Fallen Leaders: Ulric Dahlgren

ECW welcomes guest author Brian D. Kowell

Ulric Dahlgren. National Archives.

The young amputee was still unaccustomed to his new wooden leg on February 18, 1864, as the train pulled into Brandy Station, a stop on the Orange & Alexandria railroad in Virginia just west of the Rappahannock River. Twenty-year old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, one of the youngest to attain that rank in  the Federal army, hobbled out of the train and into the hubbub of the Army of the Potomac’s winter quarters. Anxious to return to action, he had heard of a pending cavalry raid to free Union POWs in Richmond and had come to be a part of it.[1]

Born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania near Philadelphia on April 3, 1842, Ulric was the second of three sons born to future Admiral John Adolph Bernard Dahlgren and his wife Mary Clement Bunker Dahlgren. The family was well off and Ulric wanted for nothing. When his father was stationed at the Washington Naval Yard the family moved to Washington, D.C. where Ulric attended the Rittenhouse Academy for eight years. Young Dahlgren met many prominent statesmen through his father, learning important lessons about power, influence, politics, and intrigue. His restless nature and constant need for activity sent him to learn civil engineering at the Naval Yard under his father, the inventor of the celebrated bottle-shaped Dahlgren cannon.[2]

In 1858 Ulric lived at his uncle’s mansion in Natchez, Mississippi while studying surveying. Uncle Charles Dahlgren was an affluent banker, planter, and militia captain with strong opinions about States’ Rights and slavery. Young Ulric grew into a tall, blond, athletic man with blue eyes. One biographer of this Nordic clan of Dahlgrens observed “[they] were virile and impetuous glory seekers who played dangerous games for the sport.”[3]  Ulric returned to Washington where he became an unofficial aide to his father when war broke out in 1861. Together, they made many visits to the Executive Mansion and War Department, meeting both Stanton and Lincoln with whom John Dahlgren had a close relationship.

In recognition of Ulric’s role in placing Dahlgren guns of the Naval Battery on Maryland Heights to protect Harpers Ferry, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton gave him a captain’s commission and an assignment to Major General Franz Sigel’s staff operating in the Shenandoah Valley. He served with Sigel there and at the Battle of Second Manassas where he functioned as de facto artillery chief of the 11th Corps. On November 9, 1862, he led a cavalry raid across the Rappahannock River to determine the Confederate strength at Fredericksburg. He surprised a Confederate vedette and returned safely with the information. In February 1863, Dahlgren was appointed aide-de-camp to General Joseph Hooker, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Not one to rest easy in headquarters, Dahlgren accompanied Brigadier General John Buford’s column of General Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps in the surprise attack of June 9 on Confederate Major General JEB Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station. In the fighting he narrowly escaped capture when his horse was shot from under him. After Hooker was replaced by General George Meade, Ulric sought and received permission to take ten men of General Wesley Merritt’s brigade to scout behind enemy lines. On July 2, 1863, Dahlgren’s small cavalry party captured an important dispatch from Confederate President Jefferson Davis advising General Robert E. Lee that no reinforcements would be sent from Richmond to Gettysburg.[4]  A few days later, Ulric was wounded in the right foot and lower leg in a cavalry skirmish in the streets of Hagerstown on July 6, 1863. He was brought back to his father’s home in Washington D.C. to recuperate. Unfortunately, the wound festered, and the right leg had to be amputated. His life hung in the balance for several days. It seemed there would be no more battlefield adventures for Ulric Dahlgren.

Dahlgren survived his wound and when assured by his doctors that he was out of medical danger he was fitted with an artificial leg. Ulric spent time visiting friends in Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. In mid-November he visited his father, now Admiral commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron outside Charleston, South Carolina. The pair returned to Washington on February 1, 1864, to meet with President Lincoln at the Executive Mansion. The subject of their discussion is unknown.[5]  Eleven days later, Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a division commander in General Alfred Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corps, arrived at the Executive Mansion at Lincoln’s invitation to explain his plan for a raid on Richmond that so greatly interested the President. Seven days later, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was boarding a train to Brandy Station. The sequence of these events suggests that Dahlgren’s knowledge of the plan and desire to play a part in it may have originated during his earlier meeting with Lincoln. He could have also heard rumors of the impending raid as the bar at Willard’s Hotel in Washington  D.C. was abuzz with it or been told details from an acquaintance, E. A. Paul, a New York Times reporter, who was a frequent hanger-on at Kilpatrick’s headquarters whom Ulric met with in Washington. One of General George G. Meade’s staff officer’s observed that a “Secret expedition with us is got up like a picnic, with everybody blabbing and yelping.” However he found out, Ulric Dahlgren “could no longer be restrained.”[6]

