Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren
By Eric J. Wittenberg
(January 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index, 318 pp., 2009. Edinborough Press, P.O. Box 13790, Roseville MN, 55113-2293, $29.95 plus shipping.
Col. Ulric Dahlgren gained lasting notoriety when he was killed leading a cavalry column in a disastrous raid upon Richmond in March 1864. Another column was led by the raid’s commander, Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
Papers that the Confederates found on Dahlgren’s body stated that his objective was to liberate Union prisoners in Richmond. Considered a martyr in the North, Dahlgren was despised by the South because the papers also bore instructions to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and to “burn the hateful city.”
The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid has been the subject of numerous books and articles, but until now the only “biography” of Ulric Dahlgren was written by his father, Adm. John Dahlgren. At long last a new perspective is rendered masterfully by Eric Wittenberg, the dean of Eastern Theater cavalry operations.
Like many biographers, Wittenberg provides a sympathetic view of his subject. This viewpoint is furthered by frequent quotations from Dahlgren’s father and from a lengthy eulogy. But objectivity prevails as the author combines these works with a wealth of other primary and secondary sources and his own insightful commentary.
Wittenberg demonstrates that Dahlgren was an ambitious young officer whose indiscretions in his final venture led to his premature death, just shy of his 22nd birthday. Although he was extremely capable and courageous, his career was advanced by extraordinary political connections.
Dahlgren’s brief life included early artillery training by his father, who invented the gun that bears his name. When the Civil War broke out Ulric Dahlgren fulfilled the duties of a staff officer and demonstrated daring and competence in artillery and cavalry duties.
During the battle of Gettysburg he captured valuable documents, and a few days later he lost a leg.
It was the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, however, that won him immortality, infamy and a rendezvous with death.
In addition to a lively narrative, Wittenberg provides balanced and perceptive analysis of controversial issues such as the motives for the raid and the authenticity of the incriminating papers that Dahlgren carried.
The raid, he notes, had gross oversights that doomed it from the beginning, e.g., the poorly clothed, malnourished and sick Union prisoners were in no condition for a rapid escape, especially in harsh winter weather. And the Dahlgren papers? Wittenberg accepts their authenticity after meticulous research.
Since the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid and the Dahlgren papers are one of the war’s most fascinating mysteries, anyone who fails to read Wittenberg’s endnotes is deprived not only of documentary support but also of expository notes that are as revealing as the main text.
A few discrepancies crept into the narrative, e.g., on p. 145 it states that Dahlgren was the youngest full colonel in either army (the Army of Northern Virginia alone had at least five colonels who were younger); pp. 146-147 sound like two separate dates and presentations for his colonel’s commission; and p. 173 says that J.R. Dykes did not accompany Dahlgren as scout on the raid whereas p. 174 says that he did.
And some of the maps – all of which are excellent – should have been printed on a full page, rather than a half page. Readers also will encounter a section of the book with numerous typographical errors and conflicting spellings, e.g., Mattoponi/Mattapony River. But many of these slips are the editor’s, not the author’s, and do not diminish the book’s overall quality.
Wittenberg’s decision to write a biography of Dahlgren instead of a book on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid was an excellent idea. It provides an understanding of the colonel that heretofore was missing. This first-rate book is welcome for its scholarly research and its captivating reading.
David F. Riggs
David F. Riggs is a museum curator at Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown. He has a BA in history from Lock Haven University and MA in history from Penn State. His publications include Embattled Shrine: Jamestown in the Civil War and Vicksburg Battlefield Monuments.