kilpatrick to find out whether Dahlgren had issued the orders to his men. Kilpatrick said he had read Dahlgren's proposed address to his men and marked it in red ink as "approved." It read just as the newspapers had printed itexcept it was missing his endorsement and the sentence exhorting the prisoners to burn Richmond and kill the Confederate leaders. "All this is false," declared Kilpatrick, who said the rebels must have doctored the papers.
But Meade was unsure of the truth. "I regret to say Kilpatrick's reputation, and collateral evidence in my possession, rather go against this theory," he wrote. In his diary for March 12, Union Provost Marshal Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick recorded a conversation with a military intelligence officer who rode on the raid: "He thinks the papers are correct that were found upon Dahlgren, as they correspond with what D. told him."
Northern newspapers and Dahlgren's father declared the papers to be "a bare-faced atrocious forgery." The grieving Admiral Dahlgren seized upon a typographical error made by lithographers copying the documents as proof: They had misspelled Dahlgren's name as Dalhgren.
Rebellious papers. Whatever the truth, the Dahlgren papers served as reason enough for the Confederate leaders to finally approve plans to whip up armed rebellion among Southern sympathizers in the North. They also encouraged a plot to bomb the White House and kill President Lincoln. The actor John Wilkes Booth was believed to have been part of that plot. When it failed, it is conjectured, Booth decided to take more direct action.
In November 1865, seven months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, ordered Francis Lieber, the keeper of captured Confederate records, to turn over everything relating to the raid. Lieber gave Stanton the original papers and notebook found on Dahlgren's body, plus all relevant correspondence from the Confederate archives. Historian James O. Hall searched widely for the missing papers and finally tracked them to Stanton. "[S]uspicion lingers," Hall wrote, "that Stanton consigned them to the fireplace in his office."
No further trace of the original papers was found, and the argument over their authenticity still rages. Duane Schultz, in his 1998 book, The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War, says circumstantial evidence suggests that Confederates tampered with the Dahlgren papers and that no plan to kill rebel leaders was afoot. Historian Stephen Sears makes a strong case for the authenticity of the papers in recent articles in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and in Columbiad. If the Dahlgren papers are authentic, it could be fairly argued that President Lincoln, by targeting his opposite number in Richmond, set in motion the events that would end with his own appointment with destiny at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.