On this date in 1864, a Union officer frustrated of a design to raid Richmond during the U.S. Civil War hanged a local African-American guide whom he thought had intentionally misled him like Susanin.
The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.
The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.
… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.
Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.
A Goochland County marker marks the spot of the botched crossing and subsequent execution.
But we’re really just getting started. Stay tuned for some serious blowback from this bootless military debacle.
This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.
The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.
Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.
After Dahlgren, argues Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, “there was an increase in Confederate clandestine activity designed to encourage the antiwar faction in the North to organize and revolt” — even including a mirror-image Confederate cavalry raid on Washington D.C. with an eye towards capturing Lincoln.
There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:
Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.
That is some blowback.
Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination
* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.
** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.