Belle Isle, a 54-acre island in the James River, had been home to a nail factory, but since it was surrounded by rapids, it was deemed ideal as a holding pen for Union prisoners awaiting transfer home. A footbridge provided easy access to a nearby railway line. Belle Island was reserved for enlisted men; officers were incarcerated at Libby Prison.
Out of 2.75 million soldiers, over 400,000 were taken prisoner during the Civil War, some of them several times, and prison conditions were so harsh over 56,000 perished in captivity. The worst was Andersonville, where 39% who walked in, never walked out.
Belle Isle had no barracks and the flimsy tents were severely overcrowded once exchanges were scrapped. The War Department had decided returning Confederate soldiers to the front was keeping the rebellion fires burning, so they abruptly broke off the Dix-Hill cartel and halted all swaps in June of 1863, which caused the population at Belle Isle to swell immediately. The situation was compounded by the refusal of the Confederacy to accept one-to-one swaps involving blacks. During the winter of 1863-64, as many as 1,500 a week were perishing at Belle Isle.
In a New York Tribune article dated January 25th, 1864, Charles Dunham, posing as Sanford Conover, exposed a plot by the villianous Colonel George Margrave to capture and assassinate President Lincoln. In fact, the dastardly Colonel Margrave was a figment of Dunham’s imagination, as was the kidnap and possible assassination plot hinted at in his article. Conover promised additional details would be forthcoming very soon.
This article could not help but have raised significant alarm bells in Washington. Within days, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln were discussing plans for a raid into Richmond to release the thousands of prisoners at Belle Isle, a project initially suggested by Major General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler also wanted to destroy the Tredegar Iron Works and kidnap Jefferson Davis as part of the mission. Butler got approval for the raid and it was scheduled for February 7. However, the Confederates were warned ahead of time and Butler’s cavalry assault turned back before getting near Richmond.
A week later, Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick secured a private meeting with Lincoln, something allegedly arranged through the assistance of a Republican Senator. Nicknamed “Kill Cavalry” by his own troops, Kilpatrick was already legendary for mounting reckless frontal assaults. He had circumvented military protocol by seeking this private meeting. Aside from freeing Belle Isle and Libby prisons, Kilpatrick suggested severing Confederate lines of communication. Lincoln also wanted his recent amnesty proposal circulated behind enemy lines. Kilpatrick was directed to the War Department to work out details with Stanton. On February 16, Stanton approved the raid and its three objectives.
General Meade and the head of the Cavalry Corps. Major General Alfred Pleasonton went on record opposing the raid. Meade distanced himself in his written orders to Kilpatrick: “No detailed instructions are given you, since the plan of your operations has been proposed by you with the sanction of the President and Secretary of War.”
Ulric Dahlgren was an ambitious 21-year-old who’d recently lost a leg below the knee at the Battle of Gettysburg. His father was commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and close friends with Lincoln, which is why Dahlgren had advanced so rapidly to colonel, despite a total lack of command experience. However, when Dahlgren arrived at Kilpatrick’s seeking a job now that his leg had healed, he was offered command of the raiding party and given secret orders.
On March 2, Dahlgren was killed outside Richmond near King and Queen County Courthouse. William Littlepage, age 13, was rifling through his pockets, looking for valuables, when he discovered a packet of documents, which he dutifully handed over to the commander of the home guard, who forwarded the notebook and papers to Jefferson Davis. According to the documents, after freeing the Union prisoners, Ulric was to torch Richmond and assassinate Davis and his entire cabinet if possible. The fact Dahlgren had not destroyed these incriminating orders but allowed them to be captured was evidence of his lack of experience.
The documents were circulated to newspapers in hopes of winning sympathy and drawing a foreign power into an alliance with the Confederacy, as well as strengthening the Copperhead peace movement against Lincoln. Of course, the War Department immediately claimed the papers were forgeries, but that was undoubtedly a lie because they were written on official stationary, although strangely unsigned by any authority, probably due to the extreme nature of the mission. It’s not clear who dreamed up the assassination scheme, some believe it was Stanton on his own initiative. My theory is that Dunham had been Stanton’s secret agent all along, and that by seeding a false story of a Confederate assassination plot against Lincoln, Dunham opened the door for a similar plot against Davis.
The Dahlgren affair is what undoubtedly sent John Wilkes Booth into motion on a plot to kidnap President Lincoln, a plan that shifted to murder after it was clear the war was lost. Is it worth mentioning that right after the war, Stanton shipped all Confederate archives to the War Department and specifically requested the Dahlgren documents be sent direct to his office? The documents have never been seen since.