PUBLISHED: 18:15 EST, 15 September 2012 | UPDATED: 19:43 EST, 15 September 2012
How Robert E. Lee’s secret Civil War battle plans were found wrapped around cigars under a locust tree – and ended up in Union hands
- Copy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s detailed battle plans discovered by Union troops under a locust tree in a field
- Acting on Lee’s plans, Gen. George B. McClelland planned offensive attack which would become Battle of Antietam
- In America’s bloodiest day, the Union rose to victory, altering fate of entire Civil War
- President Lincoln had told cabinet that he would let fate of Antietam was God’s will, and if Union lost, slaves weren’t meant to be freed
As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War continues to be commemorated, progenies of those who fought in the bitter battles between the North and South have converged to remember the sacrifices on both sides.
But tucked inside an exhibit in Frederick, Maryland is a two-page document from Robert E. Lee – found wrapped around a case of cigars – that could have changed the course of the entire war, and led to victory for the Union.
It’s a handwritten copy of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s secret Special Orders No. 191, detailing the Southern commander’s audacious plans for an invasion of enemy territory that would propel the Confederates to victory. Carelessly left behind as Lee’s army marched north, the copy was spotted in a field by the Indianans, and Lee’s name jumped out as Barton Mitchell and John Bloss read it.
Fate change: A handwritten copy of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s secret Special Orders No. 191, detailing the his plans for an invasion of enemy territory that would propel the Confederates to victory; it was carelessly left behind as Lee’s army marched north and was discovered in a field under a locust tree
Bloody battle: The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest 12 hours on American soil, and was the turning point where the Union beat the Confederate Army; here, men gunners lie dead beside their smashed battery in a field alongside the whitewashed Dunker church
Battlefield today: Dave Maher, wearing a uniform like those of Union army soldiers, stands in front of the simple white church building of the pacifist Dunker sect on the Antietam battlefield
Now, on the Sesquicentennial of the famous battle – still referred to as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South – descendants of those who fought and died are remembering the chance carelessness that could have won the war for the North.
When Bloss and Mitchell passed their stunning find up the chain of command, Lee’s counterpart, the famously cautious Union Gen. George McClellan, exclaimed, ‘Now I know what to do!’
Four days later came the cataclysmic clash along the Antietam near Sharpsburg – what James McPherson, the eminent Civil War historian, has called ‘arguably … THE event of the war.’
Over years of study, the Princeton professor and Pulitzer prize-winning author has come to rank Antietam and the finding of the lost orders among the most notable moments when America’s trajectory turned and its very future was reset.
Pondering the ‘one-in-a-million’ opportunity that the Indiana infantrymen seized, McPherson said he understood their family members’ excitement. ‘They can take pride in what they did,’ he said in an interview, ‘but also marvel at the accidental nature of it.’
This is a story about a harrowing battle that let America become the nation it is today, and about the thread of fate on which some say it hung.
A few colonial-style buildings surrounded by well-kept cropland mark the historic Best Farm outside Frederick. A few weeks ago, visitors ignored a misty rain to explore where Lee had set up temporary headquarters after plunging into enemy territory.
A drawn-out war, Lee knew, favoured the better-supplied and more populous North, and so he hoped a thrust directly into the Union, threatening its cities, would cap the South’s latest victories with a demoralizing, decisive blow.
Twist of fate: Soldiers stand next to a lone grave after the fight, which might never have occurred if the copy of Gen. Lee’s invasion orders accidentally fell in a farm field and were discovered by Union infantrymen
Never averse to risk, Lee made a fateful decision while camped at the farm (now part of Monocacy National Battlefield, host of the lost orders exhibit): He would divide his army into four parts. While portions of the Confederate force would move deeper into Maryland, others would capture the federal garrison at Harper’s Ferry (now West Virginia), and then all would reunite to press their advance toward Pennsylvania.
He detailed the bold plan in Special Orders 191 and had copies distributed to commanders. After reading the top-secret order, one recipient sewed his copy into his coat lining, one burned his, and Gen. James Longstreet wadded his up and chewed it like plugs of tobacco.
But, almost incredibly, when the army marched from Frederick to carry out the order, something ‘freakish’ happened, as Sears put it: One copy was somehow dropped. No one has ever conclusively determined how.
Tucked in an envelope, which also contained a few cigars, the two pages fell in a field under a locust tree where soon afterward the Union army, slowly shadowing the invaders, moved in.
