Tuesday, March 18, 2008
I had been to Walkerton, Virginia twice in my life prior to going on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid tour. Not the part of Walkerton where Ulric Dahlgren breathed his last and where his lifeless body was subjected to all sorts of depredations, but rather the center of the town itself. The Walkerton I had seen was comprised of two intersecting streets, one dead-ending at the other, with a tiny Post Office, tiny library (since closed), gas station, a small clustering of houses, and a “Car and Boat Wash.” I have to admit I had never seen a combo like the “Car and Boat Wash” in my life. Maybe they exist elsewhere in small town America, but I like to think it was peculiar to Walkerton.
The first time there I pulled a Charles Kuralt and did an “On the Road” video interview with one of the locals. I was always struck by his answer to my question. What he liked best about living in the town was sitting on the banks of the Mattaponi and telling his troubles to that river. The river would allow him to unburden himself, like a Priest in a confessional, but instead of giving him a penance of forty Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father's, the water would carry all burdens, cares, and woes away in the slow current.
The Walkerton where Dahlgren died was seemingly miles away from the beating heart of this town of 900 that I knew. Seemingly isolated and forlorn even today, where roads followed the same narrow paths that were carved into the earth by feet, wagons, and horses hundreds of years ago. Even now cars slowed when approaching each other.
We stood by a historical marker and tried to envision night, black night filled with rain, where a hand in front of a face was nearly imperceptible; tried to envision riders fleeing those in pursuit from their rear; tried to envision those same riders as they neared men and boys waiting in ambush. Dahlgren is reported to have sensed the danger and halted his men. A challenge, a counter challenge, a pistol that misfired, then strobe like flashes intermingled with the crackling of muskets and the boom of shotguns, the hiss and whiz of minie balls and buckshot. Four times missles struck Dahlgren true. He was instantly dead, falling from his saddle, the thump of his body against the ground heard only by God, his men unaware he was lying face down in a mud filled ditch. Black night. Black rain.
We hear Bruce Venter tell the story of a thirteen year old boy finding a cigar case with the damning orders, orders that marked Jefferson Davis for assassination, while searching for the object of his desire, a gold watch that was rumored in the possession of all Union officers. The following morning the body is stripped naked, his wooden leg removed, and a finger amputated because it stubbornly refused to surrender a ring once belonging to a deceased sister.
Now Eric Wittenberg speaks, telling the same truth that Vetner believes in, the same story he told me the night before during dinner at a Chipotle, that the papers are genuine. I want to hold onto the belief they’re fake, they’re forgeries, that they’re Confederate excuses for launching their plans to burn New York, Chicago, and disrupt Northern elections. Bruce and Eric point to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, lurking in the background, plotting in secret with Judson Kilpatrick, setting up Ulric Dahlgren like some Lee Harvey Oswald, because he can’t speak from the grave. Bruce and Eric argue there wasn’t enough time for chicanery, that every hand the papers passed through during their travel from Walkerton to Richmond is fully documented, every hour accounted for until their publication in newspapers. My doubts fade grudgingly. But I’m fixed on one very minor detail that neither Bruce nor Eric are able to answer quite to my satisfaction. And that one very minor detail is spelled out on the damning orders as “Dalhgren.”