General Lee Rejects Hill’s Claim SPECIAL ORDER 191: RUSE OF WAR : Part 2

General Lee Rejects Hill’s Claim SPECIAL ORDER 191: RUSE OF WAR : Part 2

US Civil War

At the time The Lost Dispatch was published, D. H. Hill sent a copy to General Lee, who was then acting as President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Lee soon found himself drawn into conversation about Hill’s article with various persons connected to the college faculty. After these conversations occurred, Lee wrote a personal letter to D.H. Hill, on February 21, 1868. In his letter, professing to have no knowledge of how the order was lost, General Lee rejected Hill’s position that the Army’s custom and practice did not require Lee’s headquarters staff to send a copy of the order directly to D.H. Hill. Lee wrote, without offering any objective basis—”[I]t was proper in my opinion that a copy of the order should be sent to you by the adjt General.” 

In his piece Hill had written in italics: “In going to Harper’s Ferry from Martinsburg instead of returning to Boonesboro, Jackson acted on his own responsibility and in violation of Lee’s order.” To this, General Lee replied that Jackson was “by verbal instructions” placed in command of the expedition “to dislodge the Federal troops occupying Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry.” As verification of his statement, General Lee offered a quotation from Jackson’s official report of his operations: “In obedience to instructions from the Commg Genl, and for the purpose of capturing the Federal forces and stores then at Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry, my command left the vicinity of Frederick City on the 10th”. Lee’s response, though, ignores the plain text of the order. No doubt Jackson did receive verbal instructions from General Lee to go to Harper’s Ferry—at the time they were known to have conferred together in private—but the indisputable fact remains that Jackson was in possession of a written order (albeit in his own hand) which specified that he march his command to Martinsburg, not to Harper’s Ferry. And, indisputably, a penciled copy of that particular order came into George McClellan’s possession.

General Lee claimed in his letter to Hill that the loss of the order was “a great calamity” to his campaign, writing that he had “supposed there would have been time for [the execution of Jackson’s verbal orders] and for the army to have been reunited before Genl. McClellan could cross the South Mountains.” 

Why did he suppose this? His letter offers as his reason that “Genl. Stuart who was on the line of the Monocacy reported that Genl McClellan had reached Rockville and was advancing very slowly with an extended front, covering the roads to Washington and Baltimore.” But the question, as Hill saw it, was not how slow McClellan was moving before he read the lost order, but how slow he was moving after he read it. What possible basis did General Lee possess to think McClellan’s advance from Frederick would be so slow that Harper’s Ferry could be overrun (or the garrison induced to surrender), and Lee’s detached columns reconcentrated in Maryland before McClellan’s army came into the Cumberland Valley? Lee’s letter to Hill does not say.

Against Lee’s claim that he supposed he would have time to reconcentrate before McClellan engaged him, must be put what Lee knew on September 9. On September 9th, at Frederick, he was informed by Stuart that McClellan’s army was beginning to march westward from Rockville on a broad front. The right wing under Burnside’s command—Reno’s and Hooker’s corps—marching on the National Road so as to block an enemy advance that might materialize in the direction of Baltimore. McClellan’s left wing, composed of Franklin’s corps, supported by Couch’s division, was marching west on the roads close to the Potomac so as to block an enemy advance in the direction of Washington. And his center, composed of Sumner’s corps, the 12th corps, and Fitz John Porter’s corps, was marching on the Georgetown turnpike leading to Urbana and Frederick. 

From this, a reasonable person in Lee’s shoes would know that McClellan was expecting to be attacked as the front of his army advanced and, in consequence, would move forward cautiously, especially given his experience with Lee on the Peninsula. But once McClellan reached Frederick and found that the enemy was retreating instead of advancing, Lee could expect that McClellan’s defensive-minded advance would shift to an offensive-minded one, the velocity of the march accelerating. For, to the mind of any competent general in McClellan’s shoes─and McClellan was competent─an enemy in flight poses hardly the same threat as an enemy operating on the offensive.

Given the depleted ranks of his army and the sorry condition of his supplies, General Lee, even as aggressive a soldier as he was, must have known he could not avoid retreating from Frederick. To make a stand on the line of the Monocacy, he would have needed twice, if not three times, the strength he possessed. To keep McClellan’s vast array out of his rear, he would have had to extend his front to cover the National Road on his left and the mouth of the Monocacy on his right—a length of front entirely beyond the capacity of his little army to achieve.

Knowing, then, that retreat from Frederick was mandatory, but that he had to fight a battle with McClellan somewhere, in the trial court we may reasonably assume that General Lee must have canvased his map, probably in the company of Jackson, looking for an available location in Maryland where natural barriers would make the turning of his flanks impossible. Plainly, he saw that that place was behind the Antietam at Sharpsburg—where he would have only a three mile front to defend, the shoulders of which would be pressed against the folds of the Potomac. But to fight a general battle in this position, the Confederate army required a secure line of retreat to Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry—10,000 soldiers and 1,200 cavalrymen—posed an unacceptable threat to it.

