Charles Dahlgren of Natchez : the Civil War and dynastic decline /
Herschel Gower.
1st ed.
Washington, DC : Brassey's, c2002.
xvii, 293 p. : ill., maps.
More Details
Washington, DC : Brassey's, c2002.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Maps on lining papers.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Young Charles Dahlgren:

A Heritage of Adventure

Born in Philadelphia in 1811, the boy was given the name of Charles Gustavus Ulric Dahlgren. The Swedish side of his family had prevailed again, as it had two years earlier when Charles's brother was born and named John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren. The immigrant Swedish father, Bernard, had won out over any wishes of the Irish mother, Martha Rowan, and her side of the boys' bloodlines. Both parents had sufficient reasons to assign the names of their forebears, but for their sons the father insisted that the names reflect the Nordic warriors in his past and the royal rulers of Sweden. Another set of ancestral names was given a third son, William Theodore, who was born in 1820, also in Philadelphia. William was later to repudiate the Dahlgren name for de Rohan, an adaptation of the Irish Rowan.

    When Bernard Dahlgren died in 1824, Charles wrote to his mother from school in Arbor Hill: "I received your letter on the second. You cannot imagine my grief on hearing of my Father's death, but why should I weep, was he not in pain and misery and did not God in his mercy take him from us to live with him? And is he not now basking in the Sun-shine of eternal bliss?" The letter suggests a young stoic brought up in Christian concepts, with a firm belief in immortality. He would find comfort in having an admired older brother in whom he could confide and with whom he could share adventures at sea, like those of their Viking ancestors.

    That same letter suggests that Charles was already a regular visitor on board ships docked in Philadelphia. Charles asks his mother to send someone "aboard the Philadelphia and ask if my riding-whip is there."

    Two years later Charles was corresponding with brother John, the midshipman. One letter is full of family news and reports on neighbors and school friends. It reveals again the close ties between the brothers. Before John sailed, the boys had exchanged watches as a token of brotherly affection. Charles reported: "I have lately had your watch done up which cost $2 and now keeps elegant time.... Do tell me if mine keeps good time." The watches seem to have symbolized a way of participating in each other's experiences.

    But Charles was still landlocked, as his humorous verse at the end of the letter indicates. He tells John to direct his letters thus:

This will go by my desire

To Charles Dahlgren Esquire,

Who lives as I repeat

Philadelphia, 22 Pine Street.

Even though Charles could not, in fact, be sailing with John, he was at one in his thoughts with his brother and wanted to talk about the sea, sails, rigging, quadrants, and telescopes. Even when their relations broke down in later years and they were literally at arms against each other, they kept before them the image of the sea and themselves as companions standing up to the challenges and perils that it offered.

    When Charles was fourteen years old, he took part-time employment as a scribe to help with the support of his mother, sister Martha Matilda ("Patty"), and brother William. "[The job] was secured by Hon. John Vaughn, copying the writings of George Washington at ten cents per hundred words." This was the effort to assemble Washington's papers so that Professor Jared Sparks could prepare the first president's biography. The family clearly stood in favor with the Honorable Mr. Vaughn; Charles's younger brother William also reported having done his turn at copying the papers while he was in school. His early experience as a scribe helped to equip Charles with a fine writing style that would serve him well in later years as businessman and litigant.

    In 1827, at age sixteen, Charles followed his older brother to sea. John recorded in his diary that while aboard the Macedonian in Brazil he was pleased to see the arrival of the American brig Satona from Rio de Janeiro: "My brother Charles arrived in her. I went aboard and brought him on shore: we spent the evening very agreeably with Doña Joaquina." Eleven days later, on 24 March, John and Charles had another visit. On 26 March, John wrote: "Charles, on Satona , about to sail for Philadelphia. Took with him letters to Ma, Mr. [John] Vaughn, and Judge King." Quite likely, Charles also kept a diary as a seaman and recorded his own impressions of Brazil and his happy meeting with John, but no such record has come to light.