The 27th Indiana was part of that army, and Sgt. John Bloss picks up the story in a letter home: ‘Corporal Mitchell was very fortunate at Frederick. He found General Lee’s plan of attack on Maryland and what each division of his army was to do. I was with him when he found it and read it first. I seen its importance and took it to the Col. He immediately took it to General Gordon, he said it was worth a Mint of Money & sent it to General McClellan.’
Barton Mitchell served alongside John Bloss in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and suffered a life-shortening wound at Antietam – one of the 23,000 casualties that made the battle on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in U.S. history.
Thousands gone: Following the battle, dead Confederate soldiers were placed in a ditch; the Civil War battle left 23,000 casualties on the single bloodiest day in U.S. history and mark a crucial pivot point in the war
The doomed Union cause
Americans north and south had endured a year and a half of brutal Civil War.
By September 1862, the weariness and worry of its ups and downs showed in soldiers’ troubled letters home, in newspapers’ jittery overreactions to each development, in the haggard face of Abraham Lincoln.
After a promising spring when Union soldiers and sailors had a series of successes, major reversals in the summer crushed Northern morale.
An offensive by McClellan nearly reached the gates of the Confederate capital of Richmond, but stalled. Lee drove the federals back. When the rebels then thrashed a large Union army at Manassas, Virginia (the second humiliating Northern loss there), despair and panic engulfed Washington, D.C., just 20 miles away.
‘The Union cause is doomed,’ a newspaper warned flatly, and a visitor to the anguished Lincoln reported the president ‘felt ready to hang himself.’
‘This was the low point of the war for him. … Everything was going wrong,’ said Stephen W. Sears, author of the Antietam history, Landscape Turned Red, in an interview with the Associated Press.
Nor were battlefield setbacks and ineffective military leadership the only concerns weighing on the president’s mind.
Lincoln knew that European powers were closely monitoring the war. A naval blockade had cut into trade between the South’s cotton suppliers and the British textile industry, costing many jobs there.
Both London and Paris were openly considering mediation to end the war and recognition of the Confederacy. After Manassas, Britain’s prime minister suggested that another victory or two would prove Southern independence was ‘firmly and permanently established.’
Onward: On the sesquicentennial of the war, reenactments have been common; here, a Union officer, center, leads his troops during a Civil War re-enactment using 8,000 volunteers
Cannon-fire: Civil War re-enactors fire a 12-pound Napoleon cannon in Maryland
At home, with a midterm vote looming, Lincoln faced a restive electorate. If ‘Peace Democrats’ could win the U.S. House, calls would grow louder to let the Confederacy go, to abandon the failed ideal of union. Again, a Union army loss would only add to this chorus.
Straining to be heard, meanwhile, were abolitionists urging Lincoln to fight on – and demanding that the South’s enslaved millions be freed.
They didn’t know that Lincoln had already settled this question in his mind. Back in July, he had drafted a preliminary emancipation proclamation but kept it to himself until he met with cabinet members. Their advice? Don’t issue the proclamation ‘until you can give it to the country supported by military success,’ Secretary of State William Seward said.
So, like European intervention and the election’s outcome, the enormous question of emancipation would wait to be answered – along with the very future of the United States as a nation.
And the answer would only come on a battlefield.
The famously cautious Union general
George McClellan was a fascinating, confounding figure.
His skill in organizing and preparing troops was what made Lincoln elevate him to command, even though the president had long been frustrated by another defining trait of ‘Little Mac’ – his paralyzing deliberateness and tendency to grossly exaggerate the forces he faced.
As a general, he was the temperamental opposite of Lee.
But now, receiving the Confederate commander’s order electrified McClellan.
‘I have all the plans of the rebels,’ he quickly wired Lincoln, ‘and will catch them in their own trap.’
With his larger force, his plan was to strike the widely separated parts of the Southern army, defeating them one by one. Unsympathetic historians, of whom there are many, say McClellan failed to exploit his windfall, again through delay. ‘He lost his chance to divide and conquer,’ Sears said.
(Historian Joseph Harsh, in his Antietam study Taken at the Flood, counters that prudence dictated some of McClellan’s timing.)
In any event, Union forces did pick up their pace, which surprised Lee.
The federals clashed with Confederate units that Lee had sent into rugged passes on South Mountain, which leads to what would become the Antietam battlefield; the Northern forces prevailed, but the Southerners’ resistance bought Lee time – just enough to re-unify his army.
And the two sides dug in for a showdown at Sharpsburg.
