Tuesday, April 29, 2014

March 6, 1864 (Sunday): Lee Counsels Restraint

General Robert E. Lee

HEADQUARTERS, March 6, 1864.
Honorable JAMES A. SEDDON,
Secretary of War, Richmond:
    SIR: I have just received your letter of the 5th instant inclosing a slip from one of the Richmond journals, giving an account of the recent attack upon that city, and a copy of some papers found on the dead body of Colonel Dahlgren, disclosing the plan and purpose of the enterprise. I concur with you in thinking that a formal publication of these papers should be made under official authority, that our people and the world may know the character of the war our enemies wage against us, and the unchristian and atrocious acts they plot and perpetrate. But I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands. Assuming that the address and special orders of Colonel Dahlgren correctly state his designs and intentions, they were not executed, and I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, and he killed. I do not think it right, therefore, to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions. I do not pretend to speak the sentiments of the army, which you seem to desire. I presume that the blood boils with indignation in the veins of every officer and man as they read the account of the barbarous and inhuman plot, and under the impulse of the moment many would counsel extreme measures. But I do not think that reason and reflection would justify such a course. I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity. Nor do I think that under present circumstances policy dictates the execution of these men. It would produce retaliation. How many and better men have we in the enemy's hands than they have in ours? But this consideration should have no weight provided the course was in itself right. Yet history records instances where such considerations have prevented the execution of marauders and devastators of provinces.
   It may be pertinent to this subject to refer to the conduct of some of our men in the valley. I have hard that a party of Gilmor's battalion, after arresting the progress of a train of cars on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, took from the passengers their purses and watches. As far as I know no military object was accomplished after gaining possession of the cars, and the act appears to have been one of plunder. Such conduct is unauthorized and discreditable. Should any of that battalion be captured the enemy might claim to treat them as highway robbers. What would be our course? I have ordered an investigation of the matter and hope the report may be untrue.
    I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

     R. E. LEE,

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 33, Part 1, Page 649.

The records reveal considerable consternation at Richmond over the Dahlgren papers.  Publication to a wider audience was thought essential, but beyond that was the question of what to do with prisoners captured during the raid.  There was sentiment to execute them as criminals, considering the execution of Davis and his cabinet would have been outside the usages of war.  But Lee makes the case here that the role of the administration in the raid was unknown and the purposes may not have even been known to the men on the raid, only to Kilpatrick and/or Dahlgren.  Beyond that, he makes the interesting case of Confederate soldiers who stopped a train and took the purses and watches of Union passengers.  As their actions also were outside of those required to wage war, might they not also be subject to execution as highway robbers?  The Dahlgren affair was complex and there were no easy answers to the questions it raised.

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