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Leading the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid (not just anyone will do)

Eric Wittenberg scored a coup in Like A Meteor Blazing Brightly by finding a letter from former Confederate John Mosby about meeting Col. Isaac Wistar after the war. Wistar confirmed to Mosby the truth of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren’s raid’s purpose—assassination—which he’d heard from Judson Kilpatrick himself. Wistar also claimed to have been ordered to do the same thing by Ben Butler but refused. Since there was only one Wistar expedition, it’s a good bet that Butler broached this for the abortive raid Wistar led in early February 1864.

This revelation not only serves as further confirmation of the truth of the Dahlgren papers, it also underscores the requirement to choose the right men to lead the expedition. This was the nineteenth century, after all, when honor and gallantry still mattered. Not just anyone could be trusted to fulfill its real purpose, which merits a close look at the men who did lead it. Judson Kilpatrick, in spite of being a West Point grad, was a scoundrel and everyone knew it. Ambitious and ruthless, “Kill-Cavalry” would stick at nothing, and as such he was chosen directly by the national command authority in Washington, outside the normal chain of command.

But what about the raid’s other leader, young Ulric Dahlgren? Wittenberg does an excellent job of showing how this boy colonel had unprecedented access to the president, a close friend of his father, and how this helped his career as it did that of his father. How did Admiral John Dahlgren, a technician who had no previous command experience, end up in charge of the Union naval effort at Charleston? Certainly his friendship with Lincoln didn’t hurt, and like the raid on Richmond it could have been a pivotal campaign that would have ensured his fame by capturing the seat of the rebellion. As for young  Ulric, his daring was well known, but he also had a streak of ruthlessness about him, which he showed in full measure when he lynched his Negro guide for giving him the wrong information. He was not a professional soldier, and was also well outside the normal social and command channels of the Army of the Potomac, and much closer to those in Washington, which made him less likely to be affected by ideas of “honorable” warfare and more likely to do what the president really wanted.

In short, I can think of no other reason that Ulric Dahlgren got the job other than his closeness to President Lincoln. It’s about as near as you’re going to get to a smoking gun implicating Old Abe in the plot. Kilpatrick almost certainly did not ask for him, and he had no particular connection with Stanton. But Lincoln knew him very well.

Unfortunately the result of these choices was disastrous operationally. Like the unsuccessful Desert One rescue attempt in Iran, the raid failed in large part because it was attempted with a cobbled-together force led by unfamiliar leaders.

More to come. Previous posts here and here.

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One response to “Leading the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid (not just anyone will do)”

  1. […] was still the question of leadership. The next post looked at how the raid was structured outside the army’s normal of command, […]

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