The Greencastle Raid – July 2nd 1863

by Dan O'Connell on July 4, 2012 · 0 comments

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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