The Lost Order
"How do you think Special Orders 191 fell into Union Hands?"
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From: Paul McDonnell
Date: 29 Jun 2002
Remote Name: 126.96.36.199
This is from a book that I'm presently working on. It doesn't deal directly with the Sharpsburg Campaign, but here's my take on your issue. I'd be interested to here disputants' opinion.
This plan for the seizure of Harper's Ferry was fixed in writing as Special Orders No. 191. It was drafted by Lee's assistant adjutant general, R.H. Chilton, who also transcribed copies of it that were distributed to the various generals charged with putting it into effect. And here is where things get a bit hazy. Included in the list of individuals who were to receive a copy of Special Orders No. 191 from Lee's headquarters was D.H. Hill. Hill's division had been under Jackson's command, but for the purposes of this movement it was detailed Longstreet. Jackson did not know this when he received his copy of the orders however, and so in accordance with the course of proper channels he transcribed it in his own, awful hand and forwarded it to Hill. Now, Hill apparently did receive this copy from Jackson and he preserved it. But as for the other copy--the one from Chilton, himself--it is impossible to say what happened. It may have been, as Hill later claimed, that it never reached his headquarters--or at least never reached anyone authorized to accept it. It may have been--and this is rather more plausible--that a member of his staff who was authorized to accept it did so and, having already gotten Jackson's transcription of the order, believed that this duplicate was a redundancy. If that is true, then that staffer would later have reasons to forget all about the whole thing. But it's impossible to say. What is perfectly clear however is that someone used that copy of Special Orders No. 191 transcribed by Chilton to wrap two cigars for safe keeping; and when the Army of Northern Virginia decamped from around Frederick, those two cigars, stuffed in an envelope and wrapped around that paper which described in detail Lee's division of his force, were inadvertently left behind in a field where the Southerners had pitched their tents, waiting for someone to come along, pick them up, and smoke them....
[several pages later]
Among those units that were arriving [at Urbana and around Frederick, MD] was J.K. Mansfield's 12th Corps. And in the 12th Corps was Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams' 1st Division. And in that 1st Division was the 3rd Brigade, under the command of George Gordon--the same Gordon who'd been one of Banks' brigadiers at Winchester. And in that 3rd Brigade, in its 27th Indiana Regiment, in Co. F of that regiment to be specific, were three soldiers: Sgt. John Bloss, Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell and Pvt. David Vance. The regiment had been advancing in a skirmish line towards Frederick, but at about 10:30 a.m. it halted in order to leave the way clear for the 9th Corps to enter the city. Taking advantage of this respite from their labors, the infantrymen laid down on the grass, under the shade of a clump of trees.
Bloss and Mitchell were talking amongst themselves when the sergeant noticed Pvt. Vance reach out for a long, yellow envelope that was nearby.
"What is that paper laying there in the grass?" Bloss asked Mitchell.
"Gen. D.H. Hill, Commanding...." Vance read.
"Hand it to me.
Vance passed it to Mitchell, who gave it to Bloss. As the corporal handed it over, two cigars dropped out of the envelope. Here was a find.
"I know what this is," Mitchell said, and he eagerly lit one of them up.
As he puffed away, Bloss read what was on the paper in which the cigars had been wrapped: "Special Orders, No. 191, HDQRS. Army of Northern Virginia, September 9, 1862...." Then his eyes struck upon the proper nouns in the body of the paper: Jackson, Longstreet, McLaws. Harper's Ferry. The sergeant gulped.
"Boys," he said finally, "this is an important paper if genuine. I will take it to Capt. Kopp." And he did just that after Mitchell handed over the unsmoked cigar. It was resealed in the envelope along with the orders, which Bloss took efforts to restore to their original condition. One can see him trying to resharpen their creases.
From there the thing went up through channels with amazing speed owing to the pure good fortune of the Federals. Peter Kopp took the orders to the commander of the 27th, Silas Colgrove. As Colgrove received the envelope, Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball of Kernstown fame who happened to be nearby rode up. Kimball was Bloss' uncle by marriage, and he took the copy of the orders and read it. Then without a word he galloped off for division headquarters.
Alpheus Williams wasn't present when Kimball arrived but his acting A.A.G. Samuel Pittman was. Now it so happened that Pittman had been for a while before the war a bank teller at Detroit, Michigan; and it so happened that R.H. Chilton had been a paymaster stationed there during the same period. Given the number of checks bearing Chilton's signature that had shown up at his gate, he necessarily had a familiarity with Chilton's handwriting, and he declared the document to be genuine almost on the instant. He had begun to write a cover letter to headquarters when Gen. Williams arrived. Upon learning what was up, he stopped Pittman, wrote his own cover letter, and then told his A.A.G. to take the documents to McClellan personally. Before noon, less than an hour and a half after their discovery, Chilton's transcription of D.H. Hill's copy of Special Orders No. 191 were in Little Mac's possession. As he read Williams' letter he saw the dawn. "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home," he said to his old friend John Gibbon. "Tomorrow we will pitch into his center, and if you people will only do two good, hard days marching, I will put Lee in a position he will find it hard to get out of."
Unfortunately, I can't translate my endnotes into this form, but they're taken from fairly reliable first-hand sources.
Paul McDonnell email@example.com