Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Road to Antietam, August 31, 1862: "I am utterly tired out"

150 years ago today, the Confederate victory at Second Manassas was complete. John Pope’s Army of Virginia was slinking back toward Washington, and it appeared as though the end of the Union might soon be in sight. During the day on the 31st, George McClellan wrote to Henry Halleck that his staff was reporting “our army as badly beaten: our losses very heavy… Some of the corps entirely broken up into stragglers.” It was becoming obvious that the situation was desperate for the Union. Several hours later, at 7:30 pm, McClellan again wrote to Halleck, reporting that as many as 20,000 stragglers littered the roads of Northern Virginia between Manassas and Washington (OR, Vol 12, Part 3, 771-773).

Late on the evening of August 31st, General in Chief sent the following telegraph:
Aug 31, 1862
From Washington, 10:07 pm
To Maj. Genl McClellan
Since receiving your dispatch relating to command I have not been able to answer any note of absolute necessity. I have not seen the order as published but will write to you in the morning. You will retain the command of everything in this vicinity not temporarily to be Pope’s army in the field. I beg of you to assist me in this crisis with your ability and experience. I am utterly tired out.
H. W. Halleck, General in Chief

In the last hours of August, as the Union appeared to be crumbling before the victorious army of Robert E. Lee, Halleck was turning to George B. McClellan to pick up the pieces of defeat and attempt to salvage not only the army, but the country, from the mess. The above telegram is not in the Official Records exchange of dispatches sent back and forth on the 31st, and is found in the McClellan papers (McClellan Papers, LOC, Box A75, Reel 30). 

McClellan’s response, which can be found in the O.R., simultaneously accepted his new role and showed uncertainty over to what that role would be: “I am ready to afford you any assistance in my power, but you will readily perceive how difficult an undefined position, such as I now hold, must be. At what hour in the morning can I see you alone, either at your own house or the office?” (OR, Vol 12, Part 3, 773).

Two days later, as the broken remnants of Federal forces seeped into Washington a few days later, it would be McClellan who greeted them on the outskirts of the city. McClellan had by then met with both Lincoln and Halleck, and had been officially placed in command of the Federal troops in and around Washington, tasked with defending the Capital from the menacing threat of Lee's victorious and triumphant Rebel army, just 30 miles away.

150 years ago today, Federal leaders were trying to understand just how bad the situation truly was. It was becoming readily apparent that Pope’s time in command was over. McClellan, uncertain of what his role was to be going forward, received the above dispatch from Halleck informing him that he was likely to have the command of not only his former army from the Peninsula, but the defeated remnants of John Pope’s force as well. Still, McClellan’s orders were not clear, nor was his understanding of his task facing him, or his understanding of the force he would command. In the days to come, the dire condition of his army, as well as the condition of the nation, would become known to McClellan, Halleck, and many others. Indeed, 150 years ago was a trying time not just for Henry Halleck, as he wrote to McClellan, but for the country as well. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

2nd Manassas 150th, Aug 28-30, 1862

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the final and climactic day of the Battle of Second Manassas. Yesterday, I had the fortune of traveling to the Manassas battlefield to do some hiking and take in a few ranger programs. My day consisted of spending a few hours on the trails around the Brawner Farm and in the famed Unfinished Railroad Cut. I went on a couple Ranger programs, and I must say that Ranger Hank Elliott's battle walk of the action in the late afternoon and early evening of the 29th, covering the Confederate brigade of Maxcy Gregg and the Union division of Phil Kearney, was an outstanding program. Very well done.