* * *

    Charles's and John's romantic notions and adolescent musings were enhanced by the knowledge that their father had spent his early life as an adventurer. Bernard was the son of Dr. Johan Adolphus Dahlgren (1744-1792), who won honors as a physician and was a protégé of the renowned naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. After graduation from the University of Uppsala, Bernard took a post in Ulesborg, at the head of the Gulf of Bothola, a wild and frozen region in Lapland. At six feet four inches, Bernard accepted the challenge of surviving in the Arctic Circle and made a reputation for himself as an explorer of the North Cape and Alten.

    He was also a political liberal and zealot of republican reform in monarchial Sweden. In 1804, he became such an active partisan of democratic principles that he was forced to flee the country at the risk of his life. The Crown confiscated all of his property, and Bernard wandered about the European Continent for the next few years. He reached Spain when Napoleon was waging war against the Bourbons and narrowly escaped death on several occasions.

    Bernard's wanderings in early nineteenth-century Spain intrigued his sons. His adventures were certainly kept alive in their memories. In one episode, Bernard told how highwaymen plotted to rob and kill him at a hostel in Seville in the dead of night. Pretending to be asleep as his attackers entered his room by a hidden passage, he rose up and shot at them with two of his pistols and then escaped through a second-story window. After reporting the incident to the local police and getting little satisfaction, he concluded that "the police and robbers were at that time nearly identical in Spain."

    On another occasion, Bernard was furnished wine with his supper by a charming young girl from the kitchen. As she set down the tray, she gestured in sign language that he should not drink the wine. Understanding her warning, Bernard emptied the vessel into the fireplace and made an excuse to the hotelier to go outside for a few moments of fresh air. His report to the police was so convincing that officers were sent to investigate the tavern's owner and interrogate the maid servant. According to the story remembered by Bernard's sons in later years, the police discovered in the cellar several recently buried bodies of travelers who had been first put to sleep by drugged wine and then murdered.

    Many of Bernard's stories were akin to the bizarre tales associated with nineteenth-century Romanticism. That movement manifested itself in England in works by Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, and later in America by Washington Irving and Poe. About the same time, Sweden, under the influence of such writers as Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Johann Christoph Schiller, developed its own Romantics: B. Höijer, F. W. J. von Schelling at Uppsala, and Amadeus Atterbom. These writers retold ancient tales from the folk tradition, explored and adapted the Gothic sagas from Sweden's past, and became spokesmen for nationalistic ideals. These were the literary currents that young Bernard Dahlgren met with while a student at Uppsala. Then, the success of the American Revolution caused him to look for adventures in the New World. His first step was to negotiate a way across the Atlantic to that democratic refuge sought by other young men with the same zeal for freedom and excitement.

    During this period in his life, Bernard kept a diary in which he detailed the hardships and frustrations that beset him. Selling his guns and most of his personal effects, he raised eighty dollars to pay for his passage to New York, where he arrived as a stranger with a knowledge of French but limited English. He took menial jobs at any work that came to hand. In 1807, he went to Haiti as a cashier for Thomas Lewis and Co. at a salary of eight hundred dollars a year, but the heat and fevers of the Caribbean were not the climate for a North European. He returned to the United States and settled in Philadelphia. Quickly, as his English improved, Bernard became a figure in international commerce at the busy port city. Later, in a happy reversal of fortune, he was appointed Swedish and Norwegian consul in charge of international trade between the two countries and the United States.

    In 1808, at age twenty-four, Bernard met, courted, and married Martha Rowan, daughter of a revolutionary soldier and descendant of the Mortimers of North Ireland. The happy marriage would produce three sons, John, Charles, and William, and one daughter, Martha Matilda. Despite the early death of Bernard Dahlgren at age forty in 1824, his children would never forget their father's many spellbinding escapades amid the turmoil of Napoleonic Europe.

    Although Charles Dahlgren was only thirteen years old when his father died, Charles passed the family lore on to his sons: "My father refused to desert his King Gustavus to the interest of Napoleon, who placed Bernadotte on the throne, and was driven from Sweden and his property seized, but afterward triumphed in the return of his possessions when Sweden became hostile to Napoleon & received full amnesty from Bernadotte and was made Consul General for Sweden and Norway [in the United States]." Although the sequence became scrambled over the years, Charles pointed out to his son John Adolph, eighteen years old at the time, how individuals and families are called on to suffer "by adherence to their truth and principles." Thus, his sons should be prepared to take a stand and make sacrifices for the family's honor at whatever cost.

