Lost Order From General Lee Turns Tide at Battle of Antietam

Bloomfield soldier finds General Lee's lost orders; Union Army capitalizes on information during Battle of Antietam.

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An order written by General Lee, which was lost and then found 137 years ago by a Bloomfield, Indiana, soldier may have turned the fortunes of battle to the Union Army’s advantage during the Battle of Antietam in America's Civil War of 1861-1865.

Soldiers of the 27th Indiana Volunteers Regiment were checking a Maryland bivouac site September 13, 1862, when Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell found Special Order No. 191 detailing movements and battle plans of the Confederate Army. The order, wrapped around three cigars, had been written by Gen. Robert E. Lee and was intended only for the eyes of his most trusted Confederate officers.

Mitchell had enlisted in the Union Army at Bloomfield in the summer of 1861 and then was sent to Indianapolis where the 27th Regiment had been formed. When Mitchell found the lost order, he and First Sgt. John M. Bloss, of Muncie, the ranking "non-com" of Company F, turned the paper over to Col. Silas Colgrove, who immediately dispatched the information to Federal Army headquarters.

Four days later, September 17, 1862, Union forces under Gen. George B. McClellan clashed with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The resulting Battle of Antietam, named for the creek near the town, marked the "bloodiest" single day of war in American history. When night came, Federal losses totaled 12,410. Southern casualties numbered 10,700.

The 46-year-old Mitchell sustained serious wounds at Antietam, submitting to medical treatment for eight months. The Greene County soldier was out of the hospital in time to rejoin the 27th Indiana Regiment for the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863.

The finding of Special Order No. 191 was significant, but in trying to assess its impact on the outcome of Antietam, and particularly the entire war, historians have left a number of questions unanswered.

In fact, historians differ as to whether the lost order worked to the benefit of the North, or if, strangely enough, gave Lee's Southern Army the advantage at Antietam. Full knowledge of the movements of Lee's troops and battle strategy caused the cautious McClellan to take three days to prepare for battle, rather than pressing the South before Lee was ready to fight. Methodically, McClellan placed men, guns and back-up troops into battle position, and then insisted on making a personal inspection.

While McClellan dallied, Lee wisely used the time to re-establish battle lines and bring in reinforcements. Gen. Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson had captured the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, taking 13,000 arms, 49 field guns and 24 mountain howitzers. A 15-mile march to the north brought Jackson's troops to a link up by September 16 with Lee's forces in the Sharpsburg area.

Although the lost order intelligence did not give the strength of Lee's army, McClellan "knew" he was going to meet a superior force and took the better part of three days to prepare for battle. Actually, McClellan's 87,000-man striking force outnumbered the Confederate forces more than two to one. Lee had only about 41,000. McClellan thought Lee had at least 120,000 men at Antietam.

While the North won the battle, McClellan's procrastination allowed Lee's army to escape back to the safety of Virginia. The North's failure to press the battle when fighting ended September 17 afforded the defeated Confederates time to splash across the shallow Potomac River, almost at leisure.

In early November 1862, about six weeks after Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln dismissed McClellan as commander of the Northern Armies. A perfectionist who never took calculated risks, "Little Mac" never realized his full potential as a field general. Lincoln often said he had the "slows." The war dragged on for nearly three more years before the South surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865.

Lee's foray into the North was aimed at carrying the brunt of the war to the enemy. Until Antietam, the long shadow of war had fallen across southern soil. Feeling triumphant after the South's victories at Bull Run and Manassas in the first year of the war, Lee crossed the Potomac into Maryland. Jackson had moved against the arsenal at Harper's Ferry and would then link up with Lee's forces to start a concerted drive toward Washington, D.C.

The design of Lee's move would be a two-pronged attack to the east, seizing Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then the principal rail-road hub of the North, and pressing on toward Washington. With Washington in its possession, the South figured the war would be won.

Reportedly four copies of Special Order No. 191 were made, each in Lee's handwriting. One copy was marked for Gen. D.H. Hill. The lost order was found in the bivouac area just outside Frederick, Maryland, where units of Hill's corps had encamped a few days before. In later years, Hill denied he ever received the order.

Before his death in 1870, five years after the war ended, Lee attributed the wrecking of his plans solely to the lost order. McClellan also said after the war he believed the intelligence order helped the North to win the Battle of Antietam. Hill would remark in later years that the "losing of the dispatch was the saving of Lee's Army." McClellan's halting commitment of units and subsequent failure to capitalize on the advantage may have swept away opportunities to end the war in 1862.

Mitchell was never rewarded for his finding of the order. Years later, McClellan recalled the incident and stated the soldier should be honored, but the general could not recall Mitchell's name.

Samuel D. Heaton
Indianapolis, Indiana

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