Starting today, August 1, Monocacy National Battlefield has on display the original Special Orders 191 that was famously lost by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and then found by members of the 27th Indiana on September 13, 1862, just south of Frederick, Maryland, near the site of the July 1864 battle of Monocacy. I went by for a quick visit this afternoon to see the orders, and it is certainly worth the time. Of particular interest in their display are a few letters and items from the Union soldiers who actually found Lee’s famous orders; Corporal Barton Mitchell and Sergeant John Bloss.
While I am glad that Monocacy has these orders on display, as it will certainly generate more interest in the Maryland Campaign’s 150th anniversary, I hope that their presence will serve to further a better interpretation of the campaign and its events, rather than the tired, standard story of the supposed incompetence of George McClellan.
One of the biggest myths about the Antietam Campaign is that, because of the finding of Lee’s Lost Orders, George McClellan should have easily destroyed Lee’s army within a few hours. As the traditional interpretation of events goes, McClellan lounged around and hesitated for an entire day before advancing on Lee’s army. Being that Lee’s army was not destroyed during the Maryland Campaign, many historians have used the Lost Orders not as a way of understanding how the campaign progressed, but rather, simply as a way of bashing George McClellan as a bad or incompetent general. Generations of armchair generals and Monday morning quarterback historians have criticized McClellan for failing to do more with Lee’s Lost Orders. One might say that the orders did more harm to McClellan's historical reputation than they did good for his army during the campaign. Let’s take a moment to review this and determine if it is correct.
Here is the standard narrative for how Special Orders affected the Maryland Campaign:
September 9: Lee issues Special Orders 191 in Frederick, dividing his army up into 7 pieces. His primary objective is getting rid of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry.
September 13: George McClellan is handed a copy of Lee’s orders, lost south of Frederick, and thus has his opponent’s plans in hand. McClellan boasts about having all of Lee’s plans, is credited with saying “Here is the paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee I will be willing to go home.” He then decides to take a nap for 16 hours, because, well, he is a bad general, and bad generals take naps at really inopportune moments. Upon awakening, he decides, eh, maybe we will attack (he doesn’t really take a nap, but according to many historians, he might as well have; forgive me the comedic license here).
September 14: Despite his hesitant blundering, the Battle of South Mountain is fought. It is a Union victory, but had McClellan not taken that 16 hour nap, oh boy, it would have been a REAL victory. You know, one of those common Civil War battles where an entire army was destroyed in one fell swoop (you can literally count on one hand the number of times that actually happened during the war).
Here is how the Lost Orders actually affected the campaign:
September 9: With his army at Frederick, Lee realized that his strategy for the campaign needed to be altered. He had originally believed that the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry would abandon that post due to the Confederate presence in Maryland. Lee believed that the entire operation can be concluded, and his army reunited, by September 12.
September 12: Reinforced by the Federal garrison from Martinsburg, Harpers Ferry is still holding out. Lee’s army is still divided, and Federal forces from Ambrose Burnside’s right wing of the Federal advance reach Frederick. Lee is completely unaware of how close the Federals are to his still divided army due to the failures of J.E.B. Stuart.
September 13: Several soldiers of the 27th Indiana find a copy of Lee’s Special Orders 191, now known as the Lost Orders. The orders reach George McClellan shortly after noon. By 3 pm, after verifying the legitimacy of the orders, McClellan sends orders to Brigadier General Alfred Pleasanton, commanding the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, asking him to scout Confederate positions to determine if the recovered orders are still accurate and what the positions of Lee’s army are. By 6 pm, McClellan begins issuing orders for an attack the following day. Federal forces camp that night in Middletown Valley, between Catoctin and South Mountains. While McClellan was verifying the Lost Orders and formulating a battle plan, Lee is finally informed of Federal troops in Frederick, giving him a sense of alarm. He begins turning his attention toward Boonsboro and South Mountain, hoping he can stop McClellan from destroying the divided Confederate army.
