Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/February/Dahlgren's Ride into Fredericksburg
Dahlgren's Ride into Fredericksburg.
This incident is scarcely of sufficient importance to demand a place in our Papers, except as an illustration of how "history" is manufactured and a small affair magnified into a brilliant achievement by a sensational press.
In the Memoir of Ulric Dahlgren, by his father, Rear Admiral Dahlgren, there is quoted from the account of a newspaper correspondent the following vivid sketch of the affair:
I am sitting in Colonel Ashboth's tent, at General Sigel's headquarters, listening to a plain statement of what occurred, narrated by a modest, unassuming sergeant. I will give it briefly.
General Burnside had requested that a cavalry reconnoissance of Fredericksburg should be made. General Sigel selected his body-guard, commanded by Captain Dahlgren, with fifty-seven of the First Indiana cavalry. It was no light task to ride forty miles, keep the movement concealed from the enemy, cross the river and dash through the town, especially as it was known that the Rebels occupied it in force. It was an enterprise calculated to dampen the ardor of most men, but which was hailed almost as a holiday excursion by the Indianians. They left Gainesville Saturday morning, took a circuitous route, rode till night, rested awhile, and then, under the light of the full moon, rode rapidly over the worn-out fields of the Old Dominion, through by-roads, intending to dash into the town at daybreak. They arrived opposite the place at dawn, and found to their chagrin that one element in their calculation had been omitted—the tide.
The bridge had been burned when we evacuated the place last summer, and they had nothing to do but wait till the water ebbed. Concealing themselves in the woods, they waited impatiently. Meanwhile, two of the Indianians rode along the river bank below the town to the ferry. They hailed the ferryman, who was on the opposite shore, representing themselves to be Rebel officers. The ferryman pulled to the northern bank, and was detained till he gave information of the Rebel force, which he said numbered eight companies, five or six hundred men all told.
The tide ebbed, and Captain Dahlgren left his hiding place with his fifty-seven Indianians. They crossed the river in single file at a slow walk, the bottom being exceedingly rocky. Reaching the opposite shore, he started at a slow trot towards the town, hoping to take the enemy by surprise. But his advance had been discovered. The enemy was partly in saddle. There was a hurrying to and fro, mounting of steeds, confusion, and fright among the people. The Rebel cavalry were in every street. Captain Dahlgren resolved to fall upon them like a thunderbolt. Increasing his trot to a gallop, the fifty-seven dauntless men dashed into the town, cheering, with sabres glittering in the sun—riding recklessly upon the enemy, who waited but a moment in the main street, then ignominiously fled. Having cleared the main thoroughfare, Captain Dahlgren swept through a cross street upon another squadron with the same success. There was a trampling of hoofs, a clattering of scabbards, and the sharp ringing cut of the sabres, the pistol flash, the going down of horse and rider, the gory gashes of the sabre stroke, a cheering and hurrahing, and screaming of frightened women and children, a short, sharp, decisive contest, and the town was in the possession of the gallant men. Once the Rebels attempted to recover what they had lost, but a second impetuous charge drove them back again, and Captain Dahlgren gathered the fruits of the victory—thirty-one prisoners, horses, accoutrements, sabres—held possession of the town for three hours and retired, losing but one of his glorious band killed and two wounded; leaving a dozen of the enemy killed and wounded. I would like to give the names of these heroes if I had them. The one brave fellow who lost his life had fought through all the conflict, but seeing a large rebel flag waving from a building he secured it, wrapped it around his body, and was returning to his command, when a fatal shot was fired from a window, probably by a citizen. He was brought to the northern shore, and there buried by his fellow-soldiers beneath the forest pines.
It thrills one to look at it, to hear the story, to picture the encounter—the wild dash, the sweep like a whirlwind, the cheers, the rout of the enemy, their confusion, the victory. Victory, not for the personal glory, not for ambition, but for a beloved country; for that which is dearer than life—the thanks of the living, the gratitude of unnumbered millions yet to be. Brave sons of the West, this is your glory, this your reward! No exploit of the war equals it. It will go down to history as one of the bravest achievements on record.
The following letters from Judge Critcher and Major Kelly show how largely the correspondent drew upon his imagination in his account of this comparatively insignificant affair. But this romancing is a fair sample of the style in which many of the so-called "histories" of the day are manufactured.
The letters of Judge Critcher and Major Kelly were written after seeing the above account of "one of the bravest achievements on record."