Arriving at Third Cavalry Division headquarters near Stevensburg, Dahlgren was chosen by Kilpatrick as his second in command for the raid on Richmond and assigned a pivotal role. Commencing February 28 Dahlgren would lead five hundred troopers south to cross the James River west of Richmond and go on to Belle Isle, a 45-acre island close to the city, to release Union soldiers imprisoned there. He was to take them back across the James, enter Richmond itself and rendezvous with Kilpatrick’s 3,500 troopers as they penetrated deep into the Confederate capitol down the Brook Turnpike. Kilpatrick hoped to reach Libby Prison on the north bank of the James and release captured Union officers.[7]

On February 26 Ulric penned a letter to his aunt Patty enclosing in it a sealed letter to his father in the event he did not return.

I have not returned to the fleet because there is a grand raid to be made, and I am to have a very important command. If successful, it will be the grandest thing on record; and if it fails, many of us will ‘go up’. I may be captured, or I may be “tumbled over”; but it is an undertaking that if I were not in, I should be ashamed to show my face again. With such an important command, I am afraid to mention it, for fear that this letter might fall into the wrong hands before reaching you.  I find that I can stand the service perfectly well without my leg. I think we will be successful, although a desparate [sic] undertaking . . . If we do not return, there is no better place to “give up the ghost”.

Your affectionate son,

Ulric Dahlgren[8]

For many reasons the raid failed.  The raiders who set off in dry weather were soon beset by a persistent freezing rain, dampening their spirits as the waters in the James rose ever higher. Dahlgren’s column could not cross. Giving up on Belle Isle, Dahlgren’s command moved on into the city only to collide with determined Confederate resistance behind the strong western defenses.[9] Rebuffed, Dahlgren turned northeast, seeking to reunite with Kilpatrick at Hungary Station (present-day Laurel, Va.) north-west of Richmond. The lack of coordination and communication between the separated units proved fatal. Kilpatrick had already fled south-east  to the safety of General Benjamin F. Butler’s lines near Williamsburg on the Peninsula. Dahlgren’s exhausted men stumbled on through a night as “dark as a stack of black cats,”[10] his column fragmenting as he rode toward King and Queen Court House far to the east of Richmond with 100 remaining troopers.  The balance, some 300 men led by Captain J. F. B. Mitchell, became separated from Dahlgren in the dark but by persistence and luck made it through the pursuing Rebel cavalry and reunited with Kilpatrick at Tunstall Station on the Pamunkey River and went on with him Williamsburg.

Meanwhile, a scratch Confederate force waited in ambush in the darkness near Walkerton, Virginia. Dahlgren, near the head of his column, was alarmed and halted. “Who are you?” shouted one of his aides. “The young colonel drew his revolver and demanded the surrender of those in front. He pulled the trigger and the damp percussion cap failed to fire the gun. Confederate muzzle flashes lit the night and Ulric Dahlgren toppled from his saddle, killed instantly by multiple gunshot wounds.”[11]

Dahlgren’s ambush as portrayed in Harper’s Weekly and reprinted in Fletcher Pratt’s “Civil War in Images.”

The Confederates captured most of the Union troopers. They found on Dahlgren’s body his watch, cigars, his memorandum book, and other papers, including orders written on Third Cavalry Division stationery that “Jeff Davis and the Cabinet must be killed on the spot” and Richmond destroyed. These were sent to Richmond along with Dahlgren’s body. The Confederate government made photographic copies of the papers and sent them through the lines demanding to know if the orders were sanctioned by the Federal Government. The Union leaders denied it, making the dead Dahlgren the scapegoat. His wooden leg was displayed in the front of a Richmond shop as a trophy.[12]

