Lost Order Controversy

Meridian or Midnight?

Maurice D’Aoust’s claim that George McClellan’s September 13, 1862, dispatch to Abraham Lincoln was sent at midnight rather than at noon that day, and that therefore McClellan reacted promptly to the finding of the Lost Order, is based on a false premise. The following is the correct timeline.

At midmorning that September 13, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana came upon a lost copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 in a field south of Frederick, Md., and started it up the chain of command to General McClellan. McClellan promptly wrote out a telegram headed “Hd Qrs Frederick Sept 13th 12 M” for President Lincoln. The time “12 M” was standard Civil War telegraphese for 12 Meridian, or noon, as any student of the Official Records knows.

All telegrams, regardless of addressee, went to the War Department telegraph office. The received copy of McClellan’s 12 M telegram is preserved at the National Archives (Record Group 107, Microcopy 473, Roll 50). The manifold, or carbon copy, is in the W.H. Seward Papers, University of Rochester. Since the copy McClellan sent has not been found, this War Department copy is the surviving original. It’s the source for its first printing, in the Report of the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 1 (1863), p. 485, labeled “September 13–12 m.” It so appears in the Official Records printing, 19:2, p. 281.

What of Mr. D’Aoust’s “midnight” telegram (Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress)? It is not the original. Instead, it is a fair copy, in a different handwriting and with a slightly different format, of the War Department original, made for the president. And it is marked: “Frederick Sept 13, 12 M.” The addition of “idnight” is in a different hand and certainly done later—most probably by someone arranging the Lincoln Papers and unfamiliar with military usage. In short, it is an anomaly.

The compilers of the Official Records, who knew what they were about, placed McClellan’s noon telegram to Lincoln ahead of his 11 p.m. telegram to Henry Halleck. Try reversing that order. Are we to believe that just one hour after gloomily telling Halleck that he has “some” of the enemy’s plans, which only confirm that he is greatly outnumbered (“120,000 men or more,” aiming to invade Pennsylvania), he excitedly tells Lincoln that he has “all the plans of the rebels” and will “severely” punish Lee and send the president trophies? Simply nonsensical.

Stephen W. Sears

Norwalk, Conn.

Maurice G. D’Aoust Replies:

Regarding Mr. Sears’ “correct timeline,” his notion it was “midmorning” when Mitchell found Lee’s Lost Order is derived from a postwar account by John Bloss, which was flawed. Separate reports from both Ezra Carmen and 27th Indiana Colonel Silas Colgrove confirm that the 27th Indiana did not even reach Frederick until noon. On that basis, it would seem unreasonable that McClellan could have sent his telegram to Lincoln at or anywhere near noon.

But the telegram contains another and even more conclusive piece of evidence. Halfway through, McClellan informs the president, “We have possession of Catoctin.” Of course, Catoctin Mountain was not taken until 2 p.m. that day, thus entirely destroying the chronological validity of the “12 M” document.

Mr. Sears ignores the hard evidence debunking the “12 M” version, and attempts to refute the “12 Midnight” document with speculation. In that respect, I offer alternate speculation.

Lincoln must have been anxious for news, and it is entirely logical that the telegrapher would have immediately forwarded the first transcription of McClellan’s message to Lincoln. For all we know, Lincoln may have been looking over the telegrapher’s shoulder when the telegram came in, since he was known to frequent the telegraph room into the early morning hours.

Nor is it inconceivable that a second War Department employee, whose handwriting was different from the first, may have subsequently and incorrectly transcribed the War Department’s version, on which William Seward’s copy was obviously based. Upon close examination, it is apparent that the document’s writer, realizing he was running out of room, was forced to squeeze in the “idnight” portion, just as was done with the word “accomplish” near the bottom of page 2 of the document. The idea that “idnight” was added in later is speculative.

