US Civil War


Lee in uniform, 1863

On September 5, 1862, General Lee crossed his army over the Potomac into Western Maryland.

It had taken him four months to maneuver Lincoln’s armies out of Virginia and the effort had left his soldiers decimated and the survivors staggering. He needed to get them into the Shenandoah Valley, the only place within a radius of sixty miles from his position, after the fierce battle at Manassas, where they could find subsistence, rest, and reorganize. But, in turning his army back from the environs of Washington, it was impossible for him to lead it directly across the Blue Ridge into the Valley. Lincoln’s armies would consolidate under McClellan’s command again and would either follow him or move toward Richmond, and he would have to hurry his soldiers across the wasteland of Northern Virginia to intercept them. Only one strategy would keep the enemy away from Richmond and that was to march to the Valley indirectly, through Maryland.

Twelve days after General Lee’s army entered Maryland, the Battle of Antietam was fought on Constitution Day. In the space of twelve hours, over five thousand young Americans lost their lives in action and another twenty thousand were wounded. Soon after, General Lee’s soldiers were safely in the Shenandoah Valley, camped along the Opequon unmolested, where they remained until the end of October.

Since the end of the Civil War, generations of historians, as well as popular Civil War writers, have pushed the view that the Battle of Antietam happened by accident, that in entering Maryland General Lee had planned to carry the war into Pennsylvania, drawing McClellan after him, but someone—perhaps one of General Lee’s division commanders, D.H. Hill—had negligently lost a copy of Lee’s  movement order, which allowed McClellan to thwart Lee’s plans and force him into battle at Sharpsburg. 

How the objective truth of history was so easily obscured, is an easy story to tell: first, the percipient witnesses─General Lee, himself, as well as his personal staff and the general officers closest to him, lied to the public, though not to his President; second, the contemporary chroniclers, led astray by the official reports and the writings of the officers, incorporated the lies into the first generation’s version of events, and this version has been repeated by successive generations of historians as the truth of history. Now, weighed down by the mountainous mass of civil war literature it is impossible for the serious student, coming fresh to the matter, to shed the waste and start again at the beginning and dig into the objective details to reconstruct what actually happened at Frederick, Maryland, when General Lee arrived there in September 1862.

There are many myths masquerading as civil war history, simple ones such as Barbara Fritchie’s encounter with Stonewall, or the story of Solomon Northrup’s oppressive captivity in antebellum Louisiana, or the cause of the scars shown on Poor Peter’s back─the image of which emotional politicians wave about in congressional sessions as proof of the horror of slavery as it was in the nation’s antebellum time.  But, unlike these simple stories, the myth of how the Battle of Antietam came to happen is mired in dissemblance and complexity: it would take a six week trial in court to expose the deception lying at the core of it─the explanation the historians offer the public how it happened Special Order 191 was lost.


D.H. Hill Defends Himself

The public story begins in 1867, when the editor of the Richmond Examiner, E.A. Pollard, published a book entitled, The Lost Cause. In it, Pollard claimed that the loss of General Lee’s movement order—Special Order 191 found by a Union soldier in a field at Frederick Maryland on September 13, 1862—happened because Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, “in a moment of passion had thrown the paper to the ground.” Incensed by Pollard’s slur on his military reputation, D.H. Hill published, in a popular magazine called The Land We Love, in February 1868, an article entitled The Lost Dispatch. In his article, Hill categorically denied having anything to do with the loss of Special Order 191. In support of his denial he offered the fact that he had in his possession a copy of the subject order, written in Stonewall Jackson’s hand. Jackson, Hill wrote, “did not trust it to be copied by his adjutant, and with care, I carried it in my pocket and did not trust it among my office papers.”

Rejecting Pollard’s supposition that General Lee’s headquarters staff had prepared a copy of Special Order 191 for his attention, sending it to his camp by courier, Hill offered the affidavit of his adjutant, William Ratchford, in which Ratchford swore no such order arrived at Hill’s headquarters. In support of Ratchford’s statement, Hill offered the fact that, upon crossing the Potomac into Maryland at Cheek’s Ford, his division advanced to Frederick under Jackson’s command; as a consequence, Hill wrote, “we drew all of our supplies and received all our orders for the next several days through Jackson.” Under such circumstance, Hill explained, “Official etiquette required [Special Order 191] to be sent to me through Jackson.” “It [is] utterly incomprehensible that all orders should come through the proper channels, except this one, the most important of all,” he wrote.

Having rebutted Pollard’s charge that he was responsible for the loss of Lee’s order; Hill went on to explain how the finding of the order induced McClellan to act in a manner beneficial to Lee. The text of the order specified that, as of September 13th, the “main body” of the Confederate Army, with all its supply, artillery, and ammunition trains, would be waiting behind South Mountain at Boonesboro for the detached commands of Jackson, McLaws, and Walker to return from the Virginia side of the Potomac, where they had gone four days before on a mission. Yet, in fact, on September 13th, the only rebel infantry force occupying Boonesboro was D.H. Hill’s lone division of five brigades. Preceding the march of Hill’s division to the South Mountain, General Lee, in the company of Longstreet’s command, had camped at Boonesboro the night of September 10th as the order specified; but, on the following morning, he had gone with Longstreet’s command to Hagerstown, thirteen miles to the northwest, ostensibly to gain possession of the town’s supplies. The army’s trains accompanied the march of these troops, and, reaching the vicinity of Hagerstown, the reserve artillery and ammunition trains, with much of the supply trains, were turned on to the roads leading to Williamsport and, by September 13th, they were crossing the Potomac, moving around toward Sheperdstown.

