(Second and final blog post published today about the 1862 Maryland Campaign)
Head Qts Banks Corps
Near Frederick Sept 13/62
I enclose a Special order of Genl. Lee Commanding Rebel forces – which was found on the field where my corps is encamped.
It is a document of interest & is no doubt genuine.
I am General
with much respect
Your obt svt
Brig Genl Cdg
Brigadier General Williams to General McClellan, September 13, 1862
Found In The Field
Seriously, who leaves detailed campaign orders, revealing the movements of an entire army just lying in a field? That’s a grand mystery. Who actually dropped Army of Northern Virginia Special Orders 191?
Here’s what we know for certain: a corporal from the 27th Indiana Regiment found a paper wrapped around some cigars in an open field. Upon closer inspection, that paper looked important. Originally drafted on September 9th, it was a copy of marching orders issued by General Robert E. Lee to his generals, directing them to their objectives and giving the locations of each part of the Confederate army which was going in many different directions in Maryland, the northern edge of Virginia, and northwestern Virginia.
Wisely, the corporal handed the orders to his officer who passed them up the chain of command to Brigadier General Alpheus Williams. Williams wrote the note featured above and sent the Confederate marching orders to General McClellan, who was slowly commanding the Army of Potomac and trying to catch up to the Confederates during the Maryland Campaign.
“Whip Bobby Lee”
General McClellan read the note and the captured orders, supposedly declaring that with that paper he was confident he could “whip Bobby Lee” or else he would go home. (Coming events would add some irony to that statement.)
McClellan held the keys, so to speak. Sure, some details might have changed between the 9th and the 13th, but he knew the Confederate army was divided and separated. If he moved quickly, he might be able to defeat parts of Lee’s army before it could reunite. Unhappily, “quickly” doesn’t seem to be an adverb in McClellan’s vocabulary or skill set. Major attacks on the Confederates were delayed until the 17th, and, by that time, Lee had reassembled the majority of his army.
The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) would have far reaching effects, but it wouldn’t be the decisive “end the war” type of victory that Lincoln and McClellan dreamed of. Still, we wonder – could it have been if the Union army had moved quickly after their commander saw the captured Special Orders 191?
So…which Confederate left the orders in the field? Suspicion and evidence suggestions General D.H. Hill in Jackson’s command, but it’s not completely clear. It’s likely the Confederates didn’t know the set of orders were lost; there seems to have been just one too many copies. However, it happens there doesn’t seem to have been accusations of treachery or negligence.
Want to read a complete transcription of the orders and get out a map to trace the details? Here’s a link to Civil War Trust’s page.