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Doc. 33. vindication of Colonel Dahlgren.

A letter from his Father.

United States flagship Philadelphia, Charleston roads, July 24, 1864.
I have patiently and sorrowfully awaited the hour when I should be able to vindicate fully the memory of my gallant son, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, and lay bare to the world the atrocious imposture of those who, not content with abusing and defacing the remains of the noble boy, have knowingly and persistently endeavored to blemish his spotless name by a forged lie.

That hour has at last come. I have before me a photolitho. copy of the document which the inhuman traitors at Richmond pretend was found upon the body of my son, after he had been basely assassinated by their chivalry at midnight, and who, on the pretext that this paper disclosed an intent to take the lives of the arch-rebel and his counsellors, and to destroy Richmond, have not hesitated to commit and commend the most shocking barbarities on the remains of the young patriot, and to exult like dastards over his sad fate.

I can now affirm that this document is a forgery — a bare-faced, atrocious forgery — so palpable that the wickedness of the act is only equalled by the recklessness with which it has been perpetrated and adhered to; for the miserable caitiffs did not confine themselves to the general terms of a mere allegation, but published the paper in all the precision of a photographic fac-simile, as if not to leave doubt for cavil.

I felt from the first just as if I knew the fact that my son never wrote that paper — that it was a forgery; but I refrained from giving utterance to that faith until I had seen a sample of the infamous counterfeit, and, having seen it, could say, as I now say, that a more fiendish lie never was invented.

For the poor wretches who did the work I have not a word — it was their trade, their daily bread; and they pretended to be no better than they were — hardened ruffians, fit only for a rope. I leave them to the price for which they have bartered their souls. But what doom do they deserve who have instigated the crime that they might profit by it — who devised it that they might justify to the world the gratification of their vengeance on the heroic dead, by desecrating the inanimate body of one whose high and pure purpose was to release the weary captive from the accursed dungeons of Richmond, and who to that end refused not to peril his own life? What shall be awarded to these high-minded and honorable men — the leaders of the chivalry — the impersonation of the high virtues that are supposed to disdain even the semblance of wrong?

And yet these are the criminals who conceived the thought, and, frantic with fear at what might have come to them if that daring young soldier had reached the portals of their bastile and given liberty to the weary captives, vented their cowardly rage on his cold body, and gave their names and their cause for a lie.

It is difficult to imagine such utter baseness in any but the most abandoned felons, and yet it is only of a piece with the entire conduct of the chivalry, leaders, and followers, in all the events that preceded and accompanied the untimely death of Colonel Dahlgren. The forged lie was but the seal to deeds of inhumanity and horror that no one could enact or sanction unless his nature were debased to a level with that of the brute.

It is well known that the cruel usage practised on the Union soldiers who were imprisoned at Richmond had become a theme at the North, and that their release from slow and horrid death was the object of the expedition. My son had just returned from a visit to me off Charleston when he learned of the project. Every one was aware that he had lost a leg by a wound received in a charge through Hagerstown, pending the battle of Gettysburg, and the consequent illness nearly cost him his life. [185] The vigor of his frame had carried him through the crisis, but the wound was not perfectly sealed; he was still weak and could only move on crutches.

No sooner was he apprised of what was contemplated, than he sought to join the enterprise. The remembrance of comrades pining in loathsome dungeons — of men with whom he had ridden side by side amid the deadly conflict, and a strong conviction of their sufferings animating every pulse of his gallant heart, he felt that duty called him there, and the reluctant consent of the authorities was at last yielded to his earnest entreaties.

It is not my purpose here to narrate the whole course of this noble enterprise; that will be the duty of a future day; but no one had seen Colonel Dahlgren in his full vigor sit his charger more gracefully or better endure the incessant and multiplied hardships of that ride, by day and by nigt, in shine and storm.

The failure of his column to connect with that of General Kilpatrick led to the failure of the expedition and the death of as noble a soldier as ever gave life to a great cause.