Dahlgren was vilified in the Richmond newspapers. The Richmond Whig declared, “Henceforth the name of Dahlgren is linked with eternal infamy. And in the years to come defenseless women and children will peruse, with a sense of shrinking horror, the story of Richmond’s rescue from the midnight sack and ravage led by Dahlgren.” The papers excoriated him as Ulric the Hun.[13]

Ulric’s body was placed in a plain white coffin with his name stenciled on top and secretly buried at night in Oakwood Cemetery. The grave was leveled so that no one could tell where it was and the two men who knew the location were sworn to secrecy. But when the Confederate government later approved Admiral Dahlgren’s request for his son’s body to be returned for burial in Philadelphia, the grave was found to be empty.

Elizabeth Van Lew, a forty-six-year-old Richmond spinster known to locals as “Crazy Bet,” was a devoted Unionist and operator of a spy network. One of her men F.W.E. Lohmann, guided by a black grave digger, had already disinterred the body, placed it in a metal coffin, and secretly transported it to the farm of Robert Orrick near Hungary Station. It was then reburied under a freshly planted peach tree to mark the spot. Miss Van Lew sent a coded message to General Butler at Fort Monroe that the body had been recovered. Word filtered back to Admiral Dahlgren. When Richmond fell the Admiral retrieved his son’s remains and had him reburied in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, where they are today.[14]

Had he lived, who knows how far Ulric Ulric Dahlgren would have risen through the ranks in the Union army?  Dahlgren’s boundless ambition cost him his life. His failure to destroy the incriminating papers found on his body brought him infamy. Was he “Ulric the Hun” or a martyred hero? As his biographer wrote: “the true Ulric Dahlgren lies somewhere between these two extreme perceptions.”[15]

Brian Kowell is a past president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table and has had an article published in America’s Civil War July 1992 edition about the Buckland Races.


[1]  Stanton, Edwin. Letter to Ulric Dahlgren, July 24, 1863, Dahlgren papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[2]  Wittenberg, Eric J. Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. Minnesota: Edinborough Press, 2009. 13-15.

[3]  Gower, H. Charles Dahlgren of Natchez: The Civil War and Dynastic Decline. Washington D.C.: Brassey’s. 2002. 36-37

[4]  United States. 1880. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Hereinafter: O.R.) Vol. 25, part 2. Washington: G.P.O. Ulric Dahlgren Diary entry for May 2, 1862. Wittenberg. Like a Meteor 119. The National tribune. (Washington, D.C.), 14 May 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. “That Historic Dispatch” FA Bushy. 3 https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016187/1896-05-14/ed-1/seq-3/

[5]  Dahlgren, John A., Personal Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Entry January 31, 1864.

[6]   New York Times, March 9, 1864, Lyman, Theodore. Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Reprint. Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1987. Sunderland, Rev. B., A Sermon in Memory of Ulric Dahlgren, Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1864.

[7]  O.R. Vol. 33, part 1, 172-173. Venter, Bruce M., Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 2016. 61.

[8]  Dahlgren, John A., Personal Papers, Ulric Dahlgren to John Dahlgren, Feb. 26, 1864.

[9]  Venter. Kill Jeff Davis. 181-5.

[10]  Beaudry, Louis Napoleon, Historic records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, First Ira Harris Guard: Its Organization, Marches, Raids, Scouts, Engagements, and General Services, During the Rebellion of 1861-1865. Albany, New York: S.R. Gray, 1865. Reproduction pp 108-109. Wittenberg. Like a Meteor 187.

[11] Wittenberg. Like a Meteor 193

[12] Jones, V.C. Eight Hours Before Richmond. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1957. 100-101. Wittenberg. Like a Meteor. 198

[13] Richmond Whig March 5, 1864

[14] Wittenberg. Like a Meteor. 208-12, 218

[15] Ibid. 237

2 Responses to Fallen Leaders: Ulric Dahlgren

  1. Great Post! I see what is curiously omitted is Dahlgren’s petulant hanging of an enslaved man who he thought has misdirected him to a swollen ford. What is also curiously minimized is Dahlgren’s real reason for being remembered, the papers found on his person. Otherwise he would be seen as an understandably minor , and unpleasant, figure

    1. My book, Kill Jeff Davis has an entire chapter on the hanging of Martin Roberson in Goochland County.

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