September 14: Based on orders of the previous evening, the 9th and 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac launch attacks on Turner’s, Fox’s, and Frosttown Gaps on South Mountain. Several miles to the South, William Franklin slowly leads his 6th Corps toward his objective of Crampton’s Gap, which he must carry and then attempt to liberate the trapped forces at Harpers Ferry. That evening, after being defeated on South Mountain, Lee decided to retreat back to Virginia. It was only the news of the Confederate victory at Harpers Ferry which convinced him to continue the campaign, thus setting the stage for the Battle of Antietam.
Thus, rather than simply waiting around, McClellan did what any good commander would do. To use the famous adage of Ronald Reagan, McClellan decided to trust, but verify. Rather than waiting for almost a full day as many historians claim, he only waited 6 hours, spending much of that time verifying the orders and having Pleasanton’s cavalry scout Confederate positions. It is possible that he could have ordered an attack on South Mountain on the night of the 13th, or even pushed his forces closer to the foot of the mountain. However, not knowing the strength of Confederate forces complicated matters for McClellan. The Lost Orders referred to the commands of both D.H. Hill and Longstreet as being at Boonsboro; however, by this time, Longstreet’s command was in Hagerstown, leaving just 8,000 Confederates on South Mountain. Yet, being unaware of Lee’s strength, or of the changes in the positions of Lee’s men, it is reasonable that McClellan would want to wait until he could bring forward enough strength for a concerted attack on what he had reason to believe was two full Confederate commands positioned on the daunting terrain of South Mountain. Anyone familiar with the terrain of Middletown Valley and South Mountain itself would clearly understand the difficulty in launching a hurried assault up the steep and tangled slopes of the mountain, especially in the growing dusk and dark of night, not to mention the possibility of overwhelming Confederate numbers defending the position. Thus, the battle would be fought on the 14th.
Clearly, I think that McClellan made the most of the orders and the information they provided him. It wasn't much, but it was still helpful in setting up the Federal victory at South Mountain. But, don't just take my word for it. How about the words of one of the men directly involved in the whole episode? As I mentioned earlier, one of the nice features of the exhibit at Monocacy is the display of several letters from the men who actually found Lee’s orders. One of them, from Sergeant John Bloss, is particularly interesting in what it has to say about the orders’ importance and what McClellan did with them. This letter has never before been published, and I was provided with a transcript copy of it by the Monocacy National Battlefield staff. Here are a few lines from Sergeant Bloss, written on September 25, 1862, near the battlefield of Antietam, regarding Lee’s Lost Orders:
Corporal Mitchell was very fortunate at Frederick. He found General Lee’s plan of attack on Md 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 [George Gordon, brigade commander], he said it was worth a Mint of Money and sent it to General McClellan. He pushed on the same day and I think his expedition his movements kept enemy from uniting at the point they had intended.
It is clear that Sergeant Bloss believed that the orders were important in McClellan moving quickly on Lee’s army. McClellan issued orders that same day to push forward against Lee’s army, and the following morning, Union forces attacked Confederates on South Mountain. Thus, while generations of historians may believe that McClellan let the opportunity of Lee’s Lost Orders slip by the wayside, Sergeant John Bloss, one of the men who found those orders, clearly did not.
The Lost Orders were indeed important in the campaign. They provided McClellan the necessary spark of information to launch his aggressive assault on South Mountain on the 14th. If it wasn't for the stellar efforts of "Stonewall" Jackson at Harpers Ferry, perhaps we would be remembering the Lost Orders for being the stroke of good luck which helped George McClellan in dispatching the Rebel army from Maryland with the climactic Battle of South Mountain. Simply put, the Lost Orders led to the Battle of South Mountain, while the Confederate victory at Harpers Ferry led to the fight at Antietam just a few days later.
Let’s hope that the display of the Lost Orders at Monocacy helps to remind people of what really happened during the Maryland Campaign of 1862.