Civil War Conspiracy Theories

The Dahlgren Affair

By Duane Schultz

W.W. Norton

320 pp., $25.95

Readers expect drama and emotion from books on the Civil War. And both ingredients are present in this relatively short work, along with something else - mystery. Duane Schultz zeroes in on one decidedly bizarre episode from the war.

Early in 1864, a wild-eyed cavalry general, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, proposed to President Lincoln a plan for freeing Union prisoners in the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., capital of the Confederacy. The president was besieged by pleas to do something about the thousands of prisoners facing near starvation in the South, and an election was nearing.

The president approved Kilpatrick's scheme for a lightning-quick raid on Richmond, but word of the plan got out, and the raid failed badly. Kilpatrick's co-commander, Ulric Dahlgren, was killed. It was a common enough event then, except that the militia that had been hastily mustered to defend Richmond took from Dahlgren's body some papers: handwritten orders supposedly intended for his troops. When the papers reached President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials, the "affair" was born.

Dahlgren's orders, it seemed, instructed his men to sack the Confederate capital and assassinate Davis and his Cabinet. If the Yankees could contemplate such rapacity, enraged Southerners fumed, didn't they deserve the same or worse?

One immediate response was a call to execute the men who had accompanied Dahlgren and were now sharing cells with the prisoners they had hoped to liberate. That call was silenced by General Lee himself, who warned that such action would offend conscience and likely bring retaliation against Confederate prisoners held in the North.

But calm counsel did not prevail in Richmond. Schultz sketches how the South's leader subsequently gave renewed attention to a plan put forward by one of his own firebrands, Capt. Thomas Henry Hines. The captain wanted to establish a base in Canada, then launch a campaign of terror in the Midwest and Northeast. He felt sure that antiwar forces in the North - known as "Copperheads" - plus freed Confederate prisoners would swell his ranks and cause chaos. Lincoln would surely be thrown out of office in the face of this turmoil, and the North would sue for peace.

This adventure, too, failed, largely because of informers in Hines's ranks - though not until some terror had been sown in Chicago, New York, and even St. Albans, Vt. Spying and infiltration, in fact, figure throughout this story. The activities of Elizabeth Van Lew, an eccentric spinster who was the Union's most effective agent in Richmond, provide some of Schultz's most colorful passages.

The remarkable thing about this narrative is that these plans ever gained favor and stumbled toward action. The outcome of the war was not affected, but the dirtiness of the war reached new lows. Many believed the Dahlgren papers were forged, specifically to arouse Southern anger and justify a campaign of terror.

We may never know for sure; Schultz lays out the evidence but doesn't hazard a verdict. But this tersely written volume gives us a chance to weigh the mystery and its unsettling implications for human motivation and deception.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

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