In many ways, Second Manassas was the battle which set the stage for the fight at Antietam just a few weeks later. The terrible defeat of John Pope and the Army of Virginia gave enormous strength and momentum to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederate victory at Second Manassas emboldened Lee to move north into Maryland, creating a moment of opportunity for the Confederacy and a moment of crisis for the Union. The fighting in Maryland would feature many of the same troops from Second Manassas. Nearly all of Lee's army was the same, and out of the amalgamation of forces which McClellan took into Maryland, over 50% of the divisinos in his army were present at Second Manassas or were involved in the campaign. It always amazes me to think that, for example, some of the Union soldiers moving south in the Cornfield at Antietam were the same troops who were hit by Stonewall Jackson at Brawner's Farm on the evening of August 28th, on the eve of Second Manassas, in what could be called the first day of the battle there. Barely two and a half weeks separated these two climactic battles. In fact, that makes the Union victory at Antietam all the more remarkable, considering the terrible defeat many of those soldiers had suffered just two and a half weeks prior, as 1st Corps artillery officer Charles Wainwright pointed out.

Anyways, my goal here isn't to provide a full history of the battle. You can certainly find far more qualified historians for that than myself. I am not nearly as familiar with the action at Second Manassas as I am with the Maryland Campaign. Today, I simply wanted to post to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the final day of the terrible fight at Manassas. Overall, there were over 22,000 casualties during that several day fight. 150 years ago today, John Pope would continue to slam into Jackson's lines along the Unfinished Railroad Cut, and late in the day, James Longstreet would launch his destructive assault into the Federal flank, sweeping across Chinn Ridge and driving the Federals from the plains of Manassas for the second time in two years.

Gun on Battery Heights, signifying the location of Battery B, 4th US Artillery

5th New York monument

Small US flag at the 5th New York monument

Federal artillery position

Small US flag next to the 14th Brooklyn monument

14th Brooklyn monument

The fields near the Deep Cut in the Unfinished Railroad at Manassas

The fields near the Deep Cut in the Unfinished Railroad at Manassas

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on Antietam

I recently had a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tag along on one of my ranger tours at Antietam. The reporter was very courteous, and he wrote up a story on Antietam and his visit for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which can be found in the paper's travel section this morning (August 26th). Below is a link for the online version of the story. As you will see, I am quoted quite a bit througought the article. For those of you who follow this blog, you will also see that the reporter makes note of my family connection to the battle through the death of my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, 106th Pennsylvania.

This is just one example of the increased attention Antietam has been, and will be, receiving as the 150th anniversary of the battle quickly approaches. Every day now at the Visitor Center, the majority of the phone calls and questions are turning to the 150th and the Sesquicentennial events. It is truly a wonderful time to be a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Road to Antietam, August 22, 1862: Abraham Lincoln's Response to Horace Greeley

Quite often, when someone is trying to make the case that Lincoln really didn't care about slavery, he or she will invariably rely upon one letter more than any other: the letter which Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune on August 22, 1862, 150 years ago today.

Just a few days prior to this, newspaper editor Horace Greeley published an open letter to the president, titled, "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," telling Lincoln that his policies were failing.Greeley believed that the war needed to be elevated to a fight against slavery itself. In essence, Horace Greeley was calling out the President of the United States for what he believed was a failure to use the powers of his office to strike a blow against slavery, the root cause of the war. In Greeley's eyes, this was tantamount to the war being fought in vain:

"On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile--that the rebellion, if rushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor..."

On August 22, Lincoln responded to Greeley:

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.
I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New--York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable [sic] in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft--expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

A. Lincoln.

For many, this letter serves as a definitive statement concerning Lincoln's views on slavery. According to this, Lincoln apparently cared nothing for abolition or the plight of slaves; he was only interested in preserving the Union. But, if one looks deeper, Lincoln is actually saying something entirely different. Let us not forget that Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States, a political office with an oath to uphold the Constitution. Lincoln's sworn oath was to preserve the Union, not to act against slavery; accordingly, in this letter, he states that his goal is to pursue his official goal of preserving the country. Lincoln never took an oath to destroy slavery; he did, however, take an oath to preserve the constitution, which meant that keeping the country together was his primary goal.

However, when Lincoln wrote that he would free slaves or let slavery be to save the Union, he was writing having announced to his cabinet exactly one month prior that he would indeed issue an Emancipation Proclamation. At the time this letter was written, Lincoln was waiting for the right moment to issue the document. Essentially, he had already decided that freeing the slaves was the best way to save the Union and preserve freedom, he was just not yet ready to declare it. 

