How is it now?
Special Order 191 Couldn't Make It Any Easier


     It was no less than frustrating for President Abraham Lincoln to feel the rebel presence close to the Potomac River once again in the conveyance of another federal army scampering for the defenses of Washington in early September 1862. All that could add weight to his anguish was the idea that time was against the Chief Executive in demanding competence of a general officer that could stop the rebels in Virginia from crossing north into Maryland. This gruesome burden cast a pall over Washington City, as the only option left to save the nation from Confederate disaster was placed back into the hands of Major General George B. McClellan.

     George McClellan's manner of communication with the Executive Mansion had been appalling both before as well as after the Virginia Peninsula Campaign. Without choice, the nation's Little Napoleon was reassigned command of the Army of the Potomac, and only divine providence at that hour was going to save the government.

     Back in command, his communication skills continued to deteriorate as General Lee had his army across the Potomac making a grand show of force in Western Maryland and threatening Washington itself. The President growing nervous for news from his army shot off one line inquiries to its commander for any information pertinent to its operations. On September 8th, 10th, and 12th 1862; he asked: "How is it now?" and: "How does it look now?"

     While the army was encamped in the surrounding area of Frederick, Maryland; soldiers of Colonel Silas Colgrove's 27th Indiana Volunteers stumbled across an oddly packaged roll of cigars. Tied around them was a copy of General Lee's Special Order No. 191, authentic looking as ever and giving the entire details of the current operations of the Army of Northern Virginia. Delivered to Colonel Colgrove's headquarters, the order ascended the chain of command having been placed in the hands of the army commander that afternoon.

     Dated September 9, 1862, Lee revealed his overall strategy. The Confederate Second Army Corps under Major General Thomas J. Jackson was ordered to march down the Hagerstown Road, taking the road to Sharpsburg and crossing the Potomac River to take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, cutting off the federal escape from Harper's Ferry in the direction of Martinsburg. The First Army Corps under Major General James Longstreet would march onto Boonesborough tasked with looking after the supply and baggage trains of the army. The divisions of Brigadier General John G. Walker and Major General Richard H. Anderson followed their corps commander as far as Middletown, Maryland where they detached in route to Maryland Heights. Walker's division crossed the river at Cheek's Ford and approached the federal garrison from Loudon Heights. Major General Daniel Harvey Hill formed the rear guard of the army protecting the wagon trains along South Mountain.

     The opportunity was one of a lifetime for any army commander. With a concentrated effort, Major General McClellan could have crushed the Army of Northern Virginia in detail.

     From his headquarters in Frederick on September 13, 1862; he notified the White House of the order falling into his hands and promised the President with confidence that no time should be lost in following the rebels up. He felt his opponent had made a gross mistake and declared severe punishment would be his fare. If his men were equal to the emergency he told Washington he'd catch them all in their own trap. He expressed confidence that he would send trophies.

     It was most hopeful news to those in the nation's capitol anxiously awaiting a clash between the two great armies; yet consistent with the lightning strikes of the major general commanding the army, he prepared and allowed roughly eighteen hours to pass before a single unit had been on the road to meet them. General Lee, in short order, learned that the intelligence of his Special Order 191 was compromised; a copy of which he learned was now in the hands of his federal counterpart. Still, it was quite enough time to wedge General Longstreet's rear guard in the passes of South Mountain cutting off the roads needed to relieve the Ferry.

     Since McClellan elected to bide his time, General Lee was determined to utilize it wisely, and ordered Major General Daniel Harvey Hill's troops to guard the mountain passes at Boonesborough blocking the escape from Harper's Ferry in that direction and forcing a resistance against the Army of the Potomac, who was now understood coming to relieve them. Marking the time of the first clash of arms in the wake of the compromised order, General Hill's brigades were attacked at 7:00 am the morning of Sunday, September 14th.

     Called on once more to save the national government from Confederate invasion, the compromise of Special Order 191 couldn't have made deploying the federal army any easier for Major General George McClellan. Having reported that all obstructions which may have blocked his path from relieving the garrison at Harper's had been cleared by the cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton by Saturday the 13th, the eighteen hour lull in operations established serious cause into the sanguinary Confederate campaign which resulted in an unnecessary standoff.

     In following up the enemy in the wake of Lee's withdrawal from the Antietam; McClellan once again was reluctant to move at all having been satisfied with driving the rebels out of Maryland. For President Lincoln it would be the last time he'd place anything into the hands of this general, who he personally liked. The Congressional elections of November swung the House in favor of the Republican Party and the Chief Executive felt free to relieve his Little Napoleon once and for all time. The opportunity of a lifetime had slipped through Little Mac's fingers and none would ever see such a golden opportunity of crushing the rebellion in one flail swoop again.




Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2005

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net