Monday, October 19, 2009

"Small time, but in that small greatly lived This star..."

"Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England..."

So wrote Shakespeare in his Epilogue of Henry V. The same can be said of Col. Ulric Dahlgren, the subject of Eric Wittenberg's most recent book, Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren (Edinborough Press, 2009).

First, as a disclaimer, I'd suggest that it is hard for many people to provide a completely unbiased review of one of Eric Wittenberg's books in that there are many people who have benefited from his advice and scholarship...I happily count myself among that group, having received generous amounts of both. But I'll do my best.

Eric Wittenberg's Like a Meteor... is a tremendous story of natural qualities of daring, leadership, acumen, and other admirable qualities in a very young man: Ulric Dahlgren. He ably charts Dahlgren's life from restless youth to purpose as soldier in defense of the Union during the Civil War. He also describes the unprecedented access that Dahlgren had to the highest levels of political and military power in the country. The narrative drives towards the climax of Dahlgren's death on a raid into Richmond and the subsequent controversy surrounding papers found on his body. It may be that the casual Civil War enthusiast is not already aware of the so-called Kilptarick-Dahlgren raid, but once they are, they'll be compelled to learn more about this interesting story written by Eric Wittenberg and backed by very good research.

Some high points:

1) A good part of Dahlgren's early career as a soldier was under the command of Major General Franz Sigel. Sigel is often derided in the Civil War literature, but I find that Wittenberg treats him quite fairly.

2) The Gettysburg chapter - and Dahlgren's thrilling exploits in the campaign - are worth the price of the book. Wittenberg explains very well the importance of critical enemy intelligence that Dahlgren had a part in securing.

3) The Dahlgren Raid, of course, is well-covered. The loss and recovery of Dahlgren's body is an amazing story and is told very well by Wittenberg.

4) As if the Gettysburg chapter wasn't enough, Wittenberg "closes the deal" by providing a very honest assessment of Dahlgren's achievements, faults, vices, admirable qualities, lost promise, and more in the final chapter.

5) Excerpts from the letters and diaries of the younger and elder Dahlgren's are used to great effect throughout the book.

I have only a few critical comments, though they do not detract from my overall positive assessment of the book and a recommendation to read it:

1) I wish he would have developed a bit more the mistakes in Dahlgren's Fredericksburg Campaign exploits; he hints at them, it seems, but doesn't really develop a case for how detrimental they were.

2) I was somewhat put off by Wittenberg's quoting often from a sermon and memoir written by Dahlgren's minister and father after the death of the young hero as they are by definition hagiographic; that said, it's important to note that both Rev. Sunderland, and of course the elder Dahlgren, had been acquainted with "Ully" since his birth, and when they comment on his younger days, they compliment the text pretty well.

3) I wish the book had a closer touch of a copyeditor's hand...though not intrusive, the typos, etc., (esp. in the last chapters) could become distracting.

Nevertheless, this is a very fitting - and very honest - biography of an important personality and Mr. Wittenberg is to be congratulated.

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