As February 1864 closes, a cavalry detachment of 4000 troopers commanded by Judson Kilpatrick and Ulric Dahlgren breaks camp in Culpeper.  Their objective: to hit the Confederate prisons at Belle Isle and Libby in Richmond hard and fast in the hope of freeing Union prisoners.  It gets better – then they would arm the freed prisoners, attack Richmond from within, bringing down the government and ending the war in one terrible swift stroke.  There were two prongs to the attack.  Kilpatrick will attack from the north.  Dahlgren, at 21 the youngest colonel in the army, will sweep around and come up from the south. Of course, things don’t always go as planned.

On February 29th, the raiders reach Louisa County.  Dahlgren splits off with an advance force of 500 troopers and begins tearing up the rail lines to Richmond.  By March 1st they are nearing Goochland.  Heavy rain slows them and by now the locals know they are coming.  They lose further time as they stop to pillage the estates of Confederate Secretary of War Alexander Seddon and others.  Dahlgren ignores Mrs. Seddon’s pleas for civilized conduct.  Former governor Henry Wise, now a general, is in the neighborhood too, but his daughter and grandchild distract Dahlgren on the front porch; Wise escapes into the woods and speeds to Richmond with news that Dahlgren is no gentleman.  Dahlgren squanders more time burning Dover Mills and some boats on the James River canal.

Having adequately terrorized the local civilians, Dahlgren turns his attention to crossing the James.  His guide is a freed slave named Martin Robinson, who grew up in the vicinity.  There is no ford, likely because the heavy rain has swollen the river. But an angry Dahlgren concludes Robinson has betrayed him and hangs him on the spot.  Now Dahlgren lacks a guide and is committed to attacking the prisons from the north after Wise has given plenty of warning he is coming.

Kilpatrick reached the outskirts of Richmond with the main force on March 1st and skirmished on the line of the outer defenses.  Legendary cavalryman Wade Hampton counterattacks Kilpatrick on March 2nd near Old Church; Kilpatrick’s troopers skedaddle for the protection of Federal infantry at New Kent Courthouse.  The main event fizzles; Union prisoners at Libby and Belle Isle must endure or die.

Dahlgren is even less lucky.  Now under pursuit, his 500 troopers have drifted east to King and Queen County, even today a sparsely-populated tangle of woods and swamps (the late Mr. Robinson might have been of use here).  Then his command breaks up.  On March 2nd, Dahlgren and his remaining 100 men ride into an ambush at Walkerton, where there is a bridge over the Mattaponi.  A detachment of the 9th Virginia cavalry and local home guards tear into the intruders.  They hit the right guy, blowing Dahlgren out of the saddle with five wounds.  Most of his remaining men do find their way to Libby and Belle Isle, but not as liberators. They are lucky not to be hung, as Seddon urges; Lee, whose son Rooney is a prisoner of war, personally intervenes to save their necks. Nonetheless, they are “punished” by being assigned black cellmates.  A Union gunboat searching for Dahlgren rescues four troopers and his personal servant on March 7th.

It gets worse.  A thirteen-year-old boy in the home guard finds papers in Dahlgren’s pocket. Dahlgren’s orders to his men reveal the intent to assassinate Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and burn Richmond – pretty much in keeping with the original plan to free the prisoners and go wild. The Confederate press lost no time in publishing Dahlgren’s orders, leading to the “Dahlgren affair” – in the 19th Century, murdering one’s governing counterpart simply was not done, hence international shock and  scandal; see http://www.nytimes.com/1864/06/03/news/col-dahlgren-s-orders.html. The North responded that the papers were a forgery, just cheap propaganda.  The question is debated even now. Nonetheless, they are consistent with Dahlgren’s mission and ends-justifies-the-means approach to warfare.  Richmonders nick-name him “Ulric the Hun.”

The disposition of Dahlgren’s corpse is a story in itself.  First, he was buried near where he was killed, at the fork of two roads near Stevensville and Mantua Ferry.  Then his remains were removed to Richmond, where he was viewed by numerous people. A finger had been severed to secure a gold ring and a gunshot wound was noted in the forehead.  Protocol was to send bodies of Union officers home, but Jefferson Davis gave explicit instructions to make an exception in this case.  The next day the body was conveyed to Oakwood Cemetery and reburied without ceremony – “a dog’s burial.”  The colored gravediggers were sent away so that the disgraced occupant of the unmarked grave would remain anonymous until “the trump of doom”, as the Richmond papers crowed.   However, one of the gravediggers, curiosity excited, watched the burial from the woods and deduced that it was Dahlgren, as there had been much talk of how to dispose of the war criminal’s remains.

Dahlgren’s father was a famous admiral – Dahlgren naval station on the Potomac was named after him, as was Battery Dahlgren on Shuter’s Hill in Alexandria.  A number of Union men in Richmond determined to locate his grave so that he might be returned to his family.  A Mr. Lipscomb found the gravedigger who had spied on the burial and enlisted his cooperation with a $100 bill.  Appreciating the danger, the gravedigger dropped a stone on the grave as he went about his chores, with the Union men watching at a distance.

Promised an even richer reward of $1500 (a soldier’s pay was $13 a month), on the rainy pitch-black night of April 6th, the gravedigger met the Union men at the cemetery to exhume Dahlgren.  The Unionists waited outside the cemetery in a cart while the grave digger and two assistants “resurrected” Dahlgren.  The shoddy coffin fell to pieces just short of the cart and the body tumbled out onto the ground.  It was identified by the missing finger and a leg lost in the Gettysburg campaign; like a Catholic saint, Dahlgren’s body had not decayed.

The Unionists drove through the city of Richmond to the house of William Rowlett until a proper coffin could be found.  The next day they smuggled the body out of the city concealed in a wagon beneath a load of fruit trees, arriving at the farm of Robert Orricks, a Unionist living in Henrico County.  At Orrick’s, the body was reburied under an apple tree in a field, as burial in the family graveyard might excite inquiry.  Orrick travelled north some months later, found Commander Dahlgren, and let him know his son had been looked after.

When Richmond fell, the Unionists dug Dahlgren up one last time and sent the body to Washington.  Most of him found a final resting place in the Dahlgren family plot at Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia.  His leg, lost in a skirmish at Hagerstown in the pursuit of Lee following Gettysburg, had previously been sealed inside the wall of the Dahlgren foundry at the Washington navy yard. Interred with full military honors, it is still there.  Alas, the finger lost at Walkerton remains unaccounted for.

The Yankees returned to avenge Dahlgren and punish the residents of King and Queen County, burning the settlement at King and Queen Courthouse.  The courthouse, still in use, now stands alone in a clearing – the village was not rebuilt.

Some believe the last chapter of this tale was written in April of 1865.  Dahlgren’s orders changed the rules of engagement – now presidents and their cabinets are legitimate targets.  Thus on April 14th President Lincoln, who had personally approved the raid, is assassinated, Secretary Seward is stabbed, and Vice President Johnson escapes only because his assassin is over-served at a tavern. Live by the sword, die by the sword…

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

Sources:  D. Schultz, The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War; Col. Dahlgren’s Leg, http://allenbrowne.blogspot.com/2012/05/col-dahlgrens-leg.html; Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; Col. Ulric Dahlgren; Curious Story Regarding the Disposition of his Remains, http://www.nytimes.com/1865/08/13/news/col-ulric-dahlgren-curious-story-regarding-the-disposition-of-his-remains.html?pagewanted=2;

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