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The Dahlgren affair was an incident in the American Civil War involving a failed Union raid on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia on March 2, 1864. According to mysterious papers found on the body of the raid's commanding officer, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, one of their mission objectives was to assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.
Ulric Dahlgren was killed outside Richmond, near the King & Queen County Court House, on March 2 during a bungled raid on the Confederate capital, ostensibly to free Union prisoners. (See Battle of Walkerton). Late that evening, thirteen-year-old William Littlepage discovered Dahlgren's body and searched its pockets for a pocketwatch. Instead, he found a pocketbook and two folded papers, which he promptly turned over to his teacher Edward W. Halbach, a captain in the Confederate Virginia Home Guard. Halbach examined the papers the next morning, discovering that they contained signed orders on Union army stationery for a plot to assassinate Davis.
According to other sources, e.g. Alexandria Gazette, October 16, 1865, it was Major von Borcke who led the party which killed Ulric Dahlgren. It was von Borcke himself who searched the body and found the papers, and his lieutenant handed them to Fitzhugh Lee. The names 'Halbach' or 'Littlepage' are not to be found in any relation to Dahlgren's death in the Library of Congress's newspaper collection for the years 1864 following.
According to one of the papers:
The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.
Halbach immediately contacted his commander, Captain Richard H. Bagby, and informed him of the discovery. At 2 p.m. on March 3, Bagby transferred the papers to Lieutenant James Pollard with instructions to deliver them to his commander Col. Richard L. T. Beale. Beale instructed that they be delivered to the Confederate command in Richmond immediately. Pollard arrived in Richmond at noon on March 4 and delivered the papers to General Fitzhugh Lee. Lee, astonished at their contents, immediately took the papers to President Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Davis quietly read through the documents in Lee's presence and paused when he reached the assassination order, remarking "That means you, Mr. Benjamin." Lee was then instructed to take the papers to the War Department where they were received by Secretary of War James A. Seddon. Seddon decided to release the documents publicly and sought Davis' approval to do so. The Richmond newspapers were contacted for a conference at the War Department and given copies of the orders, which were published the next morning on March 5.
In coming months, the papers were widely circulated in the Confederacy and in Europe as evidence of Union barbarism. Dahlgren was likened to Attila the Hun and several Union leaders were accused of participation in the plot up to and including President Abraham Lincoln. In the United States, the papers were denounced as a forgery designed to weaken the Union's war effort
Many historians, such as Duane Schultz in The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War, agreed the papers were forged, intended to justify numerous plots by the Confederate Secret Service to kidnap Lincoln or blow up the White House. However a new handwriting study performed on the papers by the Smithsonian Channel seems to confirm that the documents are authentic.
- "Alexandria gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.) 1834-1974, October 16, 1865, Image 2". 1865-10-16. ISSN 1946-6153. Retrieved 2017-07-27.
- Text of the Dahlgren Papers
- America's Hidden Stories (Episode 2): Targeting Jefferson Davis (television). The Smithsonian Channel.