A pivotal moment in the Civil War occurred just south of Frederick, Md., 150 years ago today. Union forces found a copy of the Confederate Army's battle plans — Special Order 191 — shortly after they invaded Maryland.
Southern invasion hampered
The Confederate army, led by General Robert E. Lee, invaded Maryland after a string of stunning successes against larger northern forces. Their latest victory occurred at the end of August 1862, a rout of Union troops at the Second Battle of Manassas in Virginia. Lee crossed into Maryland, hoping to rally the thousands of southern sympathizers in the state. Lee was not successful for two chief reasons.
"They had been fighting a long series of campaigns from the Seven Days all the way up to Northern Virginia," says Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society. "So they were pretty ragged looking. And they smelled really, really bad. Everybody shut their houses up and said 'Get out of town. We're not going to support you.'"
One Baltimore correspondent at the time said whenever Confederate soldiers stopped during the invasion, they proceeded to scratch themselves incessantly, leaving little doubt of the "abundance" of vermin on their bodies. But in addition to their appearance, Kummerow says the first stop the Confederates made proved a poor choice.
"I think they made the mistake of going into Frederick first. Frederick — that was a Yankee town," says Kummerow. "It was Germans from Pennsylvania who settled it."
Lost orders a fatal mistake
But before Lee's army even made it to Frederick, the fatal mistake that would doom the invasion was already made. Lee ordered his assistant adjutant general Robert Chilton to draw up and distribute copies of orders for the Army — the orders included splitting his forces to take Harpers Ferry in present-day West Virginia. One of the copies ended up lost, and days after Confederate forces passed through, trailing Union soldiers in the 27th Indiana regiment found them near where the Battle of Monacacy would be fought two years later.
"They were on a skirmish line and they are at the front of the brigade and the front of the corps. They had stacked arms and were resting," says Tracy Evans, a park ranger there, setting the scene.
There had long been rumors that the orders were found wrapped around three cigars, but Evans says a letter penned by one of the soldiers who found the papers told a different story.
"My suspicion is that it started with an interview a Colonel Colgrove gives in the 1880s," says Evans. "He says it came to him wrapped around cigars. And it very well may have by the time it got to him. However, when it was initially found, it was found in an envelope that contained the orders and two cigars."
The conflicting accounts of what the orders looked like only add to their mystery. Evans says they haven't been able to pinpoint a location where they were found, they just know they were found in an area north of the Monocacy Battlefield, but south of the Frederick city limits. Even why the lost copy was written is unclear. Evans says is was probably an afterthought.
"Normally orders were written in pen. This particular order is written in pencil," says Evans. "It is not the full order. The full orders are numbered, and this one starts with number three."
It's also not clear who lost them , but Evans thinks General Chilton is probably most responsible, as he had lost previous orders before the Maryland Campaign. Maybe the greatest mystery of all is what would have happened had the Union not found the orders? Union general George McClellan moved quickly once the orders reached him. They forced the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, which ended the Confederate invasion. And without the orders, Evans won't take a stab at that question, but Burt Kummerow of the Maryland Historical Society says the Confederates could have continued their invasion.
Crisis averted for Union
"They could have done a lot of damage up in Hagerstown, and in Chambersburg and gotten into Pennsylvania," says Kummerow. "I think every time they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, everybody went berserk because they didn't know where they were going."
Kummerow says that could have intensified the peace movement in the North, and even brought diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by European nations, and that could have ended the war in the Confederacy's favor. It's a question that has kept historians busy for 150 years.
The lost copy of Special Order 191 will be on display at the Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center through the end of October.
This is Part 1 of Matt Bush's three-part series about the Confederate's Maryland campaign of the Civil War and its 150th anniversary. Part 2 was an account of the Battle of Antietam and Part 3 breaks down the legacy of the Battle of Antietam, beyond the Emancipation Proclamation.