Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Looking back at Lincoln: On March 7, 1864

On this day in 1864, President Lincoln sent the following note to Major General Butler:

Major General Butler Executive Mansion,
Fort-Monroe Washington, March 7. 1864.

Gen. Meade has Richmond Sentinel, saying that Col. Dahlgren was killed, and ninety of his men captured at King & Queen C. H. When did Kilpatrick's informant last see Col. Dahlgren?


Here is the background that makes this memo interesting (and why it caught my eye...)

There have been many debates in recent years (among Civil War and Lincoln scholars) as to whether Lincoln approved a plan to capture Jefferson Davis (or as the South apparently believed, to kill him,) or whether this part was added by Kilpatrick. The plan, known now as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid -- Kilpatrick was Dahlgren's comanding officer and the architect of the raid -- was foiled when Confederates killed Dahlgren in an ambush and took his official orders and notebook from his body.

The 'Dahlgren papers' were apparently published in the South, and the Confederacy was outraged. While the original intent of the raid was to capture Union prisoners in Richmond, the fact that it also included a plan to seize Jefferson Davis shocked and angered Confederate leaders.

Arguments have gone back and forth about whether this truly was a 'breach of honor,' about whether a plan to capture the leader of the opposing side was really that unheard of in war etiquette of the time, whether Lincoln even knew that the plan included the capture of Jeff Davis, and whether the Confederacy would have taken a similar opportunity had one been presented.

Perhaps it was the wording of the papers, at least the wording in Dahlgren's notebook, that caused the uproar -- from History Net:

Shortly after the ambush in which Dahlgren was killed, thirteen-year-old William Littlepage, a youthful member of a schoolboy company of home guards, came upon the colonel’s body and searched it for valuables. What he found came to be called the Dahlgren papers–two folded documents and a pocket notebook containing several loose papers inserted between the leaves. Young Littlepage turned his find over to his teacher and company commander, Captain Edward W. Halbach. At daylight the next morning, March 3, Halbach examined the papers and was shocked and appalled by what he found.

The first of the documents, written in ink on Union army stationery bearing the printed heading ‘Headquarters Third Division, Cavalry Corps,’ was obviously an address to the officers and men of Colonel Dahlgren’s command. It covered two sheets, with the final six lines and the signature written on the back of the first sheet. It was signed, as best Halbach could make it out, ‘U. Dahlgren, Col. Comd.’ Among the inspiriting descriptions of their forthcoming mission was one riveting sentence: ‘We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy & burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.’

That savage injunction became even more explicit as Captain Halbach read on. The second document, unsigned but written in the same hand on both sides of a sheet of Cavalry Corps stationery, appeared to be a listing of instructions for a party of the raiders that was to operate in parallel with Dahlgren’s contingent. Among the instructions was this admonishment: ‘The men must keep together & well in hand & once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.’

The pocket notebook, which bore Dahlgren’s signature and rank on the opening page, contained a draft of his address to the troops, with corrected passages and other marks of composition but including the same murderous instructions as the finished copy. There was also a set of notations referring to planning for the raid and for carrying it out, including the stark direction: ‘Jeff Davis and Cabinet must be killed on the spot.’ The loose papers in the notebook contained less deadly instructions and itineraries relating to Dahlgren’s mission, plus an order of battle for the Confederate cavalry compiled by the Bureau of Military Information.

Some historians have made the case that the Dahlgren papers changed the rules of engagement - suddenly opening the door to the capture or even murder of opposing leaders - and at the very least encouraged a willingness to consider an attack on Lincoln. Thus the endless theorizing about whether Jefferson Davis and others in the South were a part of a wider conspiracy that involved Booth.

For a little more detailed summary, more from this interesting discussion on History.net:

During the bitter winter of 1863-64, while the armies of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade and General Robert E. Lee occupied winter quarters on the opposite sides of the Rapidan River in northern Virginia, concern deepened in Washington for the welfare of Union prisoners being held in Richmond. Prisoner exchanges were floundering because of the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange captured black soldiers. The Federal enlisted men penned in the prison camp on Belle Isle in the James River and the Union officers incarcerated in Libby Prison consequently soon began to suffer from overcrowding and its related effects. By one estimate, as many as fifteen hundred prisoners were dying each month from disease, hunger, or exposure. The Lincoln administration welcomed anyone with ideas for relieving this situation. The first to offer a plan and gain a hearing was the imaginative but inept Ben Butler.

Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s command, based at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, was the Union force closest to the Confederate capital. Butler advocated launching a surprise cavalry raid to break into Richmond and free the prisoners. He designed his raid to accomplish even more, however. Once in the city, his troopers would destroy prime military targets such as the Tredegar Iron Works and capture President Jefferson Davis and any other Confederate worthies they could find. Butler visited Washington and had his plan approved by President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The Rebels, however, were forewarned of the scheme, and on February 7, 1864, they turned back Butler’s troopers shortly after they started forward. As it turned out, the sole aspect of the Butler raid worth remembering was its plan for carrying off President Davis.

Here is the Harper's Weekly version of ill-fated Dahlgren raid.

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