Northern Neck: The Dahlgren Affair
Thea Marshall discovers The Dahlgren Affair, which may have been the cause of one of the most horrific acts in our nation's history.
The Dahlgren Affair was a Civil War incident that may have been the cause of one of the most horrific acts in our nation's history.
First, about Dahlgren. It's a town in the Northern Neck; back in 1918, it was called the 'Naval proving ground,' later named Dahlgren for Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, considered the father of modern naval ordinance.
Today, it's the Naval Surface Warfare Center, home to the Naval Space Command. But back to a time when space was the place for the sun and the moon and the stars and the Civil War, and another Dahlgren, Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, a young, dashing Union officer whose father was the afore-mentioned John Dahlgren.
Son Ulrich lost a leg during the battle of Gettysburg, had it replaced with a wooden one and kept on soldiering, during which time he somehow heard about a plot that he wanted to get in on. The plot, headed up by and maybe cooked up by Union General Judson Kilpatrick, included attacking Richmond, maybe burning and plundering said city, and freeing the Union prisoners held there.
Dahlgren joined Kilpatrick. Things went horribly wrong for them. Kilpatrick and his men retreated and later, Dahlgren was shot dead and his men captured.
End of the story? Nope. Merely the beginning of a tale historians call the 'Dahlgren Papers.' That's because the corpse of young Ulrich had been searched by an even younger adventurer, a 13 year-old member of the home guard going through Ulrich's pockets in the hope, presumably, of finding something valuable. He hit pay dirt, but he didn't know it.
Not a gold watch, but two slips of paper containing some astonishing words, including 'Jeff Davis and cabinet must be killed on the spot.' Well, the papers got hold of the story, calling it a would-be act of barbarism on the part of the Union forces. There was a clamor that the Union prisoners of war be executed. General Robert E. Lee was consulted. He said, in effect, 'hold on, the papers reflect intentions, not actions,' and one would think that would be that.
But not yet. Alas, poor Ulrich was called 'Ulrich the Hun' and far worse. A huge controversy ensued around the question, 'were they approved by President Lincoln?' Well, records seem to confirm that the freeing of prisoners were in those papers, but no evidence of Lincoln's approving or even suggesting the murder of Jefferson Davis.
The Dahlgren papers would be a, well, a footnote in the history of the Civil War if it were not for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Did the failed Kilpatrick-Dahlgren plot that may have included an assassination assignment to kill the South's President result in an act of retribution, the death of their own President, Abraham Lincoln, carried out by John Wilkes Booth?
The answer is still being debated.
This is Thea Marshall.