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Special Orders 191 remain one of the war's best stories

September 14, 2012

It’s always easy to overestimate the significance of any particular event as a “turning point” in history. In 1940, the Chicago Bears defeated Washington 73-0, but early on, with the score only 7-0, Redskins receiver Charlie Malone dropped a gimme touchdown pass from Sammy Baugh. Baugh was asked if this was a turning point that would have changed the course of the game.

Absolutely, Baugh said. If Malone had made the catch “the score would have been 73-7.”

So historians are naturally careful in discussing the significance of Special Orders 191, which gave away Robert E. Lee’s strategy on the eve of Antietam. Confederates let a copy of the plans fall into the Federals’ hands 150 years ago this past Thursday.

This lucky break might or might not have changed history. But either way, Special Orders 191 remains one of the most compelling stories of the war, in a war filled with compelling stories.

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Monocacy National Battlefield Ranger Tracy Evans has been living the story for better than two years, when she inherited the project from a departing colleague.

Monocacy’s central claim to fame has nothing to do with 191 — that happened two years later when Union soldiers fended off a Confederate offensive toward Washington. But it was in a farm field within sight of the Monocacy visitor center where Cpl. Barton Mitchell found the penciled plans in an envelope (not wrapped in cigars, as popularly believed). It was an event, Evans said, that Monocacy could not ignore.

So she immersed herself in all things 191, and was successful in convincing a reluctant Library of Congress to loan the orders to Monocacy, where they will remain on display through the end of October.

She also was the liaison between the Park Service and descendants of the soldiers who played a role in the 150-year-old drama; the descendants recently met in Frederick for a ceremony unveiling the document.

The connection was cemented when a descendant of Mitchell’s superior, Sgt. John Bloss, dropped by the visitor center and casually mentioned that he had an old letter written by the officer that mentioned the lost orders — historical gold that was grounds for considerable excitement.

Lee’s orders in early September 1862 were designed to address a significant but solvable problem. He was marching toward enemy territory in Pennsylvania, where he planned to get some revenge for Yankee atrocities in Virginia, and squeeze Lincoln’s Republicans in a political vice. If voters saw Southern boots on Northern soil, they might elect a Congress sympathetic toward a truce.

The problem was Harpers Ferry, which was still bristling with Union soldiers. Lee couldn’t afford a hostile force between his army and his home turf, so he wrote 191, dispatching Stonewall Jackson to clear the decks, which he did, but not in time to prevent events from interceding.

As Jackson was pouring shells into Harpers Ferry, a Gen. George McClellan was  poring over Lee’s detailed plans.

The Confederate army was now shaped like a dumbbell, with a strong presence in Harpers Ferry and Hagerstown, but a thin gaggle of troops more or less connecting the two along the length of Pleasant Valley.

McClellan planned to split Lee’s army in two by crossing South Mountain through three low passes. Lee’s forces regrouped just in time to stave off disaster; this was Antietam. But Lee’s grand design went up in a considerable amount of smoke.

Antietam is called a draw, but it was nothing of the sort. Lee ended up back in the South, and never again would Confederates have an equivalent political and military opportunity as they had 150 years ago this month.

For Special Orders 191, however, the intrigue was only beginning. Yankee soldiers began scrambling for the credit of being the hero who actually discovered them. “It becomes a bit of a soap opera,” Evans said.

“You probably have five guys there when it was found, and you wound up with 10 different stories.”

And, of course, there were conspiracy theories. How could a penciled note have remained legible after three days in the September dew and a rain shower? Evans tested this herself, and discovered that an envelope-encased missive could easily survive.

Finally came the blame game: Who was the butterfingers in butternut that let the orders slip away? The copy was destined for Gen. D.H. Hill, but Evans believes the responsibility belongs to Adjutant Robert Chilton who penned the orders, but failed to get confirmation of their delivery.

At the time it wasn’t an issue because it was some months before Lee discovered his strategy had been compromised. This was true, although hard to believe, because of an equally hard-to-believe fact:

Reporters had immediately published the sensitive news of the Union’s find in both New York and Washington.

Lee’s fate, the South’s fate, might have materially changed for the better had the great general only read the newspapers. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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