When McClellan read the Lost Order, he naturally assumed that he would encounter a dangerously strong body of Lee’s troops as he passed over South Mountain. As a consequence of this thinking, he delayed attacking in earnest the position D.H.Hill’s division was defending—Turner’s Gap on the road to Boonesboro—until he had concentrated almost four of his five corps in front of the mountain pass. “McClellan could have crushed my little squad in ten minutes but for the caution inspired in him by the belief that [Lee’s main body] was there,” Hill wrote. After reading the Lost Order, McClellan had another good reason to cautiously approach the South Mountain, Hill offered—he had to worry that Jackson had returned from Martinsburg, where Lee’s lost order specified, he was sent, and was lurking somewhere on the other side of the mountain. On both these points, D.H. Hill’s position is plainly correct. The text of Special Order 191 unambiguously specifies that Longstreet’s command, with the army trains, was to camp at Boonesboro, and that Stonewall Jackson’s command was to cross the Potomac and “take possession of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg capturing the garrison there,” and then return to Maryland to join Lee’s “main body,” either at Boonesboro or Hagerstown. As Hill put it in The Lost Dispatch, “the apprehension that [Jackson] had returned from Martinsburg, as directed by Lee’s order, and which he had time to do, made McClellan still more guarded in his approaches.”

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.”


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

US Civil War

1. Stephen Sears, in his 1983 book Landscape Turned Red, tells us “There was little doubt that [Lee meant] to bring McClellan to a final fight. . . on some field of his own choosing.” Joseph Harsh, in his 1999 book Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, tells us that “there is no doubt Lee intended to strike a blow” by moving into Maryland. James McPherson, in his 2002 book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, tells us the “purpose” of Lee’s movement was to “encourage the election of Peace Democrats.” That “Lee [meant to] challenge McClellan to the war-winning battle.”  Most recently, the newly arrived writer, Alexander B. Rossino, in his 2021 book Their Maryland, tell us “Lee stood at Sharpsburg in the hope that a victory won by his army would spark Maryland’s secession for the Union.”

2. E.B. Trent, New York (1867); Reprint Bonanza Books, New York.

3. Bonanza Books Reprint at p. 314.

4. Vol. IV The Land We Love (Feb. 1868) pp. 270-284.

5. The original document, part of the D.H. Hill Papers, is maintained in the vault of the Office of Archives & History, North Carolina Dept/Cultural Affairs, Raleigh, North Carolina.

6. The Lost Dispatch, supra. at p. 274. Hill never made clear precisely when and where he received the copy of Special Order 191 written in Jackson’s hand. In the subject article Hill said that when he was at Chattanooga, he “wrote home that the copy of Lee’s order. . . could be found among my papers, having been sent home by a private hand while we were encamped on the Opeqoun.” (At p. 275, supra). It is an important relevant fact that the wives of D.H. Hill and Stonewall Jackson were sisters, as is the fact that Hill’s sending the paper home is extraordinary. The inference is plain; Hill knew he would need it.

7.  The Lost Dispatch at p. 274. In 1909, Ratchford’s memoirs were published posthumously; entitled Some Reminiscences of Persons and Incidents of the Civil War (Shgal Creek Publishers Reprint 1971), Ratchford’s memoirs say nothing about the lost order; however, he does describe a relevant incident that occurred on the second day after the battle of Antietam. “That night after we had gone into camp General Lee issued an order to march, which directed General Hill to follow General Jackson. About sunrise next morning General Hill at the head of his division, reported to General Lee and asked for orders. His reply was `Follow Jackson,’ and there was no further information.” Ratchford does not explain how the order was received.

8. The Lost Dispatch at p. 274. The Regulations for the Army of Confederate States (1863 edition) specify that “orders are transmitted through all the intermediate commanders in the order of rank. When an intermediate commander is omitted, the officer who gives the order shall inform him, and he who receives it shall report it to his immediate commander.” (Publisher: J.W. Randolph Richmond; republished by The National Historical Society, Harrisburg, PA 1980)

9. Sometime after General McClellan’s death, in 1885, the executer of his estate, a man named Prince, donated to the Library of Congress, a pencil-written copy of Special Order 191 which he represented to be the actual paper that was found by the Union soldier, Barton Mitchell, in a field at Frederick. With the order Prince included a 9″ X 5″ envelope upon the surface of which he had written: “This is the original order found and on which McC was able to form his movements to South Mountain and Antietam.” (initialed “DP”). However, we have no reasonable basis in evidence to conclude that what the Library holds is, in fact, the document as it was handed to McClellan on September 13, 1862. It may be a copy made by a telegrapher who received a copy from McClellan’s chief of Staff, to send to Pleasonton in the field.

10. D.R. Jones’s division of six brigades, John Hood’s division of two brigades, and Evans’s independent brigade.

11. See, e.g., E.P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate (New York: Scribner’s, 1907), p. 232 “My reserve ordinance train, of about 80 wagons, had accompanied Lee’s headquarters to Hagerstown, and had also followed the march back to Boonesboro. I was now ordered to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, and go thence to Sheperdstown, where I should leave the train and come in person to Sharpsburg.”

12. The Lost Dispatch at p. 277.

13. The Lost Dispatch at p. 277.

14. . See McClellan’s copy of order 191, paragraph III, in his book, General McClellan’s Report and Campaigns (New York, Sheldon & Co., 1864), pp. 353-354.

15. The Lost Dispatch at p. 277.

US Civil War