Review: Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren

by Fred Ray on January 13, 2010 · 0 comments

Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren
by Eric Wittenberg
Edinborough Press, Roseville, MN
ISBN-10: 1889020338
ISBN-13: 978-1889020334
August 1, 2009
Hardcover, 6×9”, 288 pages, $29.95

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren cavalry raid, aimed at Richmond in the early months of 1864, continues to fascinate historians and provoke controversy. Although ostensibly intended to free Union prisoners in that city, the papers found on the body of one of the raid’s leaders, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, suggested that its real purpose was the burning of the Confederate capital and the capture and execution Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. While much ink has been shed over the authenticity of the papers, Dahlgren himself has remained somewhat of a cipher, lacking a real biography of his own. Happily prolific historian Eric Wittenberg has remedied this deficiency with a short, lively account of this ill-starred young hotspur, who died just short of his 22nd birthday.

Dahlgren comes alive in Wittenberg’s book—fearless to a fault and prone to recklessness, but also possessed of real military talent. The favorite son of Admiral John A. Dahlgren, the Navy’s chief artillerist, young Ulric gained an early knowledge of guns that he put to good use when the war started. Even though technically still a civilian, he became a volunteer aide to Gen. Franz Sigel and acted as chief of his corps artillery at Second Manassas.

A superb horseman, Dahlgren later found his metier as a cavalryman, especially as a raider. His greatest coup was the capture of important dispatches from the Jefferson Davis to Gen. Lee a few days prior to Gettysburg, which although of little import at the moment were of immense strategic value, since they gave a good picture of the Confederacy’s military resources and confirmed that Lee could expect no reinforcements in Pennsylvania.

Through his father, who had become a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, young Ulric also enjoyed unusual access to the president, something that did not hurt his prospects for promotion. Lincoln’s influence was instrumental in getting Dahlgren his first promotion to captain and later to colonel, even though his military experience was minimal.

This brings us to the central question of Dahlgren’s short life. Why was he, of all people, selected to lead one of the war’s most important and sensitive missions, even if one discounts the assassination order? Wounded in the post-Gettysburg campaign, Dahlgren had had a gangrenous leg removed only a few months before and was really in no shape to lead such a strenuous mission. He did not know the men he was leading, nor they him, and had never commanded a unit as large as the 500 men he was assigned to lead. He did not do a particularly good job of it, and his death was due to an elementary mistake—issuing a challenge that should have been done by a private. His biggest mistake, however, was failing to destroy (or bringing with him in the first place) his orders to burn Richmond and execute the Confederate leaders. Wittenberg finds no real explanation for Dahlgren’s selection, although he finds some evidence that the raid’s overall leader, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, did not choose him.

The next question, which Wittenberg readily admits falls to the lot of any biographer of Dahlgren, is 1) were the assassination orders authentic, and 2) if so, how high did they go? He concludes that they were genuine (the Confederates, even assuming they had the expertise, simply did not have time to forge them), and that the plot went at least as high as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, although he absolves Lincoln. I disagree about Lincoln and will have more to say about this in a later post.

Wittenberg also details the story of Uric Dahlgren’s bizarre post-death odyssey—buried by the Confederates in an unmarked grave, his body was snatched by Union sympathizers led by Richmond dame Elizabeth Van Lew and hidden on a remote farm until the end of the war. While the government (or at least, General George Meade) publicly repudiated Dahlgren’s actions, they nevertheless gave him a hero’s funeral. Both Lincoln and Stanton attended his memorial service in April, 1864, and President Andrew Johnson mourned at his funeral in October, 1865, which strikes me as rather unusual treatment for someone who’d been disavowed for plotting murder.

The book itself is solidly researched (the footnotes are worth price of the book) and eminently readable, although it could have benefited from some more aggressive copy editing. For example, on p. 138 Wittenberg quotes a report: “With the assistance of citizens they destroyed 130 wagons and run the horses off to the woods, captured two iron guns, and 200 prisoners,” then on the next page repeats this almost verbatim without the quotes. There are also some spelling inconsistencies and I could have done without the MS Word-style superscripts for numbers. The maps are excellent but their presentation in the books is not—they are small and for some reason have a dark background, except for the driving maps in the back which are much better. There are a few factual mistakes such as the statement that Dahlgren was the youngest colonel in either army (Confederate colonel Henry Burgwyn was younger) but not any that would detract from the book’s credibility.

Overall, Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly is a very useful addition to the growing literature of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid and its ensuing controversy, and both the author and publisher deserve credit for getting such a specialized book into print.

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