Dahlgren affair

The Dahlgren affair was an incident during the American Civil War which stemmed from a failed Union raid on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in March 1864. Brigardier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren led an attack on Richmond to free Union prisoners from Belle Isle and damage Confederate infrastructure.

The attack failed and Dahlgren was killed while in retreat during the Battle of Walkerton. Papers discovered on his body revealed orders to free Union prisoners from Belle Isle, arm them with flammable material, torch the city of Richmond and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.

The papers were published in the Richmond newspapers and sparked outrage in the South with speculation that President Abraham Lincoln had given the orders himself. An angry mob disinterred Dahlgren's remains and disrespectfully placed them on display in Richmond. Reports of the mistreatment of Dahlgren's corpse inflamed public opinion in the North. Union newspapers and Dahlgren's father, Union Navy Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren claimed the papers were a forgery. Union Major General George Meade had to personally assure Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the orders were not authorized by the Union Army. The controversy may have contributed to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln.

The papers disappeared and it has never been determined if the papers were forged or if they written by Dahlgren, Kilpatrick, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton or President Lincoln.


In the winter of 1863-1864, Confederate prisoner camps such as Belle Isle and Libby Prison had become dangerously overcrowded due to the Confederacy's refusal to include captured black Union soldiers in the Dix–Hill Cartel exchanges of prisoners with the North. It was estimated that 1,500 Union soldiers were dying each month in Confederate prisons.[1]

Spies reported that the Confederacy had very few men guarding the capital of Richmond and Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick received approval from Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to launch an ambitious cavalry raid against Richmond. Kilpatrick had a reputation for recklessness which earned him the nickname "Kill-Cavalry". Kilpatrick recruited Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to assist in the attack. Dahlgren had lost a leg after being wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and was eager to return to action after his recovery.[2]

Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raidEdit

Ambuscade and Death of Colonel Dahlgren from Harper's Weekly

Kilpatrick and Dahlgren led the operation to attack Richmond, Virginia; rescue Union prisoners from Belle Isle and damage Confederate infrastructure.[3] The operation is also known as the Battle of Walkerton.[4]

On February 28, Kilpatrick and Dahlgren left from Stevensburg, Virginia. Kilpatrick was to attack Richmond from the North with 3,500 men and Dahlgren from the South with 500 men. Snow, sleet and rain from an unexpected winter storm slowed the attack.[2]

Dahlgren's forces were led to a ford on the James River near Dover Mills but were unable to cross due to high water from recent rains.[3] Dahlgren redirected his troops to attack Richmond from the East. They heard the sound of battle and rushed to support Kilpatrick but ran directly into a Confederate Home Guard force which halted their advance.[2] Dahlgren retreated East in an attempt to connect with Kilpatrick's force.[3]

The Union troops were continually harassed by Confederate forces during the retreat and became separated. On the night of March 3rd, Dahlgren and a portion of his troops were ambushed near King and Queen Court House by 150 men in the Virginia cavalry under the command of Lieutenant James Pollard. Dahlgren was shot by four bullets and died on the battlefield. Several other Union soldiers were killed in the ambush[2] and 135 were captured.[5]

Discovery of the Dahlgren papersEdit

Dahlgren Raid Headline March 1864

Dahlgren's body was searched by a 13 year old boy, William Littlepage. He was searching for valuables but found a packet of papers that he gave to his teacher Edward Halbach.[6] The papers were orders to free Union prisoners from Belle Isle, supply them with flammable material and torch the city of Richmond. Union troops were to capture and kill Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.

According to other sources, such as Alexandria Gazette, October 16, 1865,[7] it was Major Heros von Borcke who led the party which killed Ulric Dahlgren and 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.[8]

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 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, he remarked, "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's 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. The papers were published in the Richmond Examiner and sparked outrage in the South.[9] The newspapers compared Dahlgren to Atilla the Hun and speculated that Lincoln himself had given the orders.[2]

Mistreatment of Dahlgren's corpseEdit

Dahlgren was originally interred where he was shot.[10] After the publication of the papers, an outraged mob disinterred his body and placed it on display at the York River Railroad depot in Richmond.[11] Dahlgren's wooden leg was displayed in a store window and his finger was cut off to remove a ring.[10] These reports of the mistreatment of Dahlgren's corpse inflamed Northern public opinion.[12]

After the public display of his corpse, Dahlgren was interred in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond.[10] The Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew used her connections in Richmond to secretly exhume his remains and reinter them at a farm 10 miles outside of Richmond[13] to prevent further desecration of his body.[10] Dahlgren was eventually interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.[14]

Union denial of the papersEdit

Union newspapers claimed the orders were a forgery and Dahlgren's father, Union Navy Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, strongly denied his son would be involved in such a scandal. Union Major General George Meade had to personally assure Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the orders were not sanctioned by the Union Army.[15] The controversy may have contributed to John Wilkes Booth's decision to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln a year later.[16]

It was never determined if the orders were written by Dahlgren, Kilpatrick, Edwin M. Stanton or President Lincoln. The papers misspelled Dahlgren's name, casting doubt that they were written by him. After the war, the papers of the Confederate Government were gathered by Francis Lieber and relocated to Washington D.C. The Dahlgren papers were personally requested by Stanton and have not been seen since.[2]

Many historians, such as Duane Schultz in The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War, agreed that the papers were forged and intended to justify the numerous plots by the Confederate Secret Service to kidnap Lincoln or to 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, and the theory is that Stanton was the originator of the assassination order.[17]


  1. ^ "Jefferson Davis". www.history.net. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f McNeer, John. "Dahlgren's 1864 Raid on Richmond Generates an Ongoing Controversy". www.historyarch.com. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  3. ^ a b c "Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid". www.encyclopediavirginia.org. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  4. ^ Wertz, Jay and Bearss, Edwin C. (1999). Smithsonian's Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War. HarperCollins Publisher. p. 693. ISBN 9780688170240. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
  5. ^ Ashe, Samuel A'Court (1925). History of North Carolina. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company. p. 877. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  6. ^ "The Dahlgren Affair". www.historynaked.com. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  7. ^ "Alexandria gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.) 1834-1974, October 16, 1865, Image 2". Alexandria Gazette. 1865-10-16. ISSN 1946-6153. Retrieved 2017-07-27.
  8. ^ Text of the Dahlgren Papers
  9. ^ Rhodes 1920, p. 514.
  10. ^ a b c d Suhr, Robert. "The Dahlgren Affair: Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond". www.warfarehistorynetwork.com. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  11. ^ Dahlgren 1872, p. 227.
  12. ^ "Van Lew, Elizabeth L. (1818-1900)". www.encyclopediavirginia.org. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  13. ^ Dahlgren 1872, pp. 274–275.
  14. ^ Dahlgren 1872, p. 287.
  15. ^ Rhodes 1920, p. 515.
  16. ^ Wittenberg, Eric J. "Ulric Dahlgren in the Gettysburg Campaign". Retrieved 2009-02-16.
  17. ^ America's Hidden Stories (Episode 2): Targeting Jefferson Davis (television). The Smithsonian Channel.