On Tuesday night, March first, after dark, Colonel Dahlgren was close to Richmond, and came in contact with the rebel infantry stationed at the outer works. At such a time of peril, far away from help of any kind, with a small force of cavalry, hardly a gunshot from the stronghold of rebeldom, the splendid courage of the young leader never blazed more brightly. An officer who was nearest to him, but who had never served with him before, writes in admiration of the perfect self-possession with which he rode in front of the line, and spoke to his men under a storm of bullets. Then came the charge, scattering the rebels like chaff.

This done, it only remained to ride on from Richmond and endeavor to gain the Union lines below. The night was dark, the rain fell in torrents, and the cloaks of the men were stiffened with sleet, but the column spurred on at full speed. Sad to say. the advance, with Colonel Dahlgren, became separated from the main body, and at dawn of Wednesday he found himself, with a little party of seventy men, in the very midst of a hostile country.

Still holding on the swift tenor of his way, he crossed the Pamunkey and reached the Mattapony not long after noon. The men and horses had been crossed over the river, the few videttes had been called down from their posts and also sent across, Colonel Dahlgren remaining alone on the southern bank. The chivalry had now gathered in the bushes, and deliberately opened fire on him, though they saw plainly that he was crippled by the loss of a leg and only stood erect by aid of the crutches on which he leaned; the waters of the river separated him from every helping hand, and it were easy for a strong and resolute man to rush forward and bear away by main force the enfeebled frame of the weary officer. But any manly deed was a flight far above what the chivalry contemplated; they could assassinate him from the ambush, because it attained their base purpose without risk to their own craven carcasses. In utter scorn of such abject fear Colonel Dahlgren bid them come out from their hiding-places and discharged his pistol at them defiantly.

The contrast thus presented might well inspire the pencil of the artist.

But the young warrior was not to close his glorious career there; the ferry-boat bore him over unharmed; he mounted, and once more led his band onward. It was at this time, by their own accounts, that the chivalry had an opportunity of numbering exactly the force that was with him, and ascertained that this remnant did not exceed seventy men. So they contrived to collect various scattered parties from the neighborhood until they mustered three or four times the force of our retreating cavalry. Even with this advantage the miserable creatures dare not offer Colonel Dahlgren a fair field in open day. There were those of them who knew him — the gallant Ninth Virginia--had faced him in Fredericksburg with quite as great a superiority of numbers, and had been driven in every direction until they skulked out of the town like whipped curs. So they confederated in force where the road wound through a deep forest, and awaited the coming of the Union troop.

This happened about midnight, and repeated volleys from these miscreants did their work all too well.

The gallant youth fell, pierced by many balls at the head of his men, and even while his brave spirit still lingered about its shattered tenement, the chivalry began to strip off his clothing. Whether this detestable purpose was accomplished before he was dead I know not, nor whether the infamous wretches paused to make sure that life was extinct before they severed a finger from his hand in order to secure a ring given by a departed sister, and dearly prized by the heart that now is as still as her own.

It was not until daylight disclosed the utter helplessness of the survivors, that the victors took heart of grace and consummated their brave deed by marching the wearied and famished troopers along the road, regardless of the fact that this led them by the body of their young chief, just as it lay, stripped and covered with mud, but yet honored by the sad tokens which it exhibited of love and loyalty to the cause of his country. The absent limb told of recent battle-fields, and the breathless body gave assurance that the last sacrifice had been made. The young life, rich in promise, had been laid down, and thus was redeemed the solemn oath of fealty to the Union.

No respect for the well-known gallantry of their victim, no feeling for his extreme youth, entered into the thoughts of these atrocious ruffians, and only when sated with the mournful [186] sight were the relics of the noble dead permitted such sepulture as a hasty grave could afford.

Be it remembered that to this time nothing was known of the forged document. But presently it came to the upper chivalry at Richmond that one of the leaders of the expedition had fallen. Frenzied with terror at the possible consequences of the success of the undertaking — for they had every reason to dread that the vengeance of the released prisoners would respect no person — they sought a pretext for the meditated villany on the body of Colonel Dahlgren in a forgery which they thought would extenuate all disregard of every dictate of manhood and humanity.

So they forged the lie and gave it currency in all the minuteness of a seeming fac-simile, while the original counterfeit was so recklessly executed that the shameful deceit could not fail to be apparent to any one having the least knowledge of Colonel Dahlgren's handwriting.

