Retired Naval Captain Donald R. Jermann examines the events of the loss of Confederate Special Order 191 and its discovery by the Union Army before the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 as well as the battle itself and its aftermath.
This special order from General Lee to his generals leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during their invasion of Maryland in September 1862 gave directions as to where and when the different divisions were to be – in other words, Lee’s entire plan. Somehow, one of the copies of the order was lost and ultimately found by Federal soldiers. Initially the Federals thought it was a trick until an officer who was familiar with General Lee’s staff officer, Colonel Robert H. Chilton, who wrote the orders to Lee’s generals, recognized his signature.
Jermann introduces the reader to the manner in which war was conducted in 1862 then sets the scene for the events of September 1862. The northern Virginia town of Harpers Ferry plays an important part in telling the story of the lost order and the fiasco connected with the town. Jermann presents the commanders of the two armies and their subordinates as well as the details contained in Special Order 191. On September 10, 1862, the carrying out of the special order commenced.
General George B. McClellan, commanding general of the Union Army of the Potomac, was adept at organizing an army and extremely cautious about attacking an enemy. He often overestimated the number of soldiers in the enemies’ army - he had the horrible habit of doubling the number of soldiers in Lee’s army when it was not as numerous. His subordinates followed suit and did not realize that they were the larger army. Because of this error, the Union Army took an overly cautious defensive stance when they could have attacked and won with their overwhelming numbers. General Lee somehow knew that General McClellan was not his equal in generalship, encouraging Lee and General Jackson to take risks and split their army in the face of a much larger army. This would work with McClellan’s successors until General Grant took over and knew better.
On September 13th, a copy of the Confederate Special Order 191 was found by the Union Army. McClellan bragged after it was authenticated that with this knowledge, he could whip Bobbie Lee or go home. In fact, he neither whipped Lee nor went home. Unfortunately for the Union and those who would lose their lives later, McClellan and his generals took too much time in getting their forces moving to do something with that knowledge. It normally took a great deal of time to move thousands of men, artillery, wagons, and other things as it was. The generals knew this, but they still did not speed up the movement of their forces.
This failure, too, involves the surrendering of Harpers Ferry. The garrison at Harpers Ferry was cut off from the Union and did not know what was going on. Garrison commander Colonel Miles sent out couriers to try to reach the Union Army. Though they succeeded, the Union nonetheless did not rush to save Harpers Ferry or even send a courier to inform them of the situation and direct them not to surrender because a Union army was nearby. Because Colonel Miles did not receive any communications, and his command was surrounded and running out of ammunition for his cannons, he felt he had to surrender to save lives. He was killed before the ceasefire was totally in effect. This fiasco was later investigated by a military commission, and Colonel Miles’ reputation suffered - not a thorough investigation, as Jermann shows.
If McClellan and his generals had moved more quickly, they might have destroyed one of Lee’s divisions and ended the Civil War sooner. As it was, Lee managed to get most of his divisions together at Sharpsburg and stand up to McClellan. McClellan again believed himself outnumbered, so he attacked in phases instead of using his numbers to overwhelm Lee. He was also hampered by the government in Washington, which feared Lee would get between McClellan and Washington and attack them. They held back two corps that could have helped to defeat Lee and shortened the War, also overestimating the numbers of soldiers in Lee’s Army.
On September 17th, when the Battle of Antietam occurred, Lee faced up to McClellan but could not defeat him. McClellan, on the other hand, did not know that he was in a position to defeat Lee. Had he pressed Lee more, he could have won a great victory. Instead, Lee and his army made an organized retreat back to Virginia, and McClellan lost his greatest chance of ending the War early and becoming a national hero.
Jermann provides 37 maps, nine black-and-white photos, endnotes, a bibliography and an index. The photos are quite clear, as are the maps. Many quotes from primary sources are included. This book is not a dry history book but instead quite lively as it presents the story of the lost order and the events surrounding it, and it is highly recommended to Civil War enthusiasts.
Donald R. Jermann served as a U.S. naval officer in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was a founding member of the Armed Forces Security Agency, the predecessor of the National Security Agency. He attended John Carroll University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Maryland. He presently works as a part-time consultant to the Department of Defense.