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Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, by Eric J. Wittenberg

Roseville, Mn.: Edinborough Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 318. Illus, maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1889020338.

In Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly, Wittenberg, author of The Battle of Brandy Station(2010), One Continuous Fight (2008), and other notable works on the Civil War, takes a  look at the life, and, more importantly, the controversial death, of Ulric Dahlgren.

The son of John A. Dahlgren, one of the most notable naval officers of the times, Ulric was killed in March of 1864 while commanding a cavalry regiment during a raid on Richmond. Orders said to have been found on his body indicated that his mission was to capture and execute Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy, which sparked a fierce controversy over whether the documents were forgeries or legitimate, and, if the latter, who bore ultimate responsibility for issuing them, a scholarly and partisan dispute that continues to the present. But there was much more to the life of the young officer (not yet 22 at his death), and this biography gives the reader an excellent look not only at Dahlgren, but also at his background, and thus some valuable insights into a well-connected American upper class family of the times. In a very even-handed treatment, Wittenberg notes that while Dahlgren, something of a wealthy "golden boy," had a reputation for arrogance, he was also a rather brilliant soldier, rising quickly to colonel through battlefield skill, illustrating both aspects of the young man's character with considerable skill. 

As for the question of the whether the "Dahlgren Papers" were real or forgeries, Wittenberg believes that they were genuine (though the originals have been lost), and concludes that the operation was probably hatched by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Maj.-Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, rather than, as most "Lost Causers" like to claim, by President Lincoln.

A good read, with many interesting insights into American life and society in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as some descriptions of battlefield encounters, Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly may be read with profit by anyone with an interest in the Civil War

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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