The Dahlgren Affair: Terror and Conspiracy in the Civil War

W. W. Norton, 1998

March 5, 1864, was the day the Civil War changed. According to the Richmond Examiner, it became “a war of extermination, of indiscriminate slaughter and plunder.” It changed because of a few sheets of paper found on a muddy trail; their legacy was a new and terrible style of warfare.

The Dahlgren Affair begins with a daring cavalry raid to free the thousands of Union prisoners held under despicable conditions in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. The raid fails, and its commander—21-year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, already a hero, a friend of President Lincoln, and a wounded veteran with one leg—is killed. On Dahlgren’s body are found orders purportedly instructing his men to execute Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking men of the Confederate government.

The first consequence of the raid and the discovery of the papers was an outpouring of rage throughout the South. This was no longer war but treachery, assassination, a descent into savagery. The Union army and Northern politicians disclaimed all knowledge of the orders and challenged their authenticity. Shortly thereafter, Jefferson Davis, in retaliation, authorized the use of terror tactics against civilians in the North—guerrilla raids, bank robberies, arson, sabotage, and siege warfare.

Besides the enigmatic Dahlgren, the primary actors in this intrigue include Thomas Hines, a 23-year-old classics scholar who organized the terror campaign from Maine to Minnesota, and Elizabeth Van Lew, an aristocratic middle-aged Richmond woman who spied for the Union.

The larger political story is fascinating as well. Both Lincoln and Davis were desperate presidents in danger of losing the war, one at the ballot box and the other on the battlefield. Although the South was losing the war, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 election, George McClellan, wanted to negotiate a peace with the Confederates. It was imperative that the South weaken Lincoln’s hold on the electorate; it was their last chance to survive. If no opportunity arose, would one have to be manufactured?

More Civil War Books by Duane Schultz