Charles Dahlgren of Natchez: The Civil War and Dynastic Decline. By Herschel Gower. Washington: Brassey's, 2002. ISBN 1-57488-392-1. Photographs. Illustrations. Charts. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvii, 293. $26.95.
Herschel Gower's handsome life of Charles Dahlgren treats a secondary figure, whose significance in the Civil War was negligible. The story, however, provides unanticipated interest. Gower convincingly interprets all the Dahlgren brothers as votaries of a romantic honorableness. However politically expressed in the Dahlgrens' lives, that ideal involved an arrogance, racist and class-based, that proved their undoing. Perhaps dismaying defensiveness, shrouded in truculent self-assertion, arose from an expectation that their august heritage gave them a status too sublime for lesser folk in a relatively egalitarian society to apprehend. While incomplete, Gower's interpretation of honor as a Dahlgren theme gives rich meaning and life to what would otherwise have been a dull chronicle.
Three brothers—John, Charles, and William—were the sons of Martha Rowan of proud Revolutionary Irish roots and Bernard Dahlgren, wealthy Swedish consul at Philadelphia. In 1824, this Scandinavian aristocrat, renowned for Arctic explorations and bold adventures, died when his children were quite young. The brothers were likewise ambitious and enterprising. A U.S. Navy ordnance specialist, John was later noted for inventing the Dahlgren shipboard gun. Promoted to rear admiral in July 1863, he expertly commanded the blockade of southern ports. Although mimicking the admiral's [End Page 243] notorious contempt for common servicemen, his son Ulric became a war hero. At age twenty, he was promoted from captain to colonel. In an ill-fated expedition to seize Confederate chiefs in March 1864, Dahlgren marched 470 troops into a rebel ambush near Richmond. He lost his life along with those of a hundred federals. The third brother, William, constantly wrangled with the family. Belligerent like his relatives, he fought with Garibaldi and during the American war spied for the Union in England
As Gower subtely reveals, Charles was equally self-promoting. As Nicholas Biddle's protégé, in 1835 he arrived at Natchez, Mississippi, to manage a U.S. Bank branch, married into the wealthy Ellis-Percy-Routh clan, and managed an empire of cotton plantations worth a half million dollars. In violent local encounters, Dahlgren swaggered his claims to honor. As a military commander in 1861, however, he was too dilatory and defensive to win favor with his men or superiors. Nor was he much of an armchair strategist though firing off implausible schemes to Mississippi Governor J. J. Pettus and Jefferson Davis. His dismal performance in the Mississippi theater is hardly worth mentioning. When Vicksburg fell, the Dahlgrens and their slaves retreated to south Georgia where he tried to reconstitute a plantation life. Alas for the Southern cause, there were too many self-inflating Dahlgrens doing little but grumbling loudly about the stupidity of others.
Dahlgren's postwar years mirrored the troubles of so many formerly proud and prosperous slaveholders. Nothing much tarried on his vast farmlands but unrepayable debts. Facing ruin and humiliation, Dahlgren moved to New York to open a brokerage business on Broadway. His last years were vainly spent trying to overturn the will of step-daughter Sarah Dorsey. She had bequeathed her property to her idol, Jefferson Davis.
In sum, this otherwise commendable history of Charles Dahlgren could
have provided a richer picture of the entire clan and their struggles
for status. Late in the book, lengthy verbatim excerpts from the
general's mundane diary could have been replaced with more exploration of
fascinating interactions. Nonetheless, Charles Dahlgren of Natchez,
generously illustrated, is most readable, exciting, and informative
about an overbearing but ultimately distressed cast of male relations.
University of Florida