Monday, April 28, 2014

March 4, 1864 (Friday): Dahlgren's Papers

Mill Ruins On Belle Island (

March 4, 1864.
General S. COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector-General:
    GENERAL: I have the honor to transmit the inclosed papers,* found upon the body of Colonel U. Dahlgren, of the U. S. Army, who was killed by a portion of my command, assisted by a portion of Colonel Robins' cavalry battalion and a detachment of the home guards of King and Queen, in that county, upon the night of the 2nd. These papers were sent by Lieutenant Pollard, commanding a detachment of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, to Colonel Beale, and by him transmitted direct to me. They need no comment. Colonel Dahlgren commanded a force picket to co-operate with Brigadier-General Kilpatrick in his ridiculous and unsoldierly raid, and lost his life running off negroes after the failure of his insane attempt to destroy Richmond and kill Jeff. Davis and cabinet. The force of negroes and Yankees captured after his fall amount to about 140.
     Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

     FITZ. LEE,
     Major-General, Commanding.


[Sub-inclosure Numbers 1.] 

Officers and Men:
   You have been selected from brigades and regiments as a picked command to attempt a desperate undertaking--an undertaking which, it successful, will cause the prayers of our fellow-soldiers now confined in loathsome prisons to follow you and yours wherever you may go. We hope to release the prisoners form Belle Island first, and having seen them fairly started, we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us and exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape. The prisoners must render great assistance, as you cannot leave your ranks too far or become too much scattered, or you will be lost. Do not allow any personal gain to lead you off, which would only bring you to an ignominious death at the hands of citizens. Keep well together and obey orders strictly and all will be well; but on no account scatter too far, for in union there is strength. With strict obedience to orders and fearlessness in the execution you will be sure to succeed. We will join the main force on the other side of the city, or perhaps meet them inside. Many of you may fall; but if there is any man here not willing to sacrifice his life in such a great and glorious undertaking, or who does not feel capable of meeting the enemy in such a desperate fight as will follow. let him step out, and he may go hence to the arms of his sweetheart and read of the braves who swept through the city of Richmond. We want no man who cannot feel sure of success in such a holy cause. We will have a desperate fight, but stand up to it when it does come and all will be well. Ask the blessing of the Almighty and do not fear the enemy.

     Colonel, Commanding.

[Sub-inclosure Numbers 2.]
Guides, pioneers (with oakum, turpentine, and torpedoes), signal officer, quartermaster, commissary, scouts, and picket men in rebel uniform. Men will remain on the north bank and move down with the force on south bank, not getting ahead of them, and if the communication can be kept up without giving an alarm it must be done; but everything depends upon a surprise, and no one must be allowed to pass ahead of the column. Information must be gathered in regard to the crossing of the river, so that should we be repulsed on the south side we will know where to recross at the nearest point. All mills must be burned and the canal destroyed; and also everything which can be used by the rebels must be destroyed, including the boats on the river. Should a ferry-boat be seized and can be worked, have it moved down. Keep the force on the south side posted of any important movement of the enemy, and in case of danger some of the scouts must swim the river and bring us information. As we approach the city the party must take great care that they do not get ahead of the other party on the south side, and must conceal themselves and watch our movements. We will try and secure the bridge to the city, 1 mile below Belle Island, and release the prisoners at the same time. If we do not succeed they must then dash down, and we will try and carry the bridge from each side. When necessary, the men must be filed through the woods and along the river bank. The bridges once secured, and the prisoners loose and over the river, the bridges will be secured and the city destroyed. The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and cabinet killed. Pioneers will go along with combustible material. The officer must use his discretion about the time of assisting us. Horse and cattle which we do not need immediately must be shot rather than left. Everything on the canal and elsewhere of service to the rebels must be destroyed. As General Custer may follow me, be careful not to give a false alarm.

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 33, Part 1, Page 178-180, 217.

The controversy as to whether Dahlgren anticipated his force killing Davis and his cabinet was a source of immediate controversy.  Meade denied to Lee the letters were authentic, Kilpatrick vouched for everything in the address but the orders to kill Davis, and the Confederate authorities were outraged by the papers and sought to use them to gin up their own people while bringing the Union cause discredit abroad.  The controversy over the papers continues to the present, with no definitive answer as to whether the papers are in Dahlgren's hand.  Most experts believe they were, but argue over whether he had any authorization further up the command structure for them.

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