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'Lost dispatch' lore lingers

September 15, 2007|By TAMELA BAKER

SHARPSBURG - Every schoolchild in Washington County knows that the Civil War's Battle of Antietam resulted in the single bloodiest day in American history. Neither the terrorist attacks of another September morning nor World War II's D-Day surpassed it.

And many of them know that quirky little tale about the "lost dispatch," found by Union troops, that outlined Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's strategy for his ill-fated Maryland campaign of 1862.

It was this find that precipitated the bloodbath in Sharpsburg - otherwise, the battles at South Mountain and Sharpsburg might never have happened, some say.

At least, not at South Mountain or Sharpsburg.

"It's one of the biggest flukes in American military history," said Ted Alexander, chief historian at Antietam National Battlefield.

Had the dispatch not been found, Lee and Union Gen. George McClellan inevitably would have met at some point, but maybe not in Sharpsburg, local historians say.

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"Instead of the Battle of Sharpsburg along the Antietam, we likely could have had the Battle of Chambersburg along the Conococheague," Alexander said.

Like sleuths poring over clues from a cold-case file, historians continue to debate everything about the dispatch, including who lost Special Order No. 191, who found it, where it was lost - and found - and whether McClellan moved quickly enough to repulse the rebels after the order was found.

"There is an entire subculture that follows the 'lost order' akin to the conspiracy theorists" who speculate about who really fired the shot that killed President Kennedy, Alexander said.

This single piece of intercepted military intelligence has spawned articles, books, a great deal of speculation and a lot of criticism of McClellan, who, by historical accounts, read the dispatch and then declared, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."

One thing that is certain is that McClellan didn't whip Bobby Lee, and six weeks after Antietam, President Lincoln sent him home.

As a matter of fact ...

Historians agree that troops from the 27th Indiana Volunteer Regiment found a copy of Special Order No. 191, possibly wrapped around three cigars, near Frederick, Md., while occupying a site where troops under the command of Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill had encamped three days earlier. Just which of the three soldiers who reported the find actually found it is disputed.

"I think all three of them deserve credit," said historian Dennis Frye, chief of interpretation at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park.

Frye is writing a book about Antietam, with a working title of "Antietam: The Game, Blame and Shame of America's Bloodiest Day." He said a closer look at the events leading up to the battle have convinced him that McClellan also deserves a lot more credit for his handling of the situation than he has received.

The controversy over McClellan's actions stems from the fact that the order, written Sept. 9 and left behind when Lee's troops left Frederick to execute it, was given to McClellan Sept. 13 - and it was another four days before the major battle occurred at Sharpsburg, prompting some historians to conclude that if McClellan had moved faster, he might very well have "whipped Bobby Lee."

But given the terrain and the circumstances that McClellan faced, Frye concluded that's just not reasonable. To reach Lee - who had split his forces and was waiting in Hagerstown for them to regroup - McClellan first had to get over the mountain.

Even before that, he had to make sure the information he had was correct.

"Without question, the orders catapult him into action," Frye said. "I feel absolutely that's what brought him over the mountain. He had troops searching (South Mountain) for Confederates on the 13th."

Taking action without verifying the information "would've potentially been disastrous" had it been a ruse, he added.

"That's a very important point that is often overlooked by McClellan detractors," Frye said. "Very few people have bashed George McClellan harder than myself - but there should be a fair review."

Once the orders were verified, it was too dark to march troops into the mountains. There were no lights, no highways.

Dark and green

"Marching at night during the Civil War was rare," noted Tom Clemens, a history and political science professor at Hagerstown Community College. "A lot of people suffered from night-blindness," owing to a deficiency of vitamin A, he added.

Additionally, 20 percent of McClellan's troops "were green" and couldn't march properly, Alexander said.

That said, some of McClellan's subordinates were slow, the historians agree - notably Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, sent to Harpers Ferry, which some of Lee's divisions had been ordered to capture.

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