Book Review: Calamity at Frederick: Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam

Calamity at Frederick:  Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam. By Alexander B. Rossino. California: Savas-Beatie, 2023. Softcover, 155 pp. $18.95.

Reviewed by Donald Pfanz

Carelessness sometimes has dire consequences. Such was the case with the famous “Lost Order” of Antietam, which changed the course of Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign and with it, perhaps, the outcome of the Civil War. Lee drafted Special Orders No. 191 on September 9, 1862, shortly after crossing the Potomac River. Learning that Union troops continued to occupy Harpers Ferry, thus endangering his line of communication through the Shenandoah Valley, he made the bold decision to divide his army, detaching Stonewall Jackson with 30,000 men to capture the post. Once that was accomplished, Lee would reunite his army west of South Mountain and lure Union commander George B. McClellan to attack him on ground of his own choosing.

Inflicting a decisive defeat on McClellan’s army so far from its base of supply, Lee hoped, would induce secessionists in Maryland to rise in revolt against the United States government, force the Lincoln Administration to abandon Washington, and encourage Britain and France to intervene in the conflict. The plan dissolved when Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Infantry found a copy of Lee’s orders lying in a field outside of Frederick, Maryland, and passed them along to his superiors.  Once he realized that Lee had dangerously divided his army, McClellan pressed forward with unaccustomed vigor, seizing the gaps through South Mountain and forcing Lee into battle along Antietam Creek.

Responsibility for losing Special Orders No. 191 is usually attributed to General D. H. Hill, whose name appears on the orders; however, in his book Calamity at Frederick, Dr. Alexander Rossino reexamines the evidence and comes to a different—and surprising—conclusion. He begins by discussing why Lee invaded Maryland, provides the background for the Lost Order, and discusses its creation and distribution before going on to examine where it was found and who most likely lost it. Such details may be of little interest to casual students of the campaign, but they will intrigue those well versed in the subject.

After reviewing the evidence, Rossino makes a compelling argument that it was not D. H. Hill who lost the orders, but rather Lee’s cavalry chief, Jeb Stuart, who had camped near the site where the orders were later found and who, Rossino theorizes, accidentally dropped them on September 12th while riding out to examine his picket line along the Monocacy River. “The scenario outlined above does not prove that Jeb Stuart lost the errant copy of Special Orders No. 191,” he admits. “It does, however, provide an informed hypothesis based upon the facts:  that Stuart had the means to have procured Hill’s copy of the orders, had a reason to be carrying a copy of the orders, and had situated his Frederick headquarters close to the spot where Corp. Mitchell found the dropped document.”  The location is of key importance to unlocking the mystery. As Rossino points out, “Jeb Stuart is the only senior commander whose movements in the day immediately before September 13 fit the location where the orders were discovered.” (94)

Surprisingly, Rossino downplays the impact the Lost Orders had on the campaign, arguing that McClellan was already moving vigorously to meet Lee at the time Mitchell discovered the orders. But would McClellan have attacked the passes at South Mountain so boldly and so quickly had he not known that Lee had dispersed his army? Certainly, Lee did not think so. He later called the loss of the order a “great calamity” and claimed that “had the Lost dispatch not been lost, and had McClellan continued his cautious policy for two or three days longer, I would have had all my troops reconcentrated on [the] Md. Side, stragglers up, [and] men rested.”  (115) Under those circumstances, who can doubt that Lee might have won the victory he sought?

Whether or not one agrees with Dr. Rossino, one cannot help but admire the scholarship and logic that led him to his conclusions. Calamity at Frederick is historical detective work at its best.


Donald C. Pfanz is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. In his thirty-two-year career with the National Park Service, he worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, and Fort Sumter National Monument. He is a founding member of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the American Battlefield Trust) and has written and edited numerous books about the Civil War, including Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life; Where Valor Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866-1933; Clara Barton’s Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital; and War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

5 Responses to Book Review: Calamity at Frederick: Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam

  1. If I’m not mistaken, Lee had further subdivided his Army after the issuance of the “Lost Order”, making his position even more perilous. Of course, subsequently rolling the dice at Antietam Creek with A.P. Hill still absent was what REALLY put the AONV in supreme peril.

