Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part one)

TurningPoints-logo(part one of three)

Civil War campaigns could often turn on a dime in favor of one army or the other. A sudden change in initiative marked the turning points of the war that scholars love to toss around the table. Described varyingly as “the all-time military jackpot,” a great intelligence coup handed out “on a silver platter,” and more, the idea that a lost copy of Robert E. Lee’s operational plans in Maryland mysteriously coming into the hands of Federal commander George B. McClellan turned the tide of the campaign—and maybe the war—has been passed down from one historical sage to the next, making the event one of the war’s memorable stories.[1] 

At least, that is the story told with the gift of hindsight lighting our eyes. 

Indeed, the words of previous historians have been taken at face value, passed down as accepted truth, that Lee’s “Lost Order” gave McClellan every bit of information he—or any commander throughout all of history—could have ever hoped to find. Past historians have been quick to point out the importance of the discovery in a field outside Frederick, Maryland, but just as quickly dismiss its significance by passing off McClellan’s failure to capitalize on this stroke of luck.

Covering, and attempting to answer, all of the uncertainties still surrounding the lost copy of Special Orders No. 191 goes beyond the scope of this piece. More than enough ink—well more than what is contained on the Lost Order—has been spilled to attempt to solve all of the uncertainties. Instead, what this will aim to do is strip away the veneer painted over the Lost Orders in the last 155 years, forego the art of repeating historian after historian, and strictly go back to the written record of September 1862 to answer the perplexing question: how much of a turning point was the discovery of the Lost Order?

Early September 1862 produced rumors at epidemic proportions in Washington City and amongst the Federal high command. “Rumors of all kinds, defeats, victories,” jotted one Union soldier into his diary.[2] News of Confederate forces crossing into Maryland a few days into the month drifted downstream, into the city, further enhancing the wild nature of reports. One piece of gossip began floating around on September 7 that Braxton Bragg and his army were marching to reinforce the Confederates in Maryland, though Bragg in reality sat hundreds of miles away with no intent to enter the Old-Line State. However, the rumor could not be suppressed—and the truth discovered—for three whole days.

As the Army of the Potomac began its advance northwest from Washington, it might as well have marched with a blindfold over one eye. Information from multiple sources flooded McClellan’s mind, much of it coming from “unreliable sources & is vague & conflicting.”[3] McClellan’s own superior, Henry Halleck, remained in a state of near mental instability throughout the campaign, though mostly not of his own doing. The situation did not provide any clarity whatsoever for the commander in the field.

Beaten down from the rigors of running the war effort, Halleck snapped by early September 1862. While working in Washington, his wife lay ill in New York. Halleck’s brother in law clung to life, fighting the effects of his battlefield wounds. Four straight nights of no sleep did his mind no favors. As if all of this was not bad enough, a “very severe” case of hemorrhoids plagued the general, making him a bed-ridden general-in-chief likely taking opium to cure the ailment.[4] Halleck’s plagued and fuzzy mind unfortunately brought more confusion into the picture.

For Henry Halleck, Lee’s move into Maryland was nothing more than a ruse, a trick to draw much of the Union army away from Washington, thus draining the city’s defenses. Once Lee felt the Federal forces pursuing him were far enough away from the nation’s capital, he would turn his columns south, recross the Potomac River back into Virginia, and hit the weakened underbelly of Washington.[5] George B. McClellan did not—nor could he—dismiss these claims originally. “It is hard to get accurate news from the front,” he wrote on September 9.[6]

But by September 11, the enemy’s intentions became clearer to him. “At the time this army moved from Washington, it was not known what the intentions of the rebels were in placing their forces on this side of the Potomac,” McClellan wired Halleck. Was the force north of the Potomac meant, as Halleck feared, to weaken Washington’s fortifications in favor of a Confederate attack from the river’s south side? No, McClellan did not believe that anymore. “All the evidence that has been accumulated from various sources since we left Washington goes to prove most conclusively that almost the entire rebel army in Virginia, amounting to not less than 120,000 men, is in the vicinity of Frederick City.”[7]

By September 11, as evidenced by his telegram to Halleck, McClellan had cracked the first code of the Confederate invasion of Maryland. From numerous sources, he culled together the facts that the enemy meant to be—and stay—in Maryland, not move south and hit the nation’s capital. Even by that same night, more information began making its way to army headquarters.

(to be continued)


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 537; Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), 219.

[2] John S. Ellen Journal, September 2, 1862, Western Reserve Historical Society.

[3]George B. McClellan to Andrew G. Curtin, September 8, 1862, 9:00 pm, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (hereafter cited as GBM Papers), ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), 439.

[4] John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 146-48.

[5] Henry Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 13, 1862, 10:45 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 280-81. This belief continued to control Halleck’s views of the campaign even after the Battle of Antietam concluded. See Henry Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 19, 1862, 12:30 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 330.

[6] George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, September 9, 1862, 5:00 pm, GBM Papers, 442.

[7] George B. McClellan to Henry Halleck, September 11, 1862, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 254.

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