Clash of the titans: The secret document of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, right, discovered and handed over to Union General George B. McClellan helped the North win the Civil War
Little Mac: President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan sit in the general’s tent after the Battle of Antietam; days later, Lincoln would begin drafting the Emancipation Proclamation
The bloodiest battle
Dawn along Antietam Creek today only makes the unspoiled countryside more picturesque and welcoming. It’s a scene photographed many times by Dave Maher, a volunteer battlefield guide drawn here for years from his home in Pennsylvania.
‘I’m down here about every weekend,’ he said, sweating in his blue wool Union soldier’s tunic and cradling his long-barrelled rifle after a re-enactment event this summer.
Striding past a battlefield landmark – the little whitewashed church of the Dunkers, ironically a pacifist sect – he paused to conjure the shrieking shells and rebel yells that filled the air when combat commenced nearby at first light on September 17, 1862.
In the midst of the melee and bloodshead, attending endless ranks of hideously wounded men, was Clara Barton, the Union nurse who would found the Red Cross.
One casualty begged for a drink, and she recalled, ‘I stooped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding the cup to his lips with my left, when I felt a sudden twitch of the loose sleeve of my dress (and) the poor fellow sprang from my hands and fell back quivering, in the agonies of death.’
The twitch was a ball that pierced his chest, ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ she said, adding, ‘I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.’
The fighting raged on and on – with McClellan ordering serial assaults and Lee shifting parts of his smaller force to meet each thrust. ‘The sun seemed almost to go backwards,’ one tormented combatant observed, ‘and it appeared as if night would never come.’
Mercifully, the sun did set at last – and yet when it rose on Sept. 18, both sides remained on the field. In this stalemate, everyone expected renewed fighting, but neither side launched a major attack.
Then, during the night of the 18th, Lee’s army pulled back across the nearby Potomac into Virginia.
Unionists hailed the retreat – ‘GREAT VICTORY,’ a headline exulted – even though critics faulted McClellan for not pursuing and finishing off the rebels.
They would fight on for more than two years.
On the attack: An engraving sketch depicts Union troops charging across the Burnside bridge over Antietam Creek in the third and final day of the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg
Meanwhile, around shaken Sharpsburg, barns and churches became hospitals for the legions of wounded, while burial details took up their monumental task. Corpses pitifully strewing the fighting ground became the prime subject for photographers sent by Matthew Brady, who, in a first for war coverage, exhibited the images at his gallery in New York.
THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM, AMERICA’S BLOODIEST 12 HOURS
More than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing after the 12-hour Battle of Antietam, called the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
It took place on September 17, 1862 across rural fields in western Maryland.
Hellish fighting would persist until darkness: at the soon ravaged church and adjacent woods, at a stone bridge over Antietam Creek that became a shooting gallery, in a head-high cornfield where bullets and canister shot flew so thick that one survivor said it looked afterward as if the stalks had been cut to the ground with a knife.
The 12th Massachusetts regiment lost 67 per cent killed and wounded, the 1st Texas Infantry, 82 per cent. ‘Where is your division?’ someone asked Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood. ‘Dead on the field,’ he replied.
A sunken wagon track, contested for three hours and in the end piled deep with bodies in dark blue or butternut uniforms, became known forever as Bloody Lane.
President Abraham Lincoln, speaking two days before the battle, gave the Union his blessing, saying: ‘God bless you, and all with you. Destroy the rebel army if possible.’
‘Before that, people had only seen those heroic portraits of men in battle,’ said Maher, the guide, referring to engravings that illustrated popular journals. But here, ‘people weren’t just seeing a dead body. This was somebody’s brother. And these were contemporaries – it wasn’t 150 years ago then.’
Some worried that Brady’s show might inflame anti-war sentiment, but instead the images of sacrifice seemed to stiffen resolve. ‘People saw how horrific this is and said, `We can’t stop this.’ And that began here at Antietam,’ Maher said.
Those photos were what ‘hooked’ him on the Civil War as a kid and helped fuel his interest in shooting pictures. Among his photos that he has posted online are several from a special battlefield ceremony last year: They show 23,110 luminaries, one candle for each casualty, a ghost city of lights winking across the now peaceful terrain as dusk gathers.
Five days after the guns went silent at Antietam, on September 22, Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
In doing so, he redefined the war – ‘from one to restore the Union into one to destroy the old Union and build a new one purged of human bondage,’ as McPherson, the historian, wrote in ‘Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam.’
The New York Tribune said the decree ‘marks not only an era in the progress of the nation, but an epoch in the history of the world.’