As for the variance between Halleck’s and Lincoln’s messages, upon reading Halleck’s communication in its entirety it becomes evident that its intent was to communicate the critical nature of the situation and to prompt Halleck into releasing the two corps that were sitting idle in the Washington area. McClellan likely surmised that Halleck would communicate this to Lincoln. Although less “gloomy,” McClellan’s message to Lincoln still conveys the critical nature of things. We can endlessly argue these issues, but they do not alter the fact that McClellan wrote that telegram at 12 midnight, and that he did react promptly to the finding of the Lost Order.

Gary Gallagher and “What Ifs”

I disagree with Gary Gallagher’s assertion in his “What If…?” column in the October 2012 issue that “absolutely nothing” in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s record suggests he had the “administrative and political skills necessary to oversee an army” and that his temper and “sometimes erratic behavior would have produced problems at any level above that at which he operated.”

There are things in Forrest’s pre-and postwar record that suggest the opposite. Forrest was elected three times to the Memphis City Council, where he became head of the finance committee and the council’s spokesman for the president of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. During the war, he was a much better administrator of his “irregular” cavalry than Braxton Bragg’s chief of cavalry, Joe Wheeler, and he ordered regular inspections to assess his men’s readiness.

Bragg and other high officers repeatedly slighted and disrespected Forrest, yet he held his temper in check until near the end of his long service with the Army of Tennessee. And I believe, despite his contrary reputation, that close study of the record shows that Forrest followed orders far more readily than many of his more refined superiors.

I agree that Forrest could never have led the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee—not, though, because of lack of abilities. He never would have gotten the chance. An elitist glass ceiling barred the common-born Forrest from any part in Confederate decision-making.

Jack Hurst

Lancaster, Tenn.

Civil Wars

I very much enjoyed Stephanie McCurry’s article “Why Do We Love Our Civil War?” (October 2012). I think also there are psychological factors at play here. Unlike other types of war where one’s enemy may well speak a different language, believe in a different religion and follow a different history, civil war throws up barriers to killing, not the least of which is the commonality between combatants.

In a war between separate countries, it is comparatively easy to encourage each side to view the other as wholly different—xenophobia is a powerful motivator. In civil war, combatants have to dig deeper to find the differences, and this may result in increased psychological trauma. It’s difficult enough to kill another human being, but when that person is begging for his life in one’s own language, that must be so much worse.

I wonder if American interest in the Civil War also stems from continued attempts at reconciliation. The Revolutionary War removed the shackles of British dictatorship, which was a tremendous achievement. But to then fight each other less than 100 years later and for the ramifications of that conflict to still be manifested in the late 20th century and beyond must be difficult to understand. Shadows of the Civil War have loomed in modern times, but there is a unity among Americans still, and interest in and respect for all combatants in that cataclysmic war can only be healthy.

Phil McNally

Bolton, U.K.

I disagree with the “Why Do We Love Our Civil War?” headline in October’s issue. You can’t love any war. Fascinated, yes. Walking a battlefield and feeling in awe of what those soldiers did even when going to certain deaths due to drunk, incompetent or political hack commanders, yes. Understanding it and all its ramifications up to the present day, like the rise of the KKK, cross-burnings, lynchings, segregation and Jim Crow, yes. That is what attracts me about the Civil War. But love it, no way.

Sheila Bloom

Alexandria, Va.

Handsome Image

I enjoyed the table of contents image of the Pattillo brothers. What type of caps are they wearing? Were they red and white or blue and white?

Vicky Dempster

Surry, Texas

Editor Dana Shoaf Replies: They could be wearing an interpretation of a Phrygian cap, which roughly resembles a stocking cap. These caps have been used since antiquity as symbols of freedom, thought to have begun when Romans gave such caps to manumitted slaves. During the Civil War, such caps were fashioned from colored material and slipped over kepis. It also could be that they are simply wearing fatigue covers on their hats (right), like the one pictured here. Both styles were generally used only in the early days of the war. Red appeared black in Civil War photographs, so the best guess is the covers are red and white.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.