General Fitzhugh Lee:
My Dear Sir—There is far more of romance than truth in the newspaper account of Dahlgren's ride into Fredericksburg. The contributors to the daily newspapers seem to be under the necessity of writing something, if possible, that is sensational; and a father may well be pardoned for reproducing what is so flattering to his pride. But the facts:and
There were four companies of cavalry, just mustered into service and armed with such guns as each man could provide, that had then their headquarters at Fredericksburg. But these companies were distributed by order of General Smith (then at Richmond) from West Point, on the York river, along the lower Rappahannock; at certain points on the Potomac, and on the upper Rappahannock at the various fords twenty-five or thirty miles above Fredericksburg, leaving at headquarters, besides the sick and such as had no arms, but few efficient men.
The evening before Dahlgren's raid Captain Simpson's company, from Norfolk, unexpectedly joined us, but having provided no quarters, they were distributed for the night in the most convenient houses. Next morning Dahlgren entered the town, conducted by a deserter from Stafford, who led his men over a ford near Falmouth which had not been used within the memory of man. Our pickets nearer town were deceived and captured. Our position in town and our weakness were well known to the surrounding country, and of course to the deserter. When the attack was made by Dahlgren on our camp, he found but a few sick and disabled men, with the usual employees of the quartermaster and commissary and perhaps a few others. Captain Simpson placed himself at the head of a few of his men, attacked the rear guard of the enemy, pursued them at full speed through Fredericksburg to Falmouth killing one and wounding two men. As soon as our scattered forces could effect a rendezvous on Marye's heights, we crossed the river and pursued the party five or six miles through Stafford—capturing, however, but two of their men. Captain Simpson lost one man killed. Exclusive of Simpson's company, which had not reported for duty, I question whether we had as many men in Fredericksburg at the time as Dahlgren, and of these several were sick and others without arms. So that, knowing our position and our weakness as he must have done, and as he could have learned from any one along the road or at Falmouth, the exploit of this youthful hero, though very creditable to him, seems not so distinguished by its boldness or success.
I append a letter from Major Kelly, from whom I hoped to obtain an accurate account of the affair. He was then editor of the Fredericksburg Herald, in which paper a minute and accurate account of every incident of the day was published the next morning. Most respectfully,
Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding at Fredericksburg
in the autumn of 1862.
Fredericksburg, April 19, 1872.
Dear Sir—I regret very much that I am unable to assist you materially in the review you propose of the article sent in regard to "Dahlgren's Ride into Fredericksburg."
The files of the Herald during the war fell a prey to the ravages of the times, and I have not the slightest recollection of any facts that I may then have written.
The first intimation I had of the affair was a small colored boy's coming into the chamber (about 8 o'clock in the morning, or possibly 9) with the announcement, "De Yankees is in town." It was Sunday morning, as you recollect. Directly thereafter I heard the clatter of horses' feet, and on going to the parlor window saw the head of the invading force. The horses were in a walk, and no dash whatever. I looked for some moments before I realized that they were indeed Federal soldiers. I saw the blue overcoats, but thought they belonged to Colonel Bell's company, he having arrived, as I understood, the evening before.
The invading party could learn at Falmouth all they wanted to know, and I have not a doubt that when they crossed the river they were under the impression that only one company of cavalry occupied the town. I do not suppose any one in Falmouth had heard of the arrival of Bell and his company—the latter, I believe, having been quartered below town or in its suburbs late the evening previous.
You know more accurately than I do as to the "fruits of the victory," &c. The Munchausen story of "prisoners," "holding the town three hours" &c., is simply ludicrous.
The Federal cavalryman was killed by one of the Confederates, and not a citizen. The first was on the outside of a fence on a cross street and the other on the inside. There was no dash on his part after a "Rebel flag," but those living in the vicinity said he was retreating and refused to surrender. This I learned a very brief period after he was killed, and whilst his body was still lying on the ground. His "fellow-soldiers" had something else to do than take his body to the northern shore and bury it. They were retreating for life. One or two of the Yankees were captured. I remember to have talked with one, and my impression is that he was not wounded.
I remember that you took some cavalrymen, crossed the river, and went in pursuit—overtook them, and had a brisk engagement. You told me afterwards of the gallantry of some of your men on that occasion.
Regretting that I cannot assist you in giving a narrative, such as I could if my memory was refreshed by the account I wrote at the time, I remain,
Very truly yours,
J. H. Kelly.