One must simply put this letter into its historical context to dismiss the argument that Lincoln was declaring his indifference toward slavery. Lincoln was writing as a politician. He could not respond to Greeley by telling of his intentions to issue an Emancipation Proclamation because he was still waiting for the requisite victory to issue the document. Thus, as a politician and statesman, Lincoln was making a balanced statement on the war and slavery, not wanting to prematurely declare Emancipation before he had his desired victory, a victory that would come along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862.

One more thing is worth noting: for those who still insist on using this letter to argue Lincoln cared nothing for slaves or slavery, one must look at the closing line. Once again, Lincoln's official oath was not to get rid of slavery, but to preserve the Union. However, his personal desire to see slavery come to an end was still unchanged, as he declared to Greeley. Thus, when it was possible for Lincoln to use his leadership to pursue both his official goal of preserving the Union and his personal goal of striking at slavery, he would do so, forever changing the war and the country.

It was the Union victory at Antietam that gave Lincoln the strength necessary to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, removing the dichotomy between personal wishes and official duties. Following Antietam, Lincoln would lead the country forward toward a "new birth of freedom." His letter to Horace Greeley, written 150 years ago today, was but one more step on the road toward Antietam and the road to freedom for millions.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin

"Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered."
-C.S. Lewis

I wanted to begin my review of the latest Antietam book to hit the market with this quote for two reasons.

1. I love C.S. Lewis, and have a general rule of using his writing as much as possible.
2. While referring to philosophy, I think the principle of the quote applies to history as well. Good history must be written, if for no other reason, because bad history needs to be answered.

Which leads me to The Long Road to Antietam by Richard Slotkin, the latest in a long string of popular histories written to tell the tale of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862. The story of the campaign is, after all, one of the most important in American history. At the start of September, Vegas surely would have been giving good odds for Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy to win their independence, and soon. Federal forces in Washington were in disarray, Lee's army was riding a high tide of momentum, and it appeared as though Abraham Lincoln may never have the chance to issue the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that had set in his desk since July. Yet, incredibly enough, just two and a half weeks later, Lee's army was limping back into Virginia, Federal forces had saved Washington, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the North had new life, and Lincoln was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Surely, the Union general who led the Union Army of the Potomac has been heralded by authors like Richard Slotkin out of thanks to his contributions in saving the country....

This, however, is not the story Richard Slotkin tells in his latest work. This book is an attempt to tell the story of "how the Civil War became a revolution," as the subtitle reads. Antietam is a vital part of the story of freedom in this country. It was the battle that transformed the Civil War from being a fight to restore the Union to a revolution that would destroy slavery and establish a new standard of freedom for all Americans. In many ways, Antietam was a battle for the future of freedom in America. That is the story this book sets out to tell.

Granted, this work does have its strong suits. The prose is highly readable and enjoyable, and its emphasis on trying to combine political and military history is one which is sorely needed in the field of Civil War scholarship. However, after reviewing the work, I can't really say that this work does much to benefit our understanding of the Antietam Campaign and George McClellan.

First off, the narrative is filled with numerous errors when discussing the history of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign. One of the most glaring errors that I found (on page 239) was Slotkin writing that the Roulette farmstead that was burned during the Battle of Antietam. The William Roulette farmstead was not burned during the battle. The Mumma farmstead was. Perhaps even the casual visitor who has taken the Antietam driving tour would be able to point this out, being that the Mumma farm is one of the 11 stops on the park driving tour, and interpretive markers discuss what happened to the farm. Certainly, the Roulette farm is near the Mumma farm, but mistakes like this simply should not make their way into print. The burning of the Mumma farm was an important landmark on the battlefield, and affected both troop movements and the lives of the Mumma family alike.

