With McClellan on the Move, Lee Pens Special Orders No. 191

September 9, 1862 (Tuesday)

Harpers Ferry, 1862

Upon arriving in Frederick, Maryland with his Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee was surprised to learn that Harpers Ferry had not been abandoned by its Federal garrison. By all typical military logic, it should have been. And yet, it was held by 14,000 Union troops. Lee wanted to establish a line of communication with Richmond that would avoid Manassas, as it would be too easy for enemy forces to disrupt it. His only other option was using the Shenandoah Valley. But an occupied Harpers Ferry blocked the way.

This was a problem. If he ignored the garrison at Harpers Ferry, there was little chance they’d add much weight to the Union Army of the Potomac’s pursuit, but there was every chance that his daily communication with Richmond, as well as his line of supplies, would be destroyed. Before he moved any farther – upon Hagerstown or into Pennsylvania – the Harpers Ferry problem had to be solved.1

Over the past couple of days, Lee had been discussing this very matter with Generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Lee’s plan was to divide his army in front of an enemy that outnumbered him. This was a risky move, but one that he had made several times before with stunning success.

General D.H. Hill

Jackson was, naturally, for it, while Longstreet met it with disapproval. Rather than dividing the already small army, Longstreet suggested that the entire force fall upon Harpers Ferry and then move on to greater things. Lee liked his own idea better and on this day, committed it to paper.2

And so General Lee wrote his Special Orders, No. 191 – perhaps the most famous order of the entire war – outlining his plan for the campaign.

Lee’s army was to resume its march the following day. They would, as one unit, march towards Hagerstown. While Longstreet’s men continued on to Boonsboro, from Middletown, Jackson would head towards Sharpsburg and the Potomac River, which he would cross to capture the B&O Railroad.

Meanwhile, General Lafayette McLaws would take two divisions to the heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. Another division, under General John Walker, had already left Frederick and would be falling upon Harpers Ferry from the south. With Jackson north of the Union garrison, McLaws to the east, and Walker to the south, there was no doubt that Harpers Ferry would fall.

Map showing the route of the campaign, according to Special Orders 191.

After all of this was accomplished (by Friday, September 12), Jackson, McLaws and Walker were to rejoin the main body of Lee’s army which would, by then, be near Hagerstown.3

This risky plan required Jackson’s forces to march seventy-two miles in three days. His “foot cavalry” had done this before, but also in the mix was the capture of a Union garrison. Though they had a few day’s rest, the Confederate soldiers were still on the brink of exhaustion. Supplies were low, shoes were becoming more and more scarce, and they were all looking the part of vagabonds with each passing day. But both Lee and Jackson had faith that their troops would not let them down.

Formerly attached to Jackson’s wing, Lee’s orders placed General D.H. Hill’s Division under Longstreet and made them the rear guard. After Jackson received his copy of the order, he wanted to let General Hill know what was going on. Jackson took it upon himself to personally write a copy of the orders.

Lee, unbeknown to Jackson, had already made a copy for D.H. Hill. However, it was fortuitous of Jackson to transcribe the orders for Hill as Lee’s copy was never received (according to D.H. Hill, anyway).4

Special Orders No. 191 - apparently in Jackson's handwriting - received by Hill.

While Lee was planning, he learned that McClellan was on the move. “From reports that have reached me,” wrote Lee to Jefferson Davis, “I believe that the enemy are pushing a strong column up the Potomac River by Rockville and Darnestown, and by Poolesville toward Seneca Mills. I hear that the commands of Sumner, Sigel, Burnside, and Hooker are advancing in the direction above mentioned.”5

Lee had heard correctly. Coming up the Potomac River were Generals Franklin and Sigel. At Rockville and Darnestown, was General Franklin. General Couch was near Seneca Mills, while Burnside and Hooker were a bit farther to the east at Cracklintown.

Though McClellan had been foggy over the Confederate whereabouts the previous day, he was certain he now knew where they were: Frederick, Maryland. He was also certain he knew how large they were: 110,000 – over twice their actual number. He was still unsure what they were up to. “They talk of going to Gettysburg and York,” wrote McClellan to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.6

Yet, other sources indicated that the Rebels were headed to Baltimore. McClellan ordered Burnside, his eastern-most commander, to be prepared to fall upon the flank of the advancing column somewhere along the line of the B&O Railroad, probably near Ridgeville.7

“The army is tonight well posted to act in any direction the moment the enemy develops his movements,” wrote McClellan at the end of the day. “I am now in condition to-watch him closely, and he will find it hard to escape me if he commits a blunder.”8

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p604-605. []
  2. “The Invasion of Maryland” by James Longstreet. As appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, The Century Co., 1914. []
  3. Officially Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p603-604. []
  4. Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1988. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 2, p602. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 2, p219-220. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 2, p222-223. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 2, p221. []
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