History In Site: Dover Mill, Goochland VA

I spent the morning driving around Goochland and Cumberland counties, visiting the ruins of four different mill buildings. My first stop was Dover Mill, and the history here is just packed with astonishing details.

This was a steam-powered grain mill built around 1853, associated with a nearby plantation. It operated until March 1, 1864, when a Union raid burned it down.

The raid was led by Col. Ulric Dahlgren, who had suffered a foot wound at Gettysburg resulting in him having one leg amputated below the knee. After destroying Dover Mill and some other nearby structures, Dahlgren’s unit of 500 men were to cross the James River to continue on and assault Richmond from the south. They were being led by an African-American guide named Martin Robinson. Upon reaching the river, they found it swollen by recent heavy rains, delaying their progress. Dahlgren apparently believed Robinson had deceived him intentionally, and had him hanged. That makes what comes next a little easier to swallow, frankly.

On the night of March 3, after a day or two of retreat under sporadic harassment from Confederate forces, Dahlgren’s unit was ambushed near King and Queen Courthouse, east of Richmond. Dahlgren was struck by four bullets and died on the battlefield. A local teenaged boy searched his body, and found papers indicating that Dahlgren’s orders were to free Union prisoners from the POW camp on Belle Isle, then put Richmond to the torch and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. These orders were published in the Richmond newspaper and caused an outrage throughout the South (and may well have fed John Wilkes Booth’s motivation to assassinate Lincoln a year later).

Originally buried where he fell, a mob of angry locals disinterred Dahlgren’s body for public display and desecration. His body was put on display at the York River train depot in Richmond, and his wooden leg was displayed in a storefront window. One of his fingers was cut off to remove a ring. Reports of this mistreatment reached the North, causing widespread outrage as well as some scandal–Lincoln and U.S. Grant denied that the orders found on Dahlgren’s corpse were genuine, and it has never been proven either way because the papers were later requested by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and then disappeared.

Meanwhile, the long, strange journey of Col. Dahlgren’s corpse continued. He was re-buried in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, then secretly moved (to avoid further desecration) with the help of Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew at a farm while his family petitioned to retrieve his remains, and finally he was moved to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

The ruins of Dover Mill are on private property, but are easily viewed from the roadside. They are located on the east side of Dover Road (VA 642), about a quarter mile north of the intersection with River Road (VA 6), not far from the James River in Goochland County. GPS coordinates: 37.6278 N, 77.7691 W

Leave a Reply