So the remains of the heroic dead were torn from the grave, conveyed to Richmond, and there exposed to the taunts and gaze of a mob; then hurried away, in the obscurity of the night, to some shameless spot, whence it was intended they should never be recovered.

There was an ingenuity in this contrived villany from which the mind recoils with horror.

Contrast the high and holy purpose of the Union soldier — his devotion to it, even to death; his calm, undaunted courage, graced by every milder virtue; his kindly hospitality to the captive rebel officer, so illy requited; contrast these with the craven cowardice of the ruffians who beset him and did midnight murder; their brutal desecration of his body; and worse than these, the crimes of the higher chivalry, who made war on the dead as such could only wage. Contrast these, and say if it were not happier to die as did Ulric Dahlgren — so true, so gentle, and so brave — than to live as those do who, to destroy his fair name, have justified and exulted in his assassination, and forged a lie, to their eternal infamy.

It was not only in the dark hours of closing life that Colonel Dahlgren's admirable qualities were exhibited; his whole life was ennobled by the presence of every trait that can adorn humanity.

He had completed the first year of his manhood when he was so basely assassinated; yet by his bravery and devotion on many a battlefield, he had won the high, but well-deserved, rank of Colonel of Cavalry. That commission was transmitted with the following letter:

Washington, July 24, 1862.
Dear sir: Enclosed you have a commission for Colonel, without having passed through the intermediate grade of Major. Your gallant and meritorious service has, I think, entitled you to this distinction, although it is a departure from general usage, which is only justified by distinguished merit such as yours. I hope you may speedily recover, and it will rejoice me to be the instrument of your future advancement in the service.

With great regard,

I am yours truly,

He was tall, well-built, and graceful; his frame gave every promise of future strength, but as yet lacked the development of the matured man, and was divested of all spare flesh by a life of constant activity in the saddle.

To the casual observer he appeared like a very young and very diffident man — gentle and unobtrusive, a moderate talker, and always of pleasant mood; but beneath lay a character of the firmest mould, a constancy of purpose never to be diverted from its object, courage that was never disturbed by any danger, impulses of the purest nature habitually in exercise, producing a course of life unblemished by the least meanness — a good son, a warm friend, dutiful alike to God and man. I can now look back over the whole of his young life, and declare that in no instance did he ever fail in the most respectful obedience to my least wish. A more perfect and lovely character I cannot conceive.

His mind was of no common order, and he had been carefully educated. He was well-read in classics, a good mathematician, and expert with the pencil. He delighted in all manly exercises, was an excellent swimmer, and, as a horseman, not surpassed, but was a bold, practised and elegant rider.

As a soldier his conception was quick, his judgment deliberate, but in execution rapid as lightning No one would recognize him as the unobtrusive, retiring youth he might have passed in a throng. Having spent so much of his leisure time with me in the Ordnance Department, he had a rare knowledge of gunnery, which was often turned to good account in the field.

His courage was not of that rampant character so troublesome to friend as well as foe, but came forth instantly at the first sign of danger.

To these qualities he added a deep sense of religious obligation, having been carefully trained by a departed mother to the church and to the Sunday-school. But in this, as in many other respects, he was not demonstrative.

When apparently at the verge of death from a wound, and reminded of the danger, he smiled, and said that he had never gone into battle without asking forgiveness of his sins and commending his soul to his Maker.

And so passed away this young life, so radiant in promise.

Nor is it only a father's love and affection that prompts such praise, as the many who knew him will confirm.

Full testimony has been borne to his record in the school from which he had withdrawn but a few years before, and from the pulpit of the [187] church where he had been an attentive listener for successive Sabbaths.

