Dead by 22 years of age Ulric Dahlgren certainly filled his short life with episodes worthy of some note. His name is inexorably linked to the 1864 raid on Richmond that claimed his life. The ensuing furor over papers supposedly found on his body remains one of the most controversial issues of the Civil War. But in July of 1863 he was a staff officer with General Meade’s staff with a reputation for boldness and a willingness to seek out the most challenging assignments. As officer in charge of a small detachment of Colonel Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information spies he had access to sensitive information as it was forwarded to Army of Potomac headquarters. In this capacity he learned from one of these spies, Captain Milton Cline, that important dispatches would be delivered to Robert E. Lee via Greencastle on July 2nd. Never one to pass up an opportunity for a challenging mission Dahlgren asked permission to attempt to intercept these couriers. His request was granted and he was assigned 10 cavalry troopers and set out on June 30th with Cline and four of his scouts for the long ride around Lee’s army dressed in civilian clothes. At Funkstown, Maryland the group encountered two Pennsylvania soldiers that had become separated (either discharged, heading home or stragglers) from their unit. One of the two men, James Moorhead, was from Greencastle and volunteered to act as a guide. The group reached Greencastle late on the first and remained secreted themselves on the outskirts while Moorehead went into town on a scout. Returning to their uniforms the men entered the town to a raucous greeting on the 2nd. Shooing the jubilant citizens away Dahlgren distributed his small band throughout the town and placed himself in the church tower to act as lookout for the expected couriers. At the appointed time the messengers appeared under a guard of infantry. As the Confederate patrol moved into the center of town Dahlgren ordered the trap sprung. The attack so totally surprised the riders and their guards that only a few shots were fired, none by Dahlgren’s men. Twenty-four Confederates, including the two couriers, became prisoners. The two satchels of mail failed to produce the promised dispatches but Dahlgren pressed the search. Finally a small official looking packet was discovered in possession of one of the couriers. They proved to be the messages from Confederate President Davis to Lee and incredibly they were not encoded. Dahlgren made a mad dash for Meade’s headquarters with the captured documents. Arriving late on the 2nd Dahlgren found a council of war just breaking up and presented Meade with his intelligence. The letters proved to be conformation that Lee could expect no further reinforcement during his campaign in the north. According to some accounts Meade immediately changed his plans to retreat. The belief among modern military intelligence thinkers is that the only good intelligence is actionable intelligence. If this be the case and with a lack of hard evidence that Meade altered his battle plans as a result of the captured dispatches the value of this intelligence must be questioned. At an operational level at least Dahlgren’s coup, although daring in the extreme, and his 30 mile gallop to Gettysburg seems to have been accomplished for naught.
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