Consequences of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid

What were the consequences of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid? In operational terms, not much. Casualties were minimal and the raid accomplished little. The indirect consequences, however, were important. For one, it convinced the Confederates to strengthen Richmond’s defenses and move their POWs away from the capital, thus removing a tempting target for raids.

The biggest fallout was political—Lincoln had to deal with a very embarrassing situation that produced the very opposite effect of what he’d hoped to accomplish. It hardened Confederate resistance, drove the Unionists even further underground, and helped to convince any remaining moderates that the South was facing a war of extermination. In fact, it pretty much ended any hopes of a strategy of reconciliation.

Yet the president virtually ignored the whole affair. There was no official denial by either Lincoln or Stanton—indeed so far as we know, neither man ever mentioned it in public or private. It’s a good bet no one would have mentioned it at all except for the direct inquiry about it by General Lee to his counterpart, General Meade. Meade denied that the purpose of the raid was assassination and put the blame on Dahlgren, even though he admitted to his wife that he did not believe it. That was it, and one has to question the value of a denial by an army commander of a raid over which he had no control regarding an officer who was not even a member of his command. Officially, then, the United States government said nothing.

Lincoln did not entirely ignore the matter, however. He attended Ulric Dahlgren’s memorial service and his successor, Andrew Johnson, attended his funeral. Even given the fact that Lincoln was a personal friend of Admiral Dahlgren’s, this does not exactly amount to a repudiation of someone who had been publicly denounced as an assassin and war criminal by the commander of Lincoln’s premier army. Whether Dahlgren’s conduct had been approved or not, it certainly strayed far outside any acts contemplated in General Order 100 or the existing laws and customs of war. Instead, Ulric Dahlgren was remembered as a hero, not a rogue assassin. Of course with his father actively trying to clear his name, it would have been unlikely for Lincoln or Stanton to have admitted the truth of the matter. Thus was John Dahlgren, the grieving father, left to do in good faith what was in effect a government coverup.

Stanton, the probable mastermind of the plot, seems to have suffered no consequences either. He and Lincoln continued to work closely together, and there’s no hint of estrangement between the two men that winter.

One of the few actual consequences was that Judson Kilpatrick was effectively banished from the AOP. This was Meade’s doing, however, not Lincoln or Stanton’s. Unlike disgraced generals such as Pope and Rosecrans, he was not exiled but given a higher position in Sherman’s army, where practitioners of harsh war were welcome, and commanded the Union cavalry during the March to Sea.

There was never any investigation of the matter, then or later. Stanton specifically requested Dahlgren’s papers after the war from the Confederate archives, after which they disappear.

More to come.

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