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.
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Ulric Dahlgren was killed outside of 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 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 3rd 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 4th 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 North, the papers were denounced as a forgery designed to weaken the Union's war effort.
Dahlgren Paper authenticity
For many years a debate has waged over the authenticity of the Dahlgren Papers. Part of the mystery stems from the fact that the papers have not survived and appear to have been intentionally destroyed by Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1865. The papers were among a collection of important Confederate documents transferred to Washington after the surrender of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Stanton ordered Francis Lieber to remove the Dahlgren Papers from the Confederate files and deliver them to him personally. He then presumably destroyed them as they have not been seen since.
Surviving records include transcripts of the documents, which were published in several newspapers, photographs of them that were provided by Lee to Union general George Meade for investigation, and a lithograph based on the photographs that was made in Europe where Confederate agents circulated the document to stir up sympathy for their cause. Unfortunately the destruction of the records by Stanton has prevented their examination in modern times and restricted historical knowledge of them to the surviving copies and examinations conducted between March 5, 1864 and November 1865 when Stanton seized the papers.
A leading proponent of the forgery allegation was Admiral John A. Dahlgren, Ulric's father, who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his son's name. The senior Dahlgren based his argument against their authenticity on a European lithograph of the orders in which his son's name was misspelled "Dalhgren." The source of this error was discovered after the admiral's death by former Confederate general Jubal A. Early, who discovered the source of the error while studying the photographs. The lithographer, working from the photographs, mistook the "l" for an "h" and transposed the two due to ink marks that bled through from the other side of the paper.
After the controversy surrounding the documents developed, Union Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, who authorized the Dahlgren raid, was questioned by General Meade about the photographs sent by Lee. Kilpatrick indicated to Meade that the papers were indeed authentic as he had seen them when conferring with Dahlgren, but claimed that the Confederates had altered them to include the assassination order. Meade officially replied to Lee that "neither the United States Government, myself, nor General Kilpatrick authorized, sanctioned, or approved the burning of the city of Richmond and the killing of Mr. Davis and cabinet," placing the blame solely on Dahlgren. Privately however, Meade confided to his wife that "Kilpatrick's reputation, and collateral evidence in my possession, rather go against this theory" that Dahlgren alone devised the conspiracy.
In addition to Meade's private beliefs, the papers' authenticity is corroborated by statements from Bureau of Military Information officers John McEntee, who accompanied Dahlgren on the raid and thus saw the papers, and John Babcock. It is further noted that the custody of the papers from their discovery by Littlepage on March 2nd to their delivery to Davis on March 4th is well documented. The short period of time between their transfer from Littlepage to Davis reduces the time in which a skilled forger could be found.
Though the papers have long been disputed, recent scholarship by historians including Stephen W. Sears and Edward Steers, Jr. has tended to favor their authenticity, though few who believe in their authenticity contend they were written by anyone other than Dahlgren himself.
One theory about the Lincoln Assassination holds that the Dahlgren Papers' discovery instigated the chain of events ending in John Wilkes Booth's murder of Abraham Lincoln the next year. Steers, in his history of the assassination Blood on the Moon, traces the assassination conspiracy's origins to this event. Though they offer a different theory of the assassination that is bitterly at odds with Steers' interpretation, Ray Neff and Leonard Guttridge also agree on the Dahlgren affair's role. Sears summarizes the relationship between Dahlgren and Booth as follows:
- "Judson Kilpatrick, Ulric Dahlgren, and their probable patron Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy's president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president"