Another error, this one repeated throughout the work, is Slotkin's assertion that Lee's army was organized into a corps structure during the Maryland Campaign. This is not true. In Maryland, Lee used a two wing structure for parts of the campaign: one wing was ostensibly commanded by “Stonewall” Jackson, and the other by James Longstreet. During the division of his army under Special Orders 191, these two wings were divided up to accomplish Lee’s objective. Slotkin argues that the Confederate corps structure increased the organizational cohesion of the Confederate force; that was not the case. During the Battle of Antietam, units that were supposedly in Longstreet’s “wing” were fighting under Jackson, and Jackson's men fighting under Longstreet. Furthermore, it is not until a few days after the battle, once Lee was back in Virginia, that his army adopted a corps command structure. 
Other errors that can be easily found include the claim that Union generals Fitz-John Porter and William Franklin were actually arrested following their conduct at Second Manassas (they had charges leveled against them, but neither was actually arrested). Slotkin also suggests that George Meade was given the Pennsylvania Reserve Division in the First Corps at the start of the campaign to improve its function as a fighting unit. This is untrue; Meade took command of the division just a few days before the battle when its prior commander, John Reynolds, was sent to Pennsylvania to take command of the state militia. Slotkin also rather strangely refers to the East Woods and the West Woods as the East and West “Wood”. I could keep going for quite awhile, but you are starting to get the picture.

Despite these inaccuracies, my primary problem with Richard Slotkin’s newest book is the treatment of George B. McClellan.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a McClellan “apologist”. I am a Civil War historian who focuses on the Antietam Campaign, and one who thinks that discussing McClellan based on facts, evidence, and rational inquiry provides a more balanced view of the general, highlighting both his good and bad actions as a commander.

Now, back to the review.

Slotkin uses The Long Road to Antietam to describe George McClellan as arrogant, narcissistic, neurotic, devious, timid, incompetent, and altogether, one really bad dude.

Basically, he is Scar from the Lion King.

Each one is an evil character, intent on seizing power from the good guys (either Lincoln or Mufassa) and using it for their own nefarious schemes. Also, each one has facial hair, so, there is that too.

Scar from "The Lion King"

George Brinton McClellan


See the similarities, right?

Students of the Maryland Campaign are no doubt familiar with Stephen Sears, author of Landscape Turned Red, the most widely read book on the Battle of Antietam. Sears is well known as being very critical of George McClellan. Yet, despite Sears's harsh judgments on McClellan, even he believes it is beyond the pale to question the motives and sincerity of the general. As Sears wrote in an essay collection on the Army of the Potomac:

 "Whether at headquarters or on the battlefield or in the political arena, in defeat and disappointment, George McCelllan never wavered in his determination to put down the rebellion. Historians will no doubt continue to debate his exact contribution to that cause, but they have no cause to deny the sincerity of his efforts." (Sears, "Little Mac and the Historians" in Controversies and Commanders, 24).

In The Long Road to Antietam, Richard Slotkin suggests throughout the book that George McClellan was a general more concerned with his political reputation and future than victory on the battlefield, coming close to, if not crossing the line of, accusing the Union general of treason numerous times.

Repeatedly, Slotkin argues that McClellan cared far more about his reputation in Washington than about the rebel army in Maryland. In fact, he suggests that the only reason McClellan wanted to achieve a victory in the Maryland Campaign was to stick it to Stanton and Halleck and to possibly rise to become the leading figure in the war effort once again. He singles McClellan out as arrogant and nefarious, leaving the reader with an impression of McClellan as a commander more interested in political intrigue than in affairs on the battlefield. In one of the harshest and most peculiar knocks against McClellan, Slotkin argues that the Union commander issued no written orders at Antietam to protect his reputation should the battle go poorly:

McClellan not only limited the forces he entrusted to his assault commanders, he did not fully inform them of the tactical plan for the battle they were about to fight. His refusal may have reflected, and been intended to conceal, his indecision about where and how to strike his heaviest blows. It is also possible that he refused to discuss his plans with his subordinates, and declined to issue written orders, so that no one—neither his colleagues nor his rivals—would know whether his plans had been well—or ill—conceived. His defensive position had to be impregnable on both fronts. (247)