    Dahlgren also told his son about their Rowan forebears in Ireland and their part in a rebellion against English rule in the eighteenth century: "[My grandfather] James Rowan lost his estate and was expatriated in 1765 for attempting to make Ireland free. He escaped to Phila., took arms with Gen. Washington in 1776, and lived to see his principles triumph at the peace of 1783." As a son and grandson of revolutionaries, Charles took pride in his descent from such men. He knew full well the losses that they had sustained, and he wanted to pass their values on as a legacy for his son. Later, as the father of sixteen children by two wives, he became an Old Testament patriarch, strict, demanding, and expecting not only full obedience but honor as well from his children.

* * *

    Exactly how many years Charles spent in the pursuit of a formal education and how he came to the notice and employment of financier Nicholas Biddle are matters of conjecture. The record is silent about details. As a young man, tall, gray-eyed, and of good bearing, however, Charles won the confidence of Biddle and became his private secretary in Philadelphia. A businessman and president of the Second Bank of the United States, Biddle had stabilized the currency by increasing the note issue of the federal bank and by forcing the state banks to redeem their issues in specie. These transactions alienated Andrew Jackson, who was politically opposed to the bank and who was successful in preventing the renewal of its charter in 1836. One result was the turbulent financial panic of 1837. Charles Dahlgren was on the sidelines of these developments because Biddle had sent him, at age twenty-four, to New Orleans and then to Natchez to look after his interests in the cotton states.

    Through his association with Biddle, Dahlgren acquired a firm grasp of banking; he also had the grit and stamina to do business with the frontier clientele of a bustling river town like Natchez. There he learned about the wealth to be got in cotton and sugar, the tobacco trade from upriver, and rafts piled high with timber floating downstream. Biddle had chosen well. Dahlgren remained in Natchez and began to prosper. He had discovered his calling and had also found the place to put it to work.


Excerpted from Charles Dahlgren of Natchez by Herschel Gower Copyright © 2002 by Herschel Gower. Excerpted by permission.
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-12-24:
Gower, an emeritus professor of English and American literature at Vanderbilt, adds to the marginalia of Civil War literature with this straightforward and workmanlike biography. By focusing on Dalgren, whose life was neither so insignificant as to leave no traceable record or so consequential as to interest most historians, Gower illuminates a rarely charted area, specifically the postbellum fate of once prosperous Southerners. Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia in 1811 and at 24 moved to Natchez, Miss., to monitor famed financier's Nicolas Biddle's interests. Over the next two and a half decades, Dahlgren married, was widowed, remarried, fathered 12 children and became a wealthy plantation owner, a slaveholder and a pillar of the Southern society he wholeheartedly embraced. When the Civil War erupted, Dahlgren was made a brigadier general and commander of the 3rd Mississippi Brigade, while his brother served as an admiral with the Union navy. With the South's surrender, Dahlgren lost everything; he transplanted his family to New York City, where he became an entrepreneur and a lawyer though never a financial success. Because of his connections to famous Civil War figures and his talent for self-promotion, however, he did gain some notoriety offering revisionist versions of his life to the New York press. "Perhaps no man in New York is more rich in reminiscence," mused one of his contemporaries. When Gower writes that Dahlgren's postwar difficulties "might have driven a man of less steel" to despair, readers should forgive the author his tendency toward drama; the chronicle of those later years is the book's most compelling narrative. 20 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Jan. 7) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, December 2001
Reference & Research Book News, May 2002
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Table of Contents
Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Introductionp. xv
Young Charles Dahlgren: A Heritage of Adventurep. 1
Banker, Planter, Husband, and Dynastp. 7
Riding the Crestp. 29
A Civil War, a Family Warp. 41
Defeat at Vicksburg and Gettysburgp. 67
The Flight to Georgiap. 85
Leading His Family Home by Wagon Trainp. 109
Survival without Recoveryp. 135
Another Move, Another Start at Sixtyp. 165
Eighteen Years a Confederate Carpetbaggerp. 183
The General's Relict and End of the Dynastyp. 209
Postlude for a Patriarchp. 233
Genealogical Chartsp. 239
Notesp. 245
Bibliographyp. 265
Indexp. 275
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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