Perhaps no other document from the American Civil War has engendered as much speculation or controversy as the infamous Special Order 191, or as it is more generally known, the “Lost Order” or the “Lost Dispatch.” Historians have argued for decades about the circumstances behind its loss and discovery, its impact on the campaign, and its influence upon the entire conflict.
In early September 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia decided to capitalize on its recent series of successes against its northern counterparts and cross the Potomac River to undertake an invasion of the North. Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union forces around Washington, remained in the capital city to rest and reorganize before setting out in pursuit of Lee’s veterans with the Army of the Potomac.
After crossing the river, Lee’s army encamped on September 9 around the town of Frederick, MD, about fifty miles from Washington. It was around this time that Lee became worried about the Harpers Ferry garrison in his rear, a force not large enough to threaten his army in battle but of a substantial enough size (10,000 to 12,000) to interrupt his communications and supply flow through the Shenandoah Valley. He now decided to capture or disperse this force and began to draft the orders that would become Special Order 191. In the meantime, McClellan had begun to move out of the Washington defenses and was about halfway between that place and Frederick.
Lee’s special order called for a division of his forces; Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s command was to re-cross the Potomac and approach Harpers Ferry from the west while Major General Lafayette McLaws’ division was to capture the heights north of town. Brigadier General John G. Walker’s small division was to approach the town from the east on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Major General James Longstreet was to remain with his command and advance towards Hagerstown, MD while Major General D.H. Hill commanded the rear guard of the army at Boonsboro, MD. An order was drafted for each of these commanders and delivered that same day.
As these moves began to go into effect, McClellan approached Frederick with his army. On the morning of September 13, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell noticed a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars lying in the grass near his encampment. After inspecting the dispatch and noticing its importance, he consulted with Sergeant John M. Bloss and the two agreed to take it to their company commander. The dispatch made its way up the chain of command until it reached McClellan, who excitedly proclaimed “Now I know what to do!” In another stroke of good fortune, a staff officer recognized the signature of Lee’s adjutant Robert H. Chilton, whom he had known in the prewar years, and vouched for the legitimacy of the document.
McClellan (whom Lee had relied upon to move at his usual deliberate pace) now began to move uncharacteristically quickly (although some scholars would argue still not quickly enough, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post). Lee’s timetable and long-term plans were seriously disrupted (although it would be some time before he realized McClellan actually possessed a copy of the order) and with his army dangerously divided he was now forced to quickly capture Harpers Ferry, reunite his scattered commands, and fight a superior foe with his back to the Potomac river.
How this piece of paper made its way into a grassy field outside of Frederick, MD – and arguably changed the course of American history – is a mystery that is probably lost forever to time. Many culprits and scenarios have been suggested over the years, ranging from the perfectly logical to the extreme (One theory has even gone so far as to suggest it was purposely planted by one of Lee’s staff as an act of treachery). Initially, D.H. Hill received much of the blame, as the “Lost Order” was addressed to him, but he vehemently denied losing his copy and was able to produce his original, which now rests in the hands of the State Archives of North Carolina and is linked to below. In actuality, Hill never received his “official” copy of the order; that became the so-called “lost order”. The one he did receive was a copy written by Stonewall Jackson and signed by the general himself. During the initial stages of the campaign, Hill’s division was under Jackson’s command but after Order 191 was drafted it became independent. This confusing command structure was rectified a few weeks later as Lee instituted a “corps” system into his army, but as it stood in mid-September 1862, the command arrangement became an indirect cause of the loss of the order.
The copy in possession of the Archives is a fascinating piece of history. Not only is it written and signed by Stonewall Jackson, one of the most famous military leaders in history, it is also a unique insight into the minds of Lee and McClellan. We get to see Lee’s daring plans put into writing as he confidently disperses his army in the face of the enemy. Additionally, we can only begin to imagine what may have been going through George McClellan’s mind as he read the plans of a man who had baffled and frustrated the Northern war effort in the East since his rise to command. All of these elements combine to make this a unique piece of our nation’s history and one we are proud to have in our collection.
To read the order, click the link below: