March 6, 1864
I have just received your letter of the 5th instant enclosing a slip from one of the Richmond journals, giving an account of the recent attack upon that city, & a copy of some papers found on the dead body of Col [Ulrich] Dahlgren, disclosing the plan & purpose of the enterprize.
I concur with you in thinking that a formal publication of these papers should be made under official authority, that our people & the world may know the character of the war our enemies wage against us, & the unchristian & atrocious acts they plot & perpetrate. But I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands. Assuming that the address & special orders of Col Dahlgren correctly state his designs & intentions, they were not executed, & I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, & he killed. I do not think it right therefore to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions. I do not pretend to speak the sentiments of the army, which you seem to desire. I presume that the blood boils with indignation in the veins of every officer & man as they read the account of the barbarous & inhuman plot, & under the impulse of the moment many would counsel extreme measures. But I do not think that reason & reflection would justify such a course. I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences & posterity. Nor do I think that under present circumstances policy dictates the execution of these men. It would produce retaliation. How many & better men have we in the enemy’s hands than they have in ours? But this consideration should have no weight provided the course was in itself right. Yet history records instances where such considerations have prevented the execution of marauders & devastators of provinces.
It may be pertinent to this subject to refer to the conduct of some of our men in the Valley. I have heard that a party of [Major Harry W.] Gilmor’s battalion, after arresting the progress of a train cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, took from the passengers their purses & watches. As far as I know no military object was accomplished after gaining possession of the cars, & the act appears to have been one of plunder. Such conduct is unauthorized & discreditable. Should any of that battalion be captured the enemy might claim to treat them as high-way robbers. What would be our course? I have ordered an investigation of the matter & hope the report may be untrue.
I am with great respect, your obt servt
R E Lee
Source: The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin, pp. 678-679.
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 March 7