By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
Union Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick had big plans and even bigger dreams. In desperation, Lincoln approved a raid by the 1st Vermont Calvary upon Richmond that even the Commander of the Army didn’t support. It was a star-crossed venture with consequences that no one could foretell.
March 19, 1864 Danville North Star
DEATH OF COL. DAHLGREN
The following is the article in the Richmond Sentinel of the 5th, announcing the death of Col. Dahlgren: “The gallant Dahlgreen is dead. After leaving Richmond, he proceeded with a portion of his men toward the peninsula through the country of King and Queen, where he met Lieut. Col. Pollard of the 9th Virginia, and had a sharp encounter, in which Col. Dahlgren was shot dead. Some seventy or eighty of his men were captured. The remainder has joined Kilpatrick as has been already stated. Col. Dahlgren was one of the bravest men of America, and his death will be regretted by all who ever knew him. He had lost a leg in the service and had just arrived at that period of convalescence when he could take the saddle, when he was cut down by war’s relentless hand.
Upon his person were found an address to his men and a memorandum of the route he was to take with his command, when he left Kilpatrick, where he was to go, what he was to do, when he was supposed to be there, and when he was to rejoin the main force.
The address to his men is a most spirit-stirring and patriotic appeal to his sympathies and valor on behalf of their fellow soldiers who are suffering imprisonment in the loathsome dungeons and upon the desert islands of the Confederacy. He begs them not to falter or flag, but to follow him to open prison doors and putting arms into the hands of their released brethren, they would march together to kill Davis and Cabinet, and then return home to their friends, ready and anxious for further deeds of valor.”
Later accounts represent that there is no doubt that the pretended address said to have been upon the person of Col Dahlgren was a bold forgery. This deception was necessary to excuse the brutality with which his body was treated. He was a brave, spirited young officer, and nothing but the fear his true chivalry inspired could have induced the cowardly revenge gratified in the abuse of his lifeless remains.
Times were bleak in the winter of ’64. General Kilpatrick’s career had stalled along with the Union war effort, while Lincoln was witnessing a swell of Northern sentiment to give up the fight. Earlier in the year, a Senator had whispered in the President’s ear about a cocksure cavalry officer who had concocted an audacious plan. It was a plan to ride into Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy, and liberate 1,000 Union officers held at an old warehouse called Libby prison and 10,000 enlisted men confined at Belle Isle that sat out in the middle of the James River.
On February 11, the President learned that a large number of officers had tunneled their way out of Libby. He knew when they made their way back to Washington, stories about the horrors of their imprisonment in the Northern press would soon follow. Lincoln summoned Kilpatrick to the White House that evening.
The 28-year-old General wanted to be president some day. He was certain that becoming a military hero, like other successful aspirants to the nation’s highest office had done, was the best way to punch his ticket. He had a reputation for winning “Pyrrhic victories” which consisted of reckless tactics that resulted in loss of his men for no military purpose. His star was fading, but if he could pull off his Richmond caper, a couple of gold stars would surely follow. But winning approval for this adventure was problematic. The commander of the Army, General Meade, was not going to entrust such an operation to a man who had once voiced the impolitic observation that the son of the Union’s highest ranking military officer, who was an officer himself, was incompetent. However Kilpatrick got around Meade by mentioning his plan to Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan at a dinner party one night, who in turn told Lincoln.
Kilpatrick’s plan was by no means a secret in Washington social circles. At yet another party, George Washington’s Birthday Ball, he was approached by the youngest Colonel in the Army, Ulric Dahlgren, who wanted in on the action. A member of Washington’s political – military glitteri, the 21-year-old son of Admiral James Dahlgren (who invented the Dahlgren gun, a muzzle loading cannon used through the Navy) talked Kilpatrick into giving him a key role in the Richmond raid.
With the lights of Richmond in sight and the sound of Kilpatrick’s cannon in earshot, the five hundred men had to give up the mission and begin the task of finding their way back home, only to find themselves repeatedly ambushed and scattered by Confederate militia and hostile residents. Dahlgren and 40 Vermonters became separated from the rest of his men. Kilpatrick also was forced to abort the Richmond raid.
Eventually, in the storm and the cold, Dahlgren and his charges came upon a single Confederate soldier and a barricade of brush blocking the road. The officer approached but there were 150 rebels behind the bush. The young Colonel was dead. His bullet-ridden body, laying in the mud, was stripped of clothes and a finger cut off to secure his wedding ring.
The Southerners discovered documents on the corpse, which included unsigned and undated papers with instructions to destroy Richmond and kill President Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet. This information was soon in the hands of Confederate authorities and quickly became the story in the Richmond Sentinel quoted by the Danville North Star.
The incident became a cause celebre in both North and South. A debate continues to this day over whether or not the papers were authentic. Political assassins are seldom found with marching orders in their pocket. The brouhaha also predated a concerted Southern campaign, largely ineffectual, to wreak havoc in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio with their own plots of prison escapes and political assassinations. As the Dahlgren story broke, Jefferson Davis inexplicably ordered the officer secretly buried.
Some of Dahlgren’s Vermonters were captured and sent to the prisons in Richmond. A few would find their way to the infamous gulag in Andersonville, Georgia. One Vermont trooper, an Irish immigrant named Michael Madden, was taken to Richmond and deemed “non-compos mentis” by a Confederate surgeon. He was promptly paroled and sent back North. After disembarking a troop ship at Annapolis, a Federal doctor diagnosed the private, finding that he had exhibited “marked symptoms of idiocy” and confined him to an insane asylum for six months. It’s unclear whether Madden’s suffering was a consequence of the war trauma or serving under Kilpatrick.
Meade attempted to demote Kilpatrick for his trouble, but the reckless braggart was sent to the Civil War version of Siberia–out west to fight Indians.
When John Dahlgren requested his son’s corpse, the body came up missing. However, months later, the Union’s spy network around Richmond found the young man’s remains and shipped them back to the Admiral.
Sources: The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War: A History by Joseph D. Collea; The Dahlgren Affair: Terror & Conspiracy in the Civil War by Duane Schultz; Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly:The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren by Eric Wittenberg; The North Star