For this reason, General Lee gave Jackson verbal instructions to capture Harper’s Ferry and rejoin the rest of the army in Maryland. Making the decision to send Jackson however, to neutralize the Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry garrisons, did not solve the problem created by the direction the Union Army’s advance would take, once word reached McClellan that the enemy was retreating. Once McClellan reached Frederick and found it abandoned by the enemy, he would certainly learn that the enemy had crossed the Potomac into Virginia and this fact would induce him to rush his army directly toward Harper’s Ferry in order to get a powerful force quickly into the Shenandoah Valley, to pursue or break up the enemy’s retreat in the direction of Winchester. The three rebel divisions remaining with Lee behind South Mountain—D.R. Jones’s, John Hood’s, and D.H. Hill’s—could hardly be expected to paralyze the advance of McClellan’s five corps toward Harper’s Ferry. Something else was required to have any chance of doing that. All of this General Lee ignores in his letter to Hill.

Lee’s letter does offer an argument of sorts for the proposition that McClellan’s reaction to reading the lost order placed the Confederate Army in grave peril. The letter quotes a message McClellan had written to William Franklin at 6:20 p.m., on September 13th (Franklin was then encamped at Buckystown.); but McClellan’s message proves, not disproves, Hill’s case that reading the lost order induced him to do exactly the opposite of what he would have done if the order had not been found.

McClellan wrote Franklin: “I have now full information as to movements and intentions of the enemy. Jackson has crossed the Upper Potomac to capture the garrison at Martinsburg, and cut off Miles’s retreat towards the west. A division on the south side of the Potomac (Walker’s) was to carry Loudoun Heights, and cut off his retreat in that direction. McLaws,with his own division and the division of R.H. Anderson, was to move by Boonesboro and Rohrersville to carry Maryland Heights. . . . Longstreet was to move to Boonesboro, and there halt with the reserve trains, D.H. Hill to form the rear guard, Stuart’s cavalry to bring up stragglers etc.”

Clearly, George McClellan could read Lee’s English correctly; as a result, he formulated a plan of action which placed his main body in front of where Lee’s lost order placed the Confederate “main body.” But while his main body was composed of thirty brigades he did not know that Lee’s was composed of only fourteen. Thinking Lee and Jackson intended to attack him from the direction of Boonesboro, McClellan assigned but three divisions to advance against the two rebel divisions, under McLaws’s command, which had marched to Maryland Heights, ostensibly “to endeavor to capture Harper’s Ferry.” The rest he massed in front of Turner’s Gap.

Written by Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has tried over seventy serious injury cases to jury verdict, winning 67% of the time. He has successfully argued cases before the California courts of appeal and argued before the Supreme Court and the Federal courts. He has many articles published in legal journals such as For the Defense, The Advocate, and the Los Angeles Lawyer. He is 78 and not a civil war “buff.”

US Civil War


General Lee Rejects Hill’s Claim SPECIAL ORDER 191: RUSE OF WAR : Part 2


16. Now known as Washington & Lee University.

17. See, e.g., Conversations with General R.E. Lee, William Allan Papers #2764, in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.

18. A photostat of this letter is among The D.H. Hill Papers at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library. According to the archive records, the document was given to UNC sometime prior to 1940, by Charles W. Dabney, who made a copy of the original letter he says he borrowed from D.H. Hill’s daughters. A copy of this letter can also be found in letterbook #4 (General Lee’s correspondence, 1865-1870). The letterbook was donated to the Library of Congress by Mrs. DeButts, a relative of General Lee’s, sometime in the middle 1940’s. There can be no reasonable doubt that the letter is an authentic writing in the hand of General Lee.

19. In closing the five paragraph letter, General Lee wrote: “I do not know how the order was lost, nor until I saw Genl McClellan’s published report after the termination of the war did I know certainly that it was the copy addressed to you.” Lee is probably referring to McClellan’s book—General McClellan’s Report and Campaigns—published in 1864. “In considering the testimony of any witness, you may take into account: the witness’s memory, his manner of testifying, his interest in the outcome of the case, whether other evidence exists which contradicts his testimony, and the reasonableness of his testimony in light of all the evidence.” (Standard California jury instruction.) 

20. In the complex syntax of his sentence, General Lee admitted that, by Special Order 191, Hill was “withdrawn from Genl Jackson’s command.” See reproduction of Lee’s letter in A Lee Letter on the “Lost Dispatch” and the Maryland Campaign of 1862 (Hal Bridges, Vol. 66 The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1958, at p. 164.). Yet he offers no explanation why Article 34, section 425 of Confederate Army Regulations (“orders are transmitted through all the intermediate commanders in order of rank”) did not therefore apply here. There is no rational explanation why Lee’s HQ staff, either his own aides, or Chilton’s, would send a copy of the order by courier a mile across farm fields to Hill’s HQ, when it was Jackson’s responsibility to provide Hill’s HQ with a copy. In the trial court, an expert opinion offered without a factual basis to support it, is inadmissible in evidence.