  2. What happened with Special Order 191 has always been quite obvious: Lee’s aide Chilton initially made seven copies of the orders; they went to Jackson, Longstreet, Walker, Stuart, McLaws, Taylor, and a file copy for Jefferson Davis. D. H. Hill commanded a Division in Jackson’s 2nd Corps, and Jackson made a copy of the orders and gave them to Hill. However, because 191 defined Hill as an independent commander during the Maryland Campaign, Chilton made an eighth copy and addressed it to Hill. With such orders, all commanders that receive them are obligated to return them to the Commanding General following a campaign. All commanders, including Hill, returned their copies to Robert Lee. The copy Hill returned, with his name on it, was the one he received from Jackson. The copy found by the Federals also had Hill’s name on it; this was the copy produced by Chilton, which Hill never received. Why? Think about it: the courier from Chilton entered Hill’s camp and gave the orders to Hill’s chief of staff, who signed for them. Had the courier not returned, or returned without a receipt, it would be clear he lost the orders. But he didn’t – he delivered them and returned with a signed receipt.

    Hill’s Chief of Staff, upon reading the orders and knowing his chief had already received a copy, probably reckoned this copy was superfluous and didn’t bother passing them on to Hill. Instead, he probably wrapped the paper around three of his cigars – good way to keep them fresh – and put them in the inside breast pocket of his coat – where men kept their cigars – and, upon taking off/putting on his coat at some point in camp, the package fell out unnoticed. The man probably realized a day or two later that he’d lost his cigars, cursed, and forgot all about the matter.

    There was no reason for Jeb Stuart to have D. H. Hill’s orders in his pocket. Just because he was near Hill’s camp doesn’t mean he had the orders – and there was no reason for them to be in his possession. Don’t forget, as well – Jeb Stuart neither drank nor smoked. So why would he wrap someone else’s cigars in someone else’s orders…and then lose them? Hill’s Chief of Staff lost them.

  3. My thanks, Mr. Pfanz, for the review, but if I downplay the impact that the orders’ loss and discovery had on the campaign, then why did I devote an entire chapter to discussing that issue? I find in that review of the evidence that not only did McClellan’s use of the information unravel Lee’s plans, it also gave McClellan a chance to fight at a more advantageous location against a greatly weakened Confederate enemy.

    As for Mr. Schafer’s comments, he clearly has not read the book. For one thing, the evidence suggests that Robert Chilton had nothing to do with the copying and distribution of the orders. The orders are not written in Chilton’s handwriting, nor are they signed by Chilton. A long investigation of these subjects led me to conclude that the writer of the orders was probably Armistead Long, Lee’s military secretary. Savas Beatie is preparing a research supplement to Calamity at Frederick which provides my handwriting analysis evidence.

    Second, there is no evidence any commander “returned” the orders to Lee or his headquarters staff. If there is, then I never found it and would be grateful to Mr. Schafer for pointing it out to me. In fact, Longstreet wrote after the campaign that he chewed up his copy. How does that fit into the “they returned the copies” thesis?

    Third, there is no evidence of an HQ courier being sent to D. H. Hill. To claim one was is an assumption. Hill claimed for the remaining years of his life that he never received the HQ copy. Obviously, he had reason to argue that, but he also provided the copy from Jackson that he had received, so the evidence weighs in favor of him telling the truth.

    Fourth, the available evidence puts Hill’s encampment 4 miles south of Frederick at the mouth of Ballenger’s Creek. I could find no evidence of ANY Confederate unit camping on the southeast side of Frederick, much less D. H. Hill’s entire division, during the period from Sept. 6 to 10.

    Fifth, there is no evidence for the involvement of any of D. H Hill’s staff in the event. If Mr. Schafer has sources to back up his claims, I invite him to share them.

    Sixth, there was indeed a reason for Stuart to be carrying the orders – his command played an important role in the campaign. Stuart also mentioned possessing the orders specifically in his Feb 1864 campaign report. Stuart’s command fell back to Frederick on Sept. 11 and camped overnight within only yards of where the orders were found. This places him and a copy of the orders near the location where Barton Mitchell discovered them. For an explanation why I think he may have been carrying a copy addressed to Hill, please read the book.

    Seventh, Heros von Borcke wrote specifically in his war memoir that he and Stuart enjoyed cigars with the owner of the property on which they camped in Urbana. It is perfectly plausible to suggest that Stuart could have been given two cigars by that man as a parting gift. Stuart then wrapped them in the orders and later lost them. Perhaps he had intended to give the cigars to a comrade. This is unknown.

    1. I wish to discuss your work on another topic, but I don’t want to disrupt the focus on this post (not least of which is because this book on the Battle of Antietam looks superb).

      Is there another space which I can discuss the forcible impressment of Black Americans into slavery by the American armed forces with you?

      Thank you.

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