A Footnote in Civil War History

By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in February 2022.

There are 18 outdoor Civil War statues spread throughout much of central and northwest Washington, D.C. There are 11 statutes of Union generals, two of Union admirals, and one (which was recently removed) of Confederate General Albert Pike, who was depicted as a Mason and not as a general. The other Civil War statues in Washington, D.C. are a G.A.R. Memorial, Peace Monument, Emancipation Memorial, and, the newest, an African American Civil War Memorial.

In addition to the statuary, there are a number of historical plaques to the Civil War at various sites. One of the strangest sites is located on the grounds of the Washington Naval Yard. The plaque there reads:

“Within this wall is deposited the leg of Col. Ulric Dahlgren U S V
wounded July 6th 1863 while skirmishing in the streets of Hagerstown
with the rebels after the Battle of Gettysburgh”

The original plaque for Ulric Dahlgren’s leg

This plaque is on the wall next to the exit of NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command) Building 28 – a parking garage. It is the original placed there by Admiral John Dahlgren, father of Ulric. Above this plaque is a modern one (1998) with more description and two photographs: a photograph of the building that previously occupied this space and a photograph of the young colonel with both of his legs. But the plaque lies. The leg is not there. No one knows with certainty what happened to Ulric’s leg.

The entrance to the parking garage with the plaques to the right of the entrance

In 1863, Captain Ulric Dahlgren was 20 years old. He was given a small command of ten men by cavalry commander Major General Alfred Pleasonton to harass General Robert E. Lee’s lines of communication during the Gettysburg Campaign. On July 4, Dahlgren found himself astride Lee’s line of retreat to the Potomac River after Lee’s defeat. Dahlgren’s command was increased to 100 men from troopers in Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s command. By the morning of July 6, Dahlgren joined Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division advancing to intercept the Confederates at Hagerstown.

Ulric Dahlgren

Hagerstown was held by the cavalry brigades of Generals Beverly H. Robertson and John R. Chambliss of General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. They had barricaded some of the streets and posted riflemen in church steeples and cupolas on the approach of the Yankee cavalry. Captain Dahlgren was one of the first to enter the town from the south. He led his men in a headlong dash down Potomac Street, crashing into the 9th Virginia Cavalry, and a melee ensued. Pushing the Confederate troopers back beyond Zion Reformed Church, Dahlgren was in the middle of the road when shots were fired from the flank by Confederates behind the tombstones in the church’s graveyard. The captain was wounded in the foot as he turned to rally his men. Captain Frank A. Bond of the 1st Maryland Cavalry is often credited with firing the shot that wounded Dahlgren.

The crossfire too intense, Dahlgren led his men out of town. He thought the wound was nothing more than a glancing ball and did not realize that his heavy boot and foot had been pierced. Reporting to Kilpatrick, Dahlgren realized he was bleeding. Since he was becoming faint, he dismounted to lie on the ground and then passed out from shock. Dahlgren was lifted into an ambulance and taken to Boonsboro, where surgeons removed bone shards from his foot.

On July 9, a train conveyed Dahlgren to Washington, D.C., and he was taken to his father’s house, where his Aunt Patty ministered to his wound. Admiral Dahlgren was absent at the time, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Being a close friend of the Admiral, President Abraham Lincoln visited Ulric’s bedside, as did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Before leaving, Stanton handed Aunt Patty a commission promoting Ulric to colonel to be given to him when he was feeling better. Young Dahlgren was suffering with excruciating pain, and after examination by a surgeon, he was told the wound had become gangrenous and the leg had to be amputated. On July 21, 15 days after Dahlgren was wounded, his lower right leg was removed below the knee.

Ulric Dahlgren recovered, but what was to be done with his amputated leg? The summer heat precluded transporting it to the family plot in Philadelphia for burial. The current superintendent of the Washington Naval Yard, an old friend of Admiral Dahlgren, suggested the limb could be sealed in the Dahlgren Gun Foundry building being erected – Building 28. The severed limb received a full military funeral, complete with honor guard and casket (a lead and wooden box), and was interred in the cornerstone on the west end of the foundry. Ulric’s father later had the plaque placed at the spot.

Dahlgren Gun Foundry

In 1915, Building 28 was demolished and replaced by a metal fabricating shop, but some of the surface elements remained. The cornerstone and the leg were not disturbed. The building was again demolished in 1942, removing the remaining surface elements of the 1863 foundry. The plaque was re-installed at a higher location on a new wall, but mysteriously Ulric Dahlgren’s leg had disappeared. Some conjectured that Confederate sympathizers had opened the vault and removed the leg; others believed it was removed and buried with Dahlgren’s body in Philadelphia after the Civil War. Whatever the case, the leg was unaccounted for. In 1998, the plaque was recovered when Building 28 was again demolished to construct the NAVSEA parking garage. The plaque now rests in approximately the original location marking the southwest corner of Dahlgren’s foundry. A modern plaque with the pictures was placed with the original.