21. The Lost Dispatch at p. 278.

22. Italics added; See, The Virginia Magazine, p. 164.

23. See The Virginia Magazine, supra, at p. 164-165. General Lee’s offer of Jackson’s report does not constitute a corroboration of his statement that Jackson received from him “verbal instructions.” The phrase “In obedience to instructions” was one customarily used by Jackson and is neutral as to the method of receiving the instruction. (See, e.g., Official Record of the Rebellion (OR) Vol. 12, part II, at p. 641.)  Nor does Lee’s extended quotation from Jackson’s report of his operations, September 5 to September 27, 1862 (OR, Vol 19, part 1, at p. 952.) add anything relevant to the precise issue in dispute. Jackson’s narrative merely states what he did do, versus what General Lee’s lost order said he would do. (Jackson’s unfinished report of operations, written in April 1863, was supposedly “discovered” by a relative (Morrison) in a trunk in May 1863 and filed after his death, in July 1863. McClellan’s finding of Lee’s order became public in April 1863.)

24. See, e.g., Frank B. Meyers, The Comanches—White’s Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Kelly, Piet & Co., 1871), pp. 107-108: At Frederick Capt. Elijah White went with JEB Stuart to Lee’s tent. “Arrived there, Gen. Stuart passed in, and White saw that Gen. Jackson was also there.” James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1896), p. 202, writes: “[T]he day after we reached Frederick, upon going over to Headquarters, I found the front of the general’s tent closed and tied. Upon inquiring of a member of the staff, I was told that he was inside with General Jackson. As I had not been called, I turned to go away, when General Lee called me in. The plan had been arranged. Jackson, with his three divisions was to recross the Potomac by the fords above Harper’s Ferry [and] march via Martinsburg to Bolivar Heights.”

25. Special Order 191 specifies in pertinent part: “General Jackson’s command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route towards Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and, by Friday night, take possession of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, capture such of the enemy as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper’s Ferry.” In contrast the order specified that, on reaching Middletown, General McLaws, “will take the route to Harper’s Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights (the southern facing cliff of Elk’s Ridge), and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper’s Ferry and vicinity.” (Italics added.) For the text of the order, see George M. McClellan, General McClellan’s Report and Campaigns (Sheldon & Co., New York, 1864), p. 353.

26. There are four original copies of Special Order 191 in existence: (1) Hill’s copy; (2) McClellan’s copy; (3) the Adjutant General’s letterbook copy now in the National Archives; and (4) Jefferson Davis’s copy now in the Virginia State Library. The first two, in paragraph six, contain the phrase “intercepting the retreat of the enemy.” The latter two, in paragraph six, contain the phrase “and intercept retreat of the enemy.” Therefore, whoever made McClellan’s copy used Hill’s copy as the template.

27. The Virginia Magazine, supra, at p. 165. Lee’s statement is not supported by the objective evidence. The task of actually capturing the Ferry garrison, the order specifies, was McLaws to accomplish. But, even a private soldier would recognize McLaws’ force could not possibly accomplish the objective from the top of Elk’s Ridge on the left bank of the Potomac. The Union position at Bolivar Heights was beyond the range of McLaws’ guns.

28. See, George McClellan, From the Peninsula to Antietam (Grant-Lee Battles and Leaders edition, 1884), Vol II, Part II, at pp. 554-555.

29. That General Lee knew this, is certain: burying the fact in a mass of ancillary details, Fitz Lee, Lee’s nephew and ANV cavalry commander, wrote, in 1894, “Stuart. . . moved to Crampton’s Gap, five miles south of Turner’s, to reinforce his cavalry under Munford there, thinking, as General Lee did, that should have been the object of McClellan’s main attack, as it was on the direct route to Maryland Heights and Harper’s Ferry.” (General Lee, supra, at p. 204 [italics added].) McClellan also knew, as of September 12th, that, once he “opened communications” with the Ferry, the garrison would be under his command. (See, McClellan Report of the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. P. 356 (Sheldon & Co. 1864).

30. Splitting the army, as Lee did, did not actually place it in “great peril.” Had McClellan marched his main body directly to the Ferry, the Confederate forces behind South Mountain would simply continue marching for Sharpsburg and Williamsport, to cross the river and connect to Jackson. Walker could cross the Shenandoah, and McLaws and Anderson cross Elk’s Ridge and join the exodus, before McClellan could concentrate at the Ferry to interpose between Lee’s two wings. But, then, The Confederate Army would be pursued up the Valley.

31. George McClellan, General McClellan’s Report and Campaigns, supra, at p. 359; OR 19: 1, p. 45. McClellan certainly recognized that the movements described by the order could not possibly cause the surrender of the Ferry garrison. It does not place a force on the west side of Bolivar Heights which must be the point of attack.