The Dahlgren Controversy

on March 1, 2014 in American Civil War, People and Biographies

Ulric Dahlgren as a captain

As today is the 150th anniversary of the inglorious end of Judson “Kil-Cavalry” Kilpatrick’s raid on Richmond, and with it the start of the Dahlgren Affair, I thought I would share my thoughts on the latter. Briefly, the Dahlgren Affair stems from the alleged discovery of documents on the corpse of Ulric Dahlgren, a Union cavalry colonel and the son of the Union admiral who invented the bottle-shaped Dahlgren gun.

The documents in question described orders for Kilpatrick’s troopers to burn Richmond and assassinate Jefferson Davis and other high officials.  Abraham Lincoln and the Army of the Potomac’s commander, George Meade, immediately denied any knowledge of the papers, and in the North they were immediately decried as forgeries. The matter of whether the papers were genuine, and if so who authorized either Kilpatrick or just Dahlgren to undertake such a savage operation, has remained a controversial subject to this very day.

The Case For Forgery
The case for forgery isn’t a bad one, although it suffers from a number of problems. Producing forged documents to incriminate the enemy is hardly the worst crime in the arsenal of a propagandist, and so many in Confederate governing circles had shown themselves capable of such skullduggery as to defy listing. The known chain of custody for the Dahlgren papers is a long one, so they could have been swapped or doctored at any point and by most anyone.

The Case For Legitimacy

The fanciful depiction of Kilpatrick’s Raid in Harper’s Weekly

Against this, it must be noted that many contemporaries on the Union side testified to seeing the documents, although there is some dispute over what they originally said. Kilpatrick himself said he saw them, but claimed the Confederates added a forged assassination order. Officers in Dahlgren’s company from the Bureau of Military Information also claim to have seen the papers.

Finally, the most suspicious part of the entire Dahlgren Affair is what happened to the original papers and all lithographic and photographic copies made of them. U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered them all collected for his office in 1865, at which point they disappeared. Presumably, Stanton destroyed them.

My Take
In my mind, the Dahlgren case begins with Judson Kilpatrick, the man the author and leader of the raid. “Kil-Cavalry” was a narcissist and politically ambitious, and I wouldn’t put it past him to past such a miscreant to gleefully participate in a scheme involving assassination and putting an entire city indiscriminately to the torch if he thought it would benefit him. I also find it highly unlikely that orders like those would be issued to Dahlgren alone, who could hardly carry them out without at least the passive cooperation of his superior officer, Kilpatrick.

Edwin Stanton, the likely author of Dahlgren’s (and Kilpatrick’s) orders

Even George Meade, Kilpatrick’s superior, thought it there was something to the Dahlgren papers and that it was very likely that Kilpatrick, with his low character, was involved. While he was dismissing the documents as forged in public, he privately shared his doubts about the matter in letters to his wife.

I also wouldn’t put such a scheme past Edwin Stanton, who clearly implicated himself by destroying the relevant documents. I do not believe for a second that Kilpatrick and Dahlgren would have forged their own false orders, because to do so would serve no purpose. If they returned to camp having committed atrocious, nefarious war crimes, producing obviously fake orders would hardly shield them if the infamy attached to their actions came to outweigh any acclaim they might have thereby won.

Kilpatrick was something of a buffoon, but he wasn’t stupid, and I doubt he would have gone so far out on a limb without some kind of cover. My belief is that Stanton, acting on his own, told Kilpatrick to destroy Richmond and kill Confederate leaders if practicable. Dahlgren’s infamous orders came from Stanton’s office.

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