Slotkin is arguing that McClellan did not issue written orders either because he was indecisive (with no proof or explanation as to why) or to protect himself from politicians in Washington (ie. Should the army lose, his orders would not be used against him, with Washington being the second front referred to). This theory goes beyond the normal complaints about McClellan being “slow” or “incompetent,” and ventures into the realm of accusing the general of paranoia, and treachery. To suggest that McClellan would put his soldiers’ lives at risk by knowingly holding back written orders simply to protect himself politically, and to do so without any supporting evidence is an egregious claim that does an enormous injustice to our understanding of both George McClellan and the Battle of Antietam. Slotkin is no doubt not the first to make such accusations, but they are still misguided and incorrect.

Rather than Slotkin's arguments about McClellan's tactical decisions being motivated by political intrigue, let's have a look at the explanation for the lack of written orders put forward by historian Ethan Rafuse in what I consider to be the best book published about George McClellan at Antietam.

McClellan has been criticized for not issuing written orders or providing explicit verbal guidance to his subordinates laying out his intentions prior to the battle. This was a consequence of McClellan’s desire—a commendable one given the unknowns he faced—to maintain flexibility as the fighting developed and avoid committing himself to a course of action that circumstances might prove unwise. (Ethan Rafuse, McClellan's War, 310)

Rafuse’s explanation of why McClellan did not issue written orders does not rely on an interpretation of McClellan as a psychotic general worried about his reputation in Washington over his troops in the field. Instead, it takes McClellan for who he was; a highly intelligent, competent, motivated, and loyal commander who realized that he was facing a fierce opponent in Robert E. Lee, and that the future of the country was in the balance at the Battle of Antietam. Thus, McClellan wanted to ensure that he would not be cornered into a plan which would become obsolete the moment the guns began firing. 

Another major strain of Slotkin's critique of McClellan is that he believed that he, and ONLY HE, had the key to winning the war. This point brings up a few important questions.

Did Robert E. Lee drive Confederate strategy because he believed he knew what was best and how to win the war? Yes, and at a great and detrimental cost to the Confederacy. Lee's intense focus on the East, and on launching two aggressive invasions, cost his army crucial manpower and deprived the Confederate forces in the West of valuable resources and attention that contributed to the loss of the most important strategic points in the entire Confederacy.

Did Sherman believe that his "hard war" on Southerners was the only way to win the Civil War? Yes. He wrote voluminously to that effect. Did Grant believe that his strategy of driving toward Richmond in 1864 was the only way to defeat the Confederacy? Yes, and he pushed forward regardless of the chorus of cries in the North that he was a butcher wasting the flower of American youth on the fields of Virginia in a futile attempt to win the war.

The difference between McClellan and these generals is that he strongly disagreed with his superior in trying to carry out his strategy. Slotkin's argument that McClellan's belief that he alone knew how to win the war is misguided, as that was true for many officers. McClellan's difference is that he did not agree, or get along with, his Commander in Chief, where the other aforementioned generals did.

Historians must understand the disagreement between McClellan and Lincoln for what it was. Slotkin suggests that McClellan went so far as to foster a treasonous atmosphere in his headquarters, yet this was far from the truth. McClellan was true to the Union, and wanted to serve his country. He had political disagreements with Lincoln. He disliked Lincoln's strategy. He disliked Emancipation. As a result, he did not actively pursue Lincoln's goals for the war, which led to his removal from command in November of 1862. While McClellan's disagreements with Lincoln were not appropriate and he certainly deserved to be fired, there was nothing treacherous about this.

For those interested in a new and refreshing book on the Battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln, and George McClellan, The Long Road to Antietam is yet more of the same old McClellan bashing. It is a scathing indictment of George McClellan as a general, using errors and myths as evidence. Looks like the Merry-Go-Round of debate and controversy over George McClellan is still spinning away.

All things considered, you might be better off simply watching the Lion King.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Special Orders 191 at Monocacy: Their Meaning for the Maryland Campaign

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.