The building during its demolition in 1942: The original plaque was located in the indentation to the left of the fire hydrant in the lower right of the photograph.
A close-up of the indentation in which the original plaque was located

It seems that Ulric Dahlgren was to be cursed with missing body parts. Five months after being wounded, he rejoined the army with a cork leg and crutches. In February/March 1864, Dahlgren participated in Kilpatrick’s raid on Richmond to free the Union prisoners incarcerated in the Confederate capital, but the raid was a failure. The contingent that Dahlgren led was ambushed, and he was killed on March 2, 1864. A 13-year-old boy named William Littlepage found papers on Dahlgren’s body that indicated an intention to assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and to set fire to Richmond. Ulric Dahlgren was soon viewed by the Richmond newspapers as a war criminal.

Colonel Dahlgren’s body was placed in a white, flat-topped coffin with his name stenciled on the top and taken by train to Richmond. His body was put on display at the York River train depot minus one finger that had been cut off to retrieve a ring. His cork leg was displayed in a Richmond store window. Dahlgren’s body was secretly buried at night in Oakwood Cemetery, and the grave was leveled so that no one could tell where it was. Only two men – one a freed black man – knew the location and were sworn to secrecy.

John Dahlgren

Admiral Dahlgren returned to Washington and was desperate to have his son’s remains returned, so they could be buried in the family plot in Philadelphia. He petitioned President Lincoln, who wrote to General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, “If you obtain the remains of Col. Dahlgren, please notify me instantly so that I can let his afflicted know.” On March 23, the Confederate authorities decided to return Dahlgren’s body. However, when a burial detail was sent to disinter the body, they were shocked to find the grave was empty. The Richmond Examiner declared in its March 23 edition that, “Dahlgren has risen…!”

Elizabeth Van Lew, a 46-year-old Richmond spinster known to locals as “Crazy Bet,” was a devoted Unionist who operated a spy ring in the Confederate capital. One of her men, F.W.E. Lohmann, guided by the freed black gravedigger, had already disinterred the body on a cold, dark, rainy night. After verifying that it was Dahlgren’s body, they placed it in Martin M. Lipscomb’s wagon and took it to a nearby farm owned by William S. Rowley. They placed the body in a metallic coffin, put it in Rowley’s wagon, covered it beneath young peach trees, and secretly transported it past the Confederate pickets out of the city to the farm of Robert Orrick near Hungary Station. There Dahlgren’s body was reburied under a freshly planted peach tree to mark the spot. Miss Van Lew sent a coded message to General Butler that the body had been recovered. Word filtered back to the Admiral.

When Richmond fell, the Admiral retrieved his son’s remains. He had a train driven to Hungary Station, where the remains were verified and recovered. Placed in a new metallic coffin, the body was accompanied by a military escort back to Washington, D.C., where it lay in a Washington vault until cooler weather when it could be transported north.

At the end of October 1865, Admiral Dahlgren had the remains taken to City Hall of Washington to lie in state, before taking them to the First Presbyterian Church where the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher conducted a memorial service. Two generals and six colonels served as pall bearers, and the service was attended by President Andrew Johnson and all of his cabinet members. After the service, the remains were loaded on a special train to Philadelphia, where the funeral took place on November 1, 1865. In attendance were Generals George G. Meade, Andrew A. Humphreys, and Alexander Webb. The body was escorted by 196 men from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia City Cavalry, and the 7th U.S. Infantry to Laurel Hill Cemetery, where the body is today. Ulric Dahlgren could make the claim that he was buried in both capitals during the Civil War and after the war in one of our nation’s first capitals. But is his leg there?

The Admiral wanted Ulric’s personal effects returned and enlisted the help of F.W.E. Lohmann. He traced Ulric’s ring to Cornelius Martin, formerly of Company H, 9th Virginia Cavalry. When confronted, Martin finally admitted that he took the ring, but gave it to a Dr. Saunders. Lohmann confronted Saunders and after some difficulty caused him to produce the ring.

Dahlgren’s cork leg was also recovered. It seems that Lieutenant James Pollard of the 9th Virginia Cavalry lost his right leg during the fighting at Nance’s Shop, Virginia and tried to use Ulric’s prosthetic leg. It was uncomfortable for Pollard as it was too long. It was given to one of Mosby’s Rangers, Captain John N. Ballard, himself missing a leg. Hearing he might be arrested for having possession of the prosthesis, Ballard was glad to be rid of it when detectives called on him. By November 1865 the prosthesis was back in Washington. As one wag put it, “Thus the leg served both with the North and South.”

Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864, Bruce M. Venter, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2016.

Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, Eric J. Wittenberg, Minnesota, Edinborough Press, Minnesota, 2009.

“Col. Dahlgren’s Leg,” Allen Browne, Landmarks blog, May 17, 2012 (allenbrowne.blogspot.com/2012/05/col-dahlgrens-leg.html).