Dahlgren’s Raid: And Memories of Things Unknown

By Richard Salzberg © 2012


 “To be lost is only a failure of memory.”

                                                    – Margaret Atwood

Scottish author and historian Alistair Moffat frequently references and utilizes “toponymy” in his work. Having to do with “the place-names of a region. . . especially the etymological study of them,” toponymy is an amazing tool for researching the myriad mysterious worlds of ancient Celtic kingdoms. The study of place-names can also be an excellent device for discovering the past in the more remote corners of our own regions. Although, countering that, there seems little to be discerned from the name of Stevensville, Virginia, other than a reference to a founding family.

However, as surely as morning mists shroud the Highlands, there are other signs near that tiny hamlet (population: 158) in King and Queen County which can provide clear indications of momentous things that happened there. For one, the unusual number of ravens which seem ever present at a lonely spot not far from the old crossroads, near a roadside history marker with the bold capitalized heading: “WHERE DAHLGREN DIED.”

Ulric Dahlgren 6-15-13As with a surprising number of other Civil War sites throughout the South (although perhaps still too few), the spot marking the end of Dahlgren’s Raid is relatively as remote today as it was on March 2, 1864, when, as the historical marker states “. . . after the raid on Richmond, his forces bivouacked here and in breaking camp he fell to the fire of Confederate detachments and Home Defense forces who had gathered during the night.”

The subject of this metal inscription is Ulric Dahlgren. Born to privilege and respectability as the son of Admiral John A. Dahlgren in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1842, it could be that Ulric Dahlgren would have had a life of civic accomplishment and noblesse oblige – were it not for the sirens’ call to war. His father wanted him to be civil engineer, and the son even briefly embarked on efforts in that direction; but that was not to be.

By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, Dahlgren was a 21-year old wunderkind Union cavalry captain with a reputation for courage and ferocity in battle, and commitment to the Union cause, having seen action at Harpers Ferry, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Brandy Station. But during post-Gettysburg operations against the invading Confederates in Hagerstown, Maryland, in his father’s words, July 6 became “the last day of service that Ulric Dahlgren shall render to his country for a long time.” During fierce street fighting, while “leading a daring charge through the streets,” a bullet wound to his lower leg took him out of action and impelled his removal to the family home in Washington.

Civil War historian and author Eric J. Wittenberg writes: “The patient’s condition did not improve appreciably; rather, it worsened. Dahlgren’s condition deteriorated to the point that all traffic in front of the house was prohibited and a sentry placed at the front door to prevent anyone but medical personnel from entering.  [His] surgeon examined the wound carefully, and reported the news that all dreaded: the foot would have to be amputated. The same surgeon removed the mangled lower right leg, and after three days while the young man’s life hung in the balance, the long road to recovery began.”

Among the first visitors to the young captain’s bedside was Abraham Lincoln, a family friend and commander-in-chief grateful for Dahlgren’s accomplishments and sacrifice. Among other notables, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton followed, with “a commission for colonel, without having passed through the intermediate grade of major. Your gallant and meritorious service has, I think, entitled you to this distinction.”

But accolades and laurels would never be enough. Despite such attention and tribute, sympathy is relatively easy here for such a young man: the wounding and the loss, the frustration of slow healing and enforced idleness – and the pain – all imposed on a 21-year old war hero now without purpose or active position. The trials of this time are perhaps best left to the imagination of the dramatist or the conventions of the most scrupulous of biographers. What were the conversations with his father and family (and the mother rarely referenced), and with the fast friends not at all so far removed from his boyhood and school years? Were there relationships with young ladies now cast in a different light, or were there new loves courted, to be won or lost?

In any case, there were myriad factors which could have led to anything, and they did – in the form of Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, considered by many to be one of the worst scoundrels to emerge from the war. Soldiers have always had a way with inspired names for their commanders. Kilpatrick’s handle – so named by his own men – was sadly prescient: “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick.

