September 13, 1862 (Saturday)
Three columns of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern were surrounding the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, while another occupied Hagerstown, Maryland. Meanwhile, the Union Army of the Potomac, under George McClellan, was just entering Frederick, roughly twenty-five miles away from both.
General McClellan had no real idea where Lee was or what he was doing. The previous day, he was certain that the entire Rebel army was in retreat. Dawn brought him no further clarity.
Dawn did, however, bring a new camp for the XII Corps of the Union Army. They occupied a meadow just south of Frederick – the same meadow used by General D.H. Hill’s Division while the Confederate army held the town. Two soldiers, Sgt. John Bloss and Corp. Barton Mitchell from the 27th Indiana Regiment were exploring the site of the former Rebel camp when Mitchell spied a strange package on the ground near where their regiment had stacked arms.
He picked it up and was absolutely delighted to find three fine cigars wrapped in a couple of sheets of paper. Before they could smoke their lucky find however, one of them glanced at the papers enveloping their newly-discovered fortune. On first glance, it looked official.
This was a recent document, dated September 9. “Special Order No. 191” was clearly written at the top. The second page revealed that it was addressed to General D.H. Hill. A quick skimming provided the duo with all they needed to know, and they quickly rewrapped the bundle, sacrificing the fine tobacco, and trod to Col. Silas Colgrove, their commander. Colgrove, with equal haste, rushed it to General Alphius Williams, the corps commander.
General Williams and his aide, Col. Samuel Pittman, looked over the orders. Pittman saw that Lee’s adjutant, R.H. Chilton, endorsed the document. Pittman had served with Chilton in the old Army and believed he recognized the signature. This was, they concluded, authentic. Less than an hour later, they, along with Lee’s Special Order 191, found their way to General McClellan’s headquarters.1
Before McClellan was a telegram from President Lincoln, asking simply: “How does it look now?” McClellan had not a clue how to answer that one. It all looked the same as it did the previous day. But when an aide placed the bundle of cigars upon his desk, with a note from General Williams, once more the sun began to shine upon the Young Napoleon.
“Now I know what to do!” he shouted, obviously not used to such a thing.2 Without revealing the specifics, McClellan shot back an answer to Lincoln:
“I have the whole rebel force in front of me, but am confident, and no time shall be lost. I have a difficult task to perform, but with God’s blessing will accomplish it. I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. The army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged.”
In closing, McClellan promised Lincoln, “Will send you trophies.” 3
But then he did very little. McClellan certainly believed that Special Orders No. 191 was authentic and that he could use it to defeat Lee. General Jacob Cox’s Division (of the IX Corps) was already in motion towards South Mountain when McClellan received the gift. Also, General William Franklin’s entire VI Corps was within a day’s march of Harpers Ferry, from where the sounds of battle could be heard.
He dispatched some cavalry under General Alfred Pleasonton to see “if this order of march has thus far been followed by the enemy,” but also urged them to approach the mountain passes “with great caution.”4 Only some minor skirmishing occurred as Pleasonton followed orders.
McClellan gave no orders pushing anyone closer to the enemy until nightfall. Under these circumstances, he told General John Gibbon that night, he didn’t want to over-extend his men. When he did issue them, his army wasn’t to move until dawn of the following day.5
Meanwhile, the Union troops at Harpers Ferry, commanded by Col. Dixon Miles, were surrounded. Miles decided to defend the town itself rather than the heights surrounding it. Before the fighting ended, he had lost what little hope he had left. It had become a siege and, if left unsupported, he would have to surrender.
That night, he called his officers together to discuss getting a message to General McClellan. Captain Charles Russel of the 1st Maryland Cavalry volunteered to take nine men on a search for anyone who had even heard of the Union army. Miles directed him to head towards Frederick, and to report that they could hold out for forty-eight hours, no longer.
Through the night, Russel and his men rode, dodging Rebel pickets and using backroads through Shepherdstown and Antietam. Before dawn, he crested South Mountain, found General Reno of the XI Corps, and knew that he was safe. But could the Harpers Ferry garrison be saved in time?6
- “The Finding of Lee’s Lost Order” by Silas Colgrove, as appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2, Century Co. 1914. [↩]
- Lee’s Lieutenants Vol. 2 by Douglas Southall Freeman, Simon & Shuster, 1997. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p281. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p829. [↩]
- Personal Recollections of the Civil War by John Gibbon, 1928. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 1, p720-721. [↩]