Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review--Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly

Wittenberg, Eric. Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short But Controversial Life of Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren. Edinborough Press, Roseville, MN. 2009, 318 pages, 249 pages text. Index, bibliography, notes, maps, b/w photos.

Brave, enthusiastic, careless, connected, smart, daring, careless, lucky, unlucky. These are just some of the words that quickly come to mind after having read Eric Wittenberg's highly entertaining work on Ulrich Dahlgren.

Wittenberg has taken on an important, but often overlooked, subject in Dahlgren. Dahlgren came from a well connected family, his father being John Dahlgren, "The Father of Modern Naval Ordnance." Through his father Ully was able to meet presidents Zachary Taylor and later Abraham Lincoln. These connections, in addition to his own abilities, led to his being promoted to the youngest Colonel in the United States Army.

Wittenberg traces the military career of young Ulrich including his stints working along side Generals such as Franz Sigel, Joe Hooker, and later George Meade. We read of Dahlgren and his enthusiasm and the problems this caused at Fredericksburg. In the Gettysburg campaign Dahlgren makes a major find in seizing letters to Robert E. Lee from Jefferson Davis. These letters showed that Lee would not be receiving reinforcements and that he would be on his own. General Meade however did not follow up on this intelligence and eventually Lee and his army were able cross the Potomac and make an escape. Shortly after the battle Dahlgren was shot in the leg while in Hagerstown. The injury cost him his leg below the knee shortly thereafter. He returned from this injury with the new title of Colonel.

Judson Kilpatrick then helps recruit Dahlgren in his plan ostensibly to free prisoners from Belle Isle and Libby Prison. Whether this was really the goal of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid has been the subject of debate ever since. Dahlgren led a group of 500 men who attacked from the south of Richmond. Delays caused him to miss his meeting with Kilpatrick and ultimately led to Dahlgren being killed during a Confederate ambush. Here's where the story takes a turn. Papers were found on Dahlgren's body that he was to burn Richmond, free the prisoners, capture Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet and assassinate them. Based upon this strained relations are even more so. Dahlgren is give an "anonymous" burial though there is an interesting story included on the retrieval of his body for burial by family. Wittenberg then spends a good amount of time examining the "papers". He puts forth a compelling argument that shouldn't be shared in a review. Whether you agree with his ultimate findings there is little doubt that Wittenberg has done his research and his conclusion is well thought out and stated.

Overall a well written book that reads quickly. The research is extensive (40 pages of notes and 18 pages of bibliography). Wittenberg does rely heavily on a memoir written by Ulrich's father and of course objectivity of such a source can be questioned. Overall though Wittenberg has written what seems to be a balanced account of this young man. While pointing out the potential greatness of Ully he doesn't hide the warts. For anybody interested in the Civil War this should be on your "to be read" list. Unfortunately you are unlikely to find this at your local B&N so online ordering is your best bet.


  1. Thank you for the kind words, Robert. I really appreciate them. I'm also very pleased to know that you enjoyed the book and that you found some merit in my take on things.


  2. You certainly want have any real understanding of this "Ully" until you read "Charles Dahlgren of Natchez" - The Civil War and Dynastic Decline by Herschel Gower.

  3. Eric--You are most welcome. Great book.

    Josephine--I put this on my amazon wishlist so I can look at it later. I noticed it had positive reviews.