 “Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.”

                                                           – Aldous Huxley

Dahlgren had served with Kilpatrick during the fighting which preceded his wounding at Hagerstown, and was somehow compelled to take a key role in a venture described by Wittenberg: “Judson Kilpatrick cooked up a hare-brained scheme for a raid on Richmond intended to liberate the Yankee prisoners of war held on Belle Isle and in Libby Prison.” As summarized in The Civil War Almanac (1983): “. . . President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton have authorized a raid that will attempt to seize the Confederate capital by a surprise attack, free the prisoners [at Libby Prison and on Belle Isle], and distribute amnesty proclamations.” The raid began on February 28, 1864, with a total of 3500 cavalry.  Col. Dahlgren, now fitted with an artificial leg, was in charge of an advance column of 500 men which was to approach Richmond from the south after crossing the James River, while Kilpatrick was to descend with his 3000 men from the north.

This Kilpatrick did, destroying rails, mills, and private property; but, while underestimating the Southern defenses and their ability to respond to the incursion, he also failed to prevent an approaching train from reaching Richmond and spreading the alarm. Confederate militia and cavalry, including a number of Gen. Wade Hampton’s regular cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia, determinedly pursued the Federals. As referenced in “America’s Civil War” in 2006: “Nothing went according to plan.”

Soon realizing that he could neither enter Richmond nor return to the main army, Kilpatrick decided to flee, moving down the Virginia Peninsula south of Richmond where the Army of the James was entrenched. Meanwhile, snow, sleet, and rain, with resultant high river water, kept Dahlgren’s detached brigade on the northeast side of the James River. With some of his troopers somehow having been able to get through to reach Kilpatrick’s force, Dahlgren was now down to about 100 men, with no hope of ever accomplishing his mission or connecting with the retreating Kilpatrick, and with local Home Guard units and irregulars dogging them at every turn.

Once so isolated, the foray became a very different affair: It was now all about survival. The denouement for both Dahlgren’s life and his raid is harsh and macabre, and discomfiting even now. Lost and disoriented in hostile country, Dahlgren made a series of unfortunate moves. Gone so far astray in unfamiliar country and pursued by furious avengers, he nevertheless continued firing the land already made desolate; then there was the cruel incident of his summary killing of a young local man he believed had betrayed him. Freed black bricklayer Martin Robinson had been r recruited as a guide and was supposed to lead the Union men to a safe place to ford the mighty James, but powerful winter rains had made that impossible. In a pique of rage, Dahlgren had the young man “hanged from a tree on the riverbank.”

Late on the cold night of Wednesday, March 2, the exhausted Federals were finally run to ground at a place called Mantapike Hill. A violent ambush ended the short life of Ulric Dahlgren and resulted in the greater part of his command being captured. “Pierced by five balls,” the colonel was within a month of his twenty-second birthday.

Dahlgren's Raid ~ 3-09-15Even today, long after it was a household name for the successive generations directly touched by the Civil War, Dahlgren’s Raid remains steeped in controversy and unanswered questions. Papers were purportedly found on Dahlgren’s body by a 13-year-old boy serving with the Home Guard which detailed plans not only to free and set loose the thousands of Union prisoners in Richmond, but also to execute Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, and the mission of “the burning of the city of Richmond.” By March 3, accounts of the raid and its end were published in Richmond newspapers and throughout the South, and by March 5, the contents of the incendiary orders found on Dahlgren appeared in print in the Richmond Sentinel, along with an editorial denouncing “this revolting outrage on civilization and the rules of war!”

