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Book Review: The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War (Duane Schultz): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War, by Duane Schultz, W.W. Norton, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110, 298 pages, $25.95.

With his book The Dahlgren Affair, Duane Schultz, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, Tampa, joins a long list of writers who became fascinated by and wrote about the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren cavalry raid on Richmond, particularly the romantic account of young Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. This raid, which began on the cold evening of February 28, 1864, was a Union military fiasco.

There are many nagging errors of fact in Schultz's book. Worse, some of his conclusions are at war with the evidence presented elsewhere in the book. As for style, this book leaves the flavor of having been compiled from the work of others, rather than written in an organized fashion.

The central figure in this book is Dahlgren, just short of his 22d birthday. Son of a famous admiral, he was already a war hero, having lost his lower right leg in a skirmish following the Battle of Gettysburg. He wore a wooden leg and carried a crutch tied to his saddle.

The author does a credible job of describing the plan for the raid and the raid itself. On March 1, Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and some 3,500 troopers were to attack the Richmond fortifications from the north. While the defenders were thus occupied, Dahlgren, with a separate command of about 500 men, was to ford the James River above Richmond, free the prisoners at Belle Isle, and break into the city from the south.

Kilpatrick's attack bogged down, and by nightfall his position had become precarious. He retreated to the southeast. Dahlgren fared no better. His guide, a black man named Martin Robinson, could not find the ford across the James. Dahlgren had him hanged for treachery, a sordid incident that Schultz dismisses in less than a page, though elsewhere in the book he writes glowingly about Dahlgren as a mature commander.

Confused by darkness and under fire, Dahlgren and 90 of his men lost contact with the remainder of the command. So Dahlgren led them northeast, hoping to get across the Mattaponi River and follow it down to its mouth at the town of West Point, where they would find Major General Benjamin Butler's infantry.

Lieutenant James Pollard gathered as much of his scattered Company H of the 9th Virginia Cavalry as he could and followed Dahlgren all day on March 2. After Dahlgren crossed the Mattaponi, Pollard swung around in front of him and set up a night ambush at an isolated spot in King and Queen County known as Mantapike Hill. At about 11:30 p.m. Dahlgren and his depleted force, now fewer than 80, rode into the trap. At point-blank range the first volley brought down Dahlgren, riddled with buckshot. Except for four who eventually made it to Butler's lines, the remainder of Dahlgren's men surrendered meekly the next morning.

During the night a 13-year-old member of the local home guard, William Littlepage, crept out into the road and searched the dead man. He found a small notebook with loose papers stuffed between the leaves and two folded documents. Littlepage turned the documents over to his commander, Lieutenant Edward W. Halbach.

After daylight, Halbach examined the papers. One undated document was addressed to "Officers and Men" and neatly written in ink on two sheets of official stationery of the headquarters of the Cavalry Corps' 3d Division. The signature appeared to read "U. Dahlgren." A second document, in the same hand, was a list of operating instructions for the raid. It was also neatly written in ink, front and back, on one sheet of the same official stationery. It was undated and unsigned.

At first Schultz seems to accept the authenticity of the wording of these papers as published in the Richmond newspapers. Then he switches to a belief that the Confederates forged substitute documents with inflammatory language in order to justify a campaign of terror against the North.

Schultz is entirely correct on one point: publication of the Dahlgren papers sparked calls in the South for harsh retribution. However, the author's case for forgery can't be supported. The weight of the evidence is that the papers taken from Dahlgren's body contained the following: (1) "once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed," (2) "the city must be destroyed," (3) "Jeff Davis and cabinet must be killed on the spot," (4) "exhorting the prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city, and do not allow the Rebel leader, Davis, and his traitorous crew to escape."

In asserting a forgery, Schultz completely missed the important point–chronology. Lieutenant James Pollard delivered the package (less the notebook) to Major General Fitzhugh Lee in Richmond just before noon on March 4. It took time for Pollard to brief Lee and for Lee to read the papers and determine what to do. He decided to take the papers to Jefferson Davis, whom he found in conference with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. Davis read the papers and discussed them with Lee and Benjamin. He then ordered Lee to deliver them to General Samuel Cooper, adjutant and inspector general, at the war department. By this time it must have been well after noon.

The authorities at the war department did not even know that such papers existed until Lee delivered them to Cooper. Out of the resulting confusion and cumulative outrage, a decision was made to call in Richmond newspaper editors and furnish copies of the documents for publication the next morning, March 5. There was not enough intervening time for a sophisticated forgery to be concocted, for new stationery to be printed with the necessary letterhead, and get every one into agreement on a cover story. The conclusion has to be that there was no forgery.

Despite these critical comments, this book has redeeming qualities. Schultz dug out previously unpublished details of the retaliatory raid on King and Queen Court House carried out by a force sent up by Butler. Also there is an excellent account of how Dahlgren's body was dug up secretly at night by associates of Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew and reburied on a farm outside Richmond until the war's end. Used with caution, this book is worth adding to your Civil War library.

James O. Hall
McLean, Virginia


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