This Day (Lost and Found Edition)

Published:September 13, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago, at about 10 o’clock in the morning, give or take, a Union corporal named Barton W. Mitchell, of the 27th Indiana, found a stray copy of Robert E. Lee‘s Special Orders No. 191, detailing the Confederate army’s movements in Maryland and Virginia. Supposedly the orders were wrapped around some cigars, which is my excuse for including the tobacco label above, and which seems to have inspired our friends at to exaggerate the random cigars into a whole box, which, once opened, “may be the reason that today the USA is one country instead of two.” They label today’s event No. 4 out of “6 Random Coincidences That Created the Modern World.” Who knew? Anyway, the so-called Lost Order looked like this:

It provided Union general George B. McClellan (last seen on these pages here) with much-needed insight as to Lee’s whereabouts, and some historians have credited said insight with McClellan’s subsequent victory at South Mountain, setting the stage for the decisive-ish battle at Antietam.

Here, for instance, is James A. McPherson in Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002):

“Now I know what to do!” exclaimed McClellan. General Gibbon, who was present, quoted the army commander as saying: “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip ‘Bobbie Lee,’ I will be willing to go home.”‘

The odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one. Yet they happened. No one knows how the orders came to be wrapped around three cigars and then lost .. [But whatever happened,] McClellan was granted a windfall such as few generals in history have enjoyed. It was a remarkable example of the contingencies that change the course of history.

For his part, Dimitri Rotov argues that this is nonsense. “By the time McClellan got Lee’s Special Order 191,” he writes, “the generals commanding in the Virginia theatre of war had captured each others’ orders five times in 26 days. McClellan’s find was the fifth incident in this series.” In case you’re curious, Rotov lays it all out in triplicate, doing everything but calculating the actual odds of this happening (I’m kind of disappointed he didn’t), and finally concluding: “Of the five orders taken in 26 days of August/September, 1862, Mac’s were the least actionable, although Mac did act on them … Describing McClellan’s find as unique is factually incorrect.”

Noted. But before we move on, I want to post two more tobacco labels, in honor of the occasion:

Oh, and two items of other business: You probably didn’t know that today is actually a holiday. Back in 1663, the House of Burgesses passed “An act keeping holy the 13th of September,” designed to mark a foiled attempt by servants in Gloucester County to rebel. Alas, it didn’t stick. And on this day in 2009, the novelist William Hoffman died. We covered the event in near–real time here.

IMAGES: Lithographic print of tobacco label with Stonewall Jackson against gray background, ca. 1873 (Valentine Richmond History Center); page 1 of Special Orders No. 191 (Library of Congress); Tobacco label showing three officers of the New York State Militia wearing shakos, Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1857; McClellan Smoking Tobacco