Civil War Book Review: Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren

Wittenberg, Eric J. Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. Edinborough Press (August 1, 2009). 318 pages, 7 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-889020-33-4 $29.95 (Hardcover).

Young Ulric Dahlgren, like his father Admiral John Dahlgren, had a burning ambition to rise as high as his many talents could take him.  Unfortunately for Ully, his young life was cut short while he was in pursuit of those heights on a cavalry raid against Richmond.  Matters took a bizarre turn when papers were found on his body which ordered his men to assassinate Jefferson Davis and other members of the Confederate government.  Eric Wittenberg’s new biography of Ulric Dahlgren, Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, sets out to examine this ambitious and gifted young man’s life, from promising upbringing to unfortunate end, including a nuanced look at the infamous “Dahlgren Papers.”

Eric Wittenberg is a familiar name to many experienced Civil War readers.  His Union cavalry expertise is well-known, with monographs on Stuart’s Ride around the Union army on the way to Gettysburg, the battles of Trevilian Station and Brandy Station as well as a hard look at “Little Phil” Sheridan to his credit.  He is known for his desire to and success at finding multiple new primary sources for his books, something he takes great pride in.  It shows in his body of work to date.  There aren’t many, if any, writers better qualified in the field today to write a biography of this young cavalryman.

Ulric Dahlgren was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1842, the son of famous Dahlgren gun inventor Admiral John Dahlgren.  He grew up in Washington, D.C., and he was known by some of the most powerful men in the country up to and including presidents of the United States.  Dahlgren’s mother and sister died while he was a teenager.  His Uncle Charles lived in Mississippi, eventually ending up on the Confederate side in the Civil War.  Young Dahlgren was a man of many talents.  He shared his father’s aptitude for artillery and proved to be an excellent cavalryman and scout.  Dahlgren’s artillery expertise was so valued that he was sent to Harper’s Ferry as a civilian in command of naval howitzers during Jackson’s Valley Campaign.  He later served in a non-civilian military capacity as Franz Sigel’s de facto chief of artillery in the Army of Virginia.  Later in 1862, Dahlgren led a daring raid into Fredericksburg.  Fortuitously for Dahlgren, he was not tied so tightly to Sigel that the German general’s dismissal from the Army of the Potomac caused him any pain.  Instead Ully was assigned to new army commander Joseph Hooker’s staff.  He charged with Rush’s Lancers at Brandy Station, captured a dispatch from Davis to Lee during the Gettysburg Campaign, and was ultimately wounded at Hagerstown, Maryland on July 6, 1863 during Lee’s retreat to Williamsport and Falling Waters.  This wound cost him his foot but he also gained a promotion to colonel, the youngest man to earn that honor in the Union army.

After recuperation at home and later with his father’s fleet outside of Charleston Harbor, Ully became involved in what was eventuually known as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid.  Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was to lead a cavalry column against Richmond in late February 1862.  Dahlgren was in charge of a picked command of less than 500 soldiers whose mission was to sneak into Richmond from the south while Kilpatrick threatened from the north.  Dahlgren’s men were to free the Union prisoners held in horrible conditions at Libby Prison and Belle Isle.  The raid did not go according to plan and Dahlgren was killed in early March 1864, one month shy of his twenty-second birthday.

Papers were found on Dahlgren’s body indicating his men were to assassinate key Confederate leaders and burn Richmond to the ground in addition to freeing prisoners.  At that point Dahlgren became infamous in the South, and the controversy over the legitimacy of the Dahlgren Papers has raged to this day.  Confederate First Lady Varina Davis had known Ully as a child in Washington, D.C. and couldn’t reconcile that sweet little boy with the young man who had allegedly plotted to assassinate her husband.  As he should in such a famous and controversial case, Wittenberg handles the evidence thoroughly as he is trained to do in his day job as a lawyer.  His thoughts are laid out completely in an appendix.  I won’t ruin the surprise as to whether or not Wittenberg believes the Papers to be authentic or who he believes came up with the plan to assassinate Confederate leaders.  The candidates for the author of the plan are some of the most powerful men in the United States at that time, however.

This book contained a surprising number of maps for a Civil War biography.  These maps depicted all of Ully Dahlgren’s most important fights, allowing a reader somewhat unfamiliar with the Civil War to understand what he was facing.  As always, Wittenberg’s primary sources are numerous and varied, showing a lot of dedication to sifting through as much information as possible on this much disputed subject.

Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren is a thorough, readable biography of a man viewed very differently in the North than in the South.  Thoroughly researched and convincingly argued, this book will appeal to fans of cloak and dagger dealings, daring cavalry raids, and Civil War controversies.  Little or no knowledge of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid and the Dahlgren Papers is needed to enjoy this look at the short but incredibly ambitious, controversial, and risk-filled life of Ulric Dahlgren.  Highly recommended.

I would like to thank author Eric Wittenberg and Daniel J. Hoisington at Edinborough Press for providing a gratis copy of the book for review.


One response to “Civil War Book Review: Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren

  1. Fred Ray Avatar
    Fred Ray

    ‘Fraid the cat’s out of the bag, Brett. Wittenberg fingers Edwin Stanton but absolves Lincoln. I did a series of posts on the matter and concluded that Lincoln had to at least known the real purpose of the raid, and the presence of Dahlgren implicates him, since there was no other reason someone so young and inexperienced should have been given command except that he was a FOA (Friend of Abe’s)

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