Copy of Lee's order gives McClellan edge

Luck: Union soldiers camped near Frederick made an astounding discovery when they unwrapped three cigars that they found in a field.

August 25, 2002|By Anna Katherine Yost | Anna Katherine Yost,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On the morning of Sept. 13, 1862, men of the 27th Indiana Infantry stumbled upon a crucial document on the ground just south of Frederick. Gen. Robert E. Lee's "lost order," wrapped around three cigars, was now in the possession of the Army of the Potomac.

That fair Saturday morn found troops of the Union 12th Corps bivouacked outside Frederick on a site previously occupied by Confederates under Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill.

Sgt. John M. Bloss noticed the yellowish package: a bundle of fragrant cigars bound with a Confederate order. Convinced the document was of great importance, Bloss, along with Col. Barton Warren Mitchell, approached Col. Silas Colgrove.

The order, determined to be direct from Lee's headquarters to three of his generals, found its way to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, by noon, according to Wilbur D. Jones in his book Giants in the Cornfield: The 27th Indiana Infantry.

McClellan acted with "unaccustomed vigor and promptness," says John W. Schildt in September Echoes. McClellan's first order was given at 6:20 p.m. that same day, to Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin. Franklin, camped in Buckeystown, was to "move at daybreak in the morning [Sept. 14] ... upon the road to Rohrersville ... in order to cut off the retreat or destroy [Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette] McLaws' command. ... Having gained the pass your duty will be first to cut off, destroy or capture McLaws' command and relieve Colonel [Dixon S.] Miles [in Harper's Ferry]," according to McClellan's order.

McClellan confided in the closing of that order, "[M]y general idea is to cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail."

To President Lincoln, McClellan wired to say, "I have the whole Rebel force in front of me but am confident and no time shall be lost. ... The Army is in motion as rapidly as possible. ... I have all the plans of the Rebels and will catch them in their own trap."

Col. Francis W. Palfrey maintains that Franklin should have advanced that evening. Had he done so, he could have reached Crampton's Gap, at South Mountain, by midnight and "passed [South Mountain] without opposition the next morning." Palfrey accuses McClellan of caring for his troops' health, wishing not to deprive them of rest. "[T]he Federal army ought to have relieved Harper's Ferry or fatally separated the wings of Lee's army, or both," Palfrey insists.

McClellan's hesitancy could be due to the probability of a change in plans or orders. More likely, McClellan cautiously weighed his options. The assumption from Lee's Special Orders No. 191 was a massing of Confederate troops at Boonsboro and South Mountain.

Most of McClellan's units rested between Buckeystown, Frederick and Middletown. Yet, all McClellan's consequent orders did not utilize his men until daybreak of Sept. 14 at the earliest.

Lee never intended to defend South Mountain. His first attempt to strike the Union on its own soil was directed toward the garrisons at Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg.

"[T]he advance of the Federal Army was so slow at the time we left Fredericktown as to justify the belief that reduction of Harper's Ferry would be accomplished and our troops concentrated before they would be called to meet it. ... It had not been intended to oppose [the Union's] passage through the South Mountain, as it was desired to engage it as far from its base of operations as possible," says Lee in his official report.

On Sept. 9. 1862, Lee issued three of his generals copies of Special Orders No. 191, detailing their invasion of the North.

Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson memorized his copy and threw it into the flames. Maj. Gen. James Longstreet memorized, tore up and swallowed the order.

Jackson, with the belief that Hill was under his command, issued a copy to the general. Hill therefore might have possessed two copies of the same order. To his credit, Hill produced a copy of the lost order after the war; although Jackson's copy had never left Hill's possession, it is the copy of the orders sent by Lee's headquarters to D.H. Hill that found its way to McClellan's hands.

McClellan's document was in the handwriting of Lee's chief administrative officer, Col. Robert H. Chilton. Beyond its creation, little is known of Special Orders No. 191 until it was discovered by the 27th Indiana Infantry.

Regardless of whether Hill ever possessed two copies or the courier dropped the bundle of cigars and confidential documents from his haversack, it became apparent on the evening of Sept. 13 that the federal army was near. Their campfires flickered brightly in the Middletown Valley, within view of the Confederate troops at South Mountain.

After his notification by Hill, Lee realized McClellan intended to pass South Mountain through Turner's Gap and intercept the rear of McLaws' men. This would allow McClellan to relieve the garrison at Harper's Ferry. With such a plan apparent, Lee ordered his generals to defend South Mountain and its passes against the Army of the Potomac.

Hill commented that the lost dispatch "was the saving of Lee's army. ... In the battle of South Mountain the imaginary foes of the lost dispatch were worth more to us than ten thousand men."

Anna Katherine Yost is a junior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of a practicum at The Sun.

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