Special Order 191

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

Special Order 191

On the morning of September 13, 1862, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Infantry picked up an envelope with three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper lying in the grass at a campground that Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill had just vacated. It was Special Order 191, General Robert E. Lee’s plan for the Maryland Campaign.

Realizing the importance of the document, Mitchell gave it to his sergeant who passed it on to their company commander. It went up the chain of command until it reached an aide to Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams who recognized the signature of R. H. Chilton, the assistant adjutant general who had signed the order. Williams sent it directly to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the Union commander.

Special Order 191It was said the McClellan was overcome with glee, exclaiming, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

He telegraphed President Lincoln: “I have the whole rebel force in front of me, but I am confident, and no time shall be lost. I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency. … Will send you trophies.”

What exactly was Special Order 191 and what did it say? Even 150 years later, the controversy still swirls about this captured order that may or may not have changed American history.

On September 9, 1862, Robert E. Lee issued Special Order 191, while his the part of the Army of Northern Virginia that he was traveling with, was camped on the Best Farm, outside of Frederick, Maryland. This was not an uncommon practice for both armies. In an age where orders were communicated on paper and delivered by couriers, “special orders” were not really that special.

This particular document outlined his plan for the Maryland Campaign and detailed the division of his army in four parts in order to capture the Union garrisons at Martinsburg, Harpers Ferry, and Boonsboro, while Robert E. Lee went on to Hagerstown, Maryland. Lee would then expect to meet the reunited Confederate army there and proceed north.

Copies of the orders were written out and sent to each of his major subordinate commanders. Somehow, the orders to D.H. Hill were lost. However, Hill had already received his orders from Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who at that point was his immediate commander. Having received his orders, he probably never suspected that there was another copy that had been lost. How Special Order 191 was lost remains a mystery to this day.

The two-page order was fairly detailed but still forced McClellan to make certain assumptions about the Confederate movements. Perhaps, the most confusing section of the document was section 9, which refers to the various parts of the army joining the main body at Boonsborough or Hagerstown. McClellan believed that Lee’s army numbered 120,000 men. To him this was the proof that he was facing a superior force and that he should proceed with caution.

General McClellan waited 18 hours while he pondered the implications of the intelligence in Special Order 191. To this day, many historians contend that McClellan squandered the opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia and end the war. But swift movements and extreme caution were hallmarks of McClellan’s command persona. To do other wise would have been so out of character as to be unbelievable.

In the end the secret intelligence contained in Special Order 191 did little to change the events that were to take place at Sharpsburg, Maryland, along Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862. It was still fated to be the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War and to this day in American history. The Union tactical victory would set the stage for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and change the focus of the entire war.

Special Orders, No. 191
Hdqrs. Army of Northern Virginia
September 9, 1862

  1. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling while overrun by members of this army, to open their stores, to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which cases they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.
  2. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Virginia, and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpepper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe, will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.
  3. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson‘s command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harpers Ferry.
  4. General Longstreet‘s command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.
  5. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harpers Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harpers Ferry and vicinity.
  6. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek’s Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key’s Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.
  7. General D. H. Hill’s division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.
  8. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.
  9. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.
  10. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance—wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood &c.

By command of General R. E. Lee
R.H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant General



Series Navigation<< Lee Moves Into MarylandThe Battle of Harpers Ferry: Background >>

One thought on “Special Order 191

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Another View of George McClellan at Antietam | North Against South

Leave a Reply