The orders which Dahlgren proclaimed to his men, and the purposes avowed, are unexampled in the history of the world – Cities have, indeed, been sacked; but it was only after an obstinate and useless resistance had inflamed the passions of the soldiers, and made them uncontrollable by their commanders. Dahlgren expected to take Richmond by sudden surprise – not after an obstinate defense, or, indeed, any defence. – Yet, he proclaimed that it was his purpose to sack, burn, destroy; to turn loose ten thousand reckless men, without officers, with full license to riot at will. What imagination can paint the horrors of which this city would have been the scene on Monday, if Dahlgren’s enterprise had succeeded? History furnishes no example of the murder, arson, robbery, rape and conflagration which would have prevailed. The President and his Cabinet were doomed by name, and were to fall at the hands of the troops. Does any one believe that any official, of any grade, would have escaped the mob of prisoners? Dahlgren has died, but Dahlgren was not the only guilty man. His address was to his officers and his men. He told them his purpose, and gave them leave to withdraw if they disapproved the undertaking. They elected to follow him, and became partners of his crimes. His annunciation became theirs. We have come of these men in our hands. What shall we do with them? – What do they deserve? Tried by the rule of war of what they are guilty? They are murderers, incendiaries, outlaws, detested and arrested in the execution of their crimes. They have forfeited the character of soldiers, and they should not be treated as such.

As the storm of outrage at such dastardly terrorism continued, indignant denials from the North were immediately forthcoming, accompanied by accusations of forgery at the hands of the Confederates. Among the formal exchanges, the tone of the communications between Robert E. Lee and G. Gordon Meade is fascinating. The two were former comrades from the old army and Mexican–American War, both engineers, who as adversaries at Gettysburg had changed the course of the war. Meade had no option but to absolutely deny everything; but, in a private letter to his wife, he inferred there may have been substance to the charges. Interestingly, the infamous hand-written orders and the photographed copies of them Lee that sent to Meade have long-since disappeared

Accompanying all of the politics and partisan journalism was the contemptible treatment of Dahlgren’s body, beyond unforgiveable even to many Southerners, His artificial leg was stolen, the little finger on his left hand was cut off to remove a diamond ring, and his meticulously crafted crutch was put on display at the offices of the Richmond Whig, where it had been delivered anonymously. (Referring to him as “the piratical Yankee, Col. Ulric Dahlgren,” the newspaper reported: “It is pronounced by judges of such work a model of its kind, uniting as it does great simplicity of construction with great ease and comfort to the wearer. Our crutch makers should call and see it.”) Dahlgren was originally buried at Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery, and eventually reinterred in the family plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Dahlgren’s Raid will be debated for as long as the Civil War is studied.

For the rest of life, Admiral Dahlgren defended his son’s mission and reputation. A paper on the history of the raid presented to a Confederate veterans’ group on March 9, 1906, by veteran Dr. Richard G. Crouch included this account: “In 1872, Admiral J. A. Dahlgren, father of Ulric Dahlgren, wrote a comprehensive memoir of his son’s life and career. In this memoir the following paragraph occurs: ‘The document alleged to have been found upon the person of Colonel Dahlgren, is utterly discredited by the fact that the signature attached is not his name – a letter is misplaced. . . hence it is undeniable that the paper is not only spurious, but a forgery. . . It is entirely certain that no such orders were ever issued by Colonel Dahlgren. (Memoir of Ulric Dahlgren, pp. 233-234)”

And so it is. . .

When the oral histories fade away with the last of the elders and practitioners, when the metal of roadside historical markers rusts and crumbles away, when sacred ground is violated and overturned by conscienceless developers – all of former renown and importance which has ever occurred at a place will nevertheless somehow continue to resonate.

Just as the prehistoric dolmens of Great Britain and Europe – and New England – stand guard and secure ancient mysteries with their imposing weight and gravity, other places of secret note possess less visible sentinels that maintain their own vigils. It could be a dark, silent figure moving through the mists at twilight or dawn at Mantapike Hill, or mournful sounds in the dark of night from a riverbank along the James River, or the particular abundance of ravens near Virginia Highway Marker #OB-6 near an isolated hamlet called Stevensville.

However that may be, it falls to us to discover, and to discern, preserve, protect. . . and remember, remember.

 –  Finis  –


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