It’s time to get the story straight about when George McClellan became aware of Robert E. Lee’s plans during the 1862 Maryland Campaign.
WHEN TWO SOLDIERS OF THE 27TH INDIANA INFANTRY found a piece of paper wrapped around an envelope containing three cigars in a Frederick, Md., field on September 13, 1862, they triggered an ongoing controversy. That piece of paper was a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 (the “Lost Orders”), which disclosed the Army of Northern Virginia’s dispositions in Maryland. Union General George McClellan had scored an intelligence coup, and for the first time since the Rebels had entered the state on September 4 he knew exactly where his enemy was located. But precisely when those orders were found, and how quickly “Little Mac” acted on the intelligence, has long served as fodder for criticism of the commander.
That criticism has been based on the assumption that McClellan had the orders in his possession by noon, but did not act decisively on the information until 6:20 p.m. What facts support this assumption? Sergeant John Bloss claimed after the war that he and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell had found the Lost Orders no later than 10 a.m. on September 13. But Silas Colgrove, the 27th Indiana’s colonel, and Antietam veteran and chronicler Ezra Carmen corroborated the fact that the 27th did not reach Frederick until noon.
Despite that, many historians have accepted Bloss’ 10 a.m. arrival time and maintained that the Lost Orders must have been in McClellan’s hands shortly before noon on September 13.
A telegram from McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, in which the general tells the president, “I have all the plans of the rebels,” is the most important piece of evidence. According to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, that telegram was dated “September 13, 1862, 12m,” with the time stamp interpreted as 12 meridian, or noon. But a search on the Library of Congress’ online digitized collection of Lincoln’s papers turned up the president’s copy of that telegram, with the time spelled out: “12 Midnight.”
McClellan also notes in his message, “We have possession of Catoctin”—a reference to the mountain pass over the Catoctin range west of Frederick, Md. That defile was not taken until 2 p.m. on the 13th, however, well past noon. Thus the 12 midnight time casts an entirely different light on the events of September 13.
Specifically, at 3 p.m. McClellan sent a copy of Lee’s Lost Orders to cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, telling him to approach South Mountain with “great caution.” This is Little Mac’s first written indication that he was aware of the Rebel plans; it seems likely that he had gained possession of the intelligence shortly before writing Pleasonton.
By 6:20 p.m., a little more than three hours after he obtained the Lost Orders, McClellan directed Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s VI Corps to begin moving at daybreak the next day to take possession of South Mountain’s key Crampton’s Gap.
A telegram McClellan wrote to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck at 11 p.m. on the 13th also helps confirm when the general received the Lost Orders. McClellan stated that Lee’s dispatch did not reach him until that “evening,” a term that can be used to describe, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “the entire late afternoon” or “the latter part of the afternoon and the earlier part of the night.”
There is one more quirky fact related to the telegram. The War Department received McClellan’s 11 p.m. message to Halleck at 1 p.m. on the 14th, while Lincoln received the “12 Midnight” nearly 11 hours earlier, at 2:35 a.m. on the 14th. We know that intermittent outages plagued the telegraph line to Washington on the 13th and 14th. McClellan may have instructed the telegrapher to give Lincoln’s communication priority once service was restored. Then again, the telegrapher may have taken it upon himself to wire the president’s message first. Whatever the reason, it seems clear that Lincoln’s telegram was the first to be transmitted, but that does not change when it was written.
The myth that McClellan simply frittered away the afternoon of September 13, 1862, as the fate of the Union hung in the balance has been dispelled.
Maurice D’Aoust writes from Lakefield, Ontario, Canada.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.