The large number of letters which I have received from those who knew him or have heard his story assure me that my son appeared to others as he appeared to me. Among the latest received is one sent me for perusal, from an entire stranger, who writes thus: * * * The lamented young Dahlgren, with whom it had been our pleasure to form a brief, but most agreeable acquaintance. This was while he was in the city, recovering from the amputation of his limb. We first met him at----. He was present upon his crutches, and received marked attention both from military and civilians. The news of his cruel death produced in us a feeling of unmingled sadness — the more so, perhaps, from the vivid impression left on us by meeting him just before he went last to the field and entered upon his fatal expedition. It was at one of Speaker Colfax's receptions where we had a long and agreeable conversation with him, and had the pleasure of introducing quite a number of our friends, and I know that his gentleness and modest deportment, joined to that moral heroism that seemed to pervade his whole spirit, will not soon be forgotten by those who conversed with him. Some who heard the elaborate and wonderful sermon of Dr. Sunderland on his death, but who had never met him, were ready to say that the character drawn by the Doctor was that of a very remarkable young man. To some of these it was my privilege to say that the picture drawn of him was a true one. My wife has often referred to his conversation at Colfax's. His whole soul seemed to be patriotically absorbed in the struggle of his country. His conversation with every one, however commenced, would soon be turned to the great conflict in which our beloved country is engaged for the maintenance of its government against the determined efforts of wicked men to destroy it. To a number of young ladies that were introduced to him he said, in a pleasant but earnest manner--“Ladies, you ought to encourage the young men to enlist in the Union army, and fight for our country. It is their duty, and ought to be a privilege to be engaged in such a cause, and if they should fall, it would be in a holy cause. No one should consider his life too dear to lay it down, if need be, for our glorious Union and country.” These were the sentiments, and as near as I can remember, the language used by him. There seemed a wonderful earnestness and almost inspiration about him in reference to our country. He felt that it was glorious to die for one's country. To all it is a subject of deep sorrow that one so promising and so fully imbued with genuine patriotism should thus early in life be cut down in such a ruthless manner.

Thus he appeared in the social circle. Another letter shows him in the perilous hours of the expedition that preceded his death — from an officer who was near him at the time.

His playful, pleasant smile ever cheered and inspired his companions. Good nature and firmness seemed in him most pleasantly blended, and as I rode beside him it was with the greatest pleasure that I watched his face, and with every glance gained new trust. (The column was now near Richmond.) We advanced, and as night came on we met the enemy; the skirmishing was heavy; the enemy's fire very annoying; but I stopped in admiration of the Colonel's coolness. He rode along the line, speaking to the men, so calm, so quiet, so brave, that it seemed to me the veriest coward must needs fight if never before.

When he gave the order to retire, he detailed our regiment for rear guard and placed me in charge with orders to keep well closed up, but not to let the enemy drive me on the column. He then rode ahead In the darkness the column became divided, etc.

The last letter he ever wrote was to myself. It was from the camp, just before putting foot in stirrup, and about to set out on the last of a brilliant and eventful career. He directed that it should only be given to me in the event of his not returning. He speaks of the enterprise as “glorious, and that he would be ashamed to show his face again if he failed to go in it.” He expressed himself as fully sensible of the danger, and concluded thus: “If we do not return, there is no better place to give up the ghost.”

Such was the brave and generous spirit whose light has been quenched forever. That of itself might have sufficed to sate the vengeance even of traitors. The shocking cruelty which has been exhibited to his inanimate body, and the perpetration of forgery to justify it, will, in the and, recoil on the infamous ruffians.

To the gallant young soldier it has been as nothing. He had passed away to his final account, leaving behind him a name far beyond the reach of the chivalry. There are those left, however, whose pride and pleasure it will be to vindicate his fair fame, and he will be remembered as a young patriot of spotless life and purest purpose; honest, true and gentle, dutiful to every obligation, unselfish and generous to a fault; an undaunted soldier of the Union, who never struck a blow except at an armed enemy, but carefully and kindly respected the claims of defenceless women and children; an accomplished gentleman, a sincere Christian, a faithful comrade, who, not recovered from the almost fatal illness consequent on losing a limb in battle, went forth to brave every hardship in the hope of aiding in the release of our captive soldiers from the dungeons of a merciless enemy, who for this treated his dead body with savage ferocity, and hesitated not to forge his name.

Peace to his ashes, wherever they rest; the laurels on the young and fair brow of Ulric Dahlgren will never fade while there are true men and women in the land to keep them green.

John A. Dahlgren, Rear-Admiral, commanding United States South Atlantic Block adding Squadron

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