The world soon received the news of the battle’s outcome and its consequences.
In London, where Parliament had been poised to press an end to the American war that would recognize side-by-side nations across the Atlantic, the prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, now demurred: ‘We must continue merely to be onlookers.’
A British newspaper termed the Emancipation Proclamation ‘an act only second in courage and probable results to the Declaration of Independence.’
At home, when the midterm congressional elections were held just weeks later, a sweep by peace Democrats, which some had predicted before the battle, didn’t materialize; Lincoln’s Republicans held both houses of Congress.
If the lost order hadn’t been lost
It’s easy to see inevitability in events as consequential as the Antietam struggle. But many who’ve studied it, from participants to scholars generations later, dwell on the razor’s edge of chance or fate or providence on which this event teetered.
Victory’s significance: Lincoln concluded following the victory of Antietam that God had ‘decided this question in favor of the slaves’
Interestingly, Lincoln told his cabinet during the unsettled days back in July that he’d made a private vow to read the outcome of the next battle, for or against the North, as an indication of divine will on the question of emancipation. God, he concluded, had ‘decided this question in favor of the slaves.’
Maj. Walter Taylor, an aide to Lee, also perceived a divine hand, but in a different place. He called the lost order a turning point and concluded, ‘It looks as if the good Lord had ordained that we should not succeed.’
Looking back, Lee himself said, ‘Had the Lost Dispatch not been lost, and had McClellan continued his cautious policy for two or three days longer, I would have had all my troops concentrated on the Maryland side, stragglers up, men rested and intended then to attack McClellan, hoping the best results from (the) state of my troops and those of the enemy.
‘Tho’ it is impossible to say that victory would have certainly resulted, it is probable that the loss of the dispatch changed the character of the campaign.’
Today, some who promote the notion of American ‘exceptionalism’ point to times when something unexplainable drops into the nation’s affairs, redirecting events away from the brink.
Two writers who produced detailed ‘what if’ scenarios imagining how history might have proceeded if Special Orders 191 had not been lost were asked about that notion.
Red night: Re-enactors portraying Confederate cavalry pass through a cloud of dust at sunset on September 14, during preparation for the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Antietam
At the ready: Re-enactors portraying Union troops prepare for battle
On the march: Re-enactors portraying Union troops march into battle during the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Antietam with heads bowed
Harry Turtledove wrote ‘How Few Remain,’ an alternative-history novel. In it, a rebel rather than a yank happens upon the dropped order, Lee’s army proceeds through Maryland, and there is no battle of Antietam.
A later fight, in a spot of Lee’s choosing in Pennsylvania, brings a victory that establishes a Confederate nation.
In an author’s note, Turtledove says, ‘Had those cigars and that order not been lost … the world would be a different place today.’
And in an email interview, he adds, ‘Bismarck is supposed to have said something like, `God loves small children, drunkards, and the United States of America.’
We are very lucky that the landmass between Canada and Mexico didn’t break apart into two countries …’
By foot or by hoof: Re-enactors portraying Union infantry and cavalry fire riffles as the calvalry canters through the battlefield
Onward march: Re-enactors portraying Union troops participate in the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Antietam at Legacy Manor Farm
Moment of silence: A re-enactor portraying a Union soldier sits at camp during a quiet moment before battle
It was not a novelist but a historian, McPherson, who wrote a chapter titled, ‘If the Lost Order Hadn’t Been Lost,’ for a might-have-been compilation edited by Robert Cowley called ‘What Ifs of American History.’
In McPherson’s scenario, Lee’s order isn’t lost at all: Enhanced security in enemy territory prevents that. Again, Lee brings battle in Pennsylvania – at Gettysburg, but with a Confederate victory this time.
It ends with Lincoln accepting foreign mediation and telling his cabinet in a choked voice: ‘Gentlemen, the United States no longer exists as one nation, indivisible.’
McPherson said in an interview that he’d written the scenario, which he considered plausible, because he’d been invited to but also because the lost order has long fascinated him.
But what about the ‘exceptionalism’ question in this case? Is there something spooky about the almost unimaginable losing and finding of those two pencilled pages?
‘There is something a little spooky about that. And I’ve never known how to put my feelings about that,’ the historian said. ‘My own feeling is that this was a one-in-a-million chance, and there’s no way to know how it fell out that it happened.’
Remembrance: Luminaries are seen across Antietam National Battlefield to commemorate the soldiers who were killed or wounded during the three-day Civil War battle