George B. McClellan throughout his life up until 1862 had been a very fortunate man. Born into a family of wealth and prestige, he had gone through the Mexican War without a scratch and had been incredibly successful in civilian life, becoming president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad at the age of 34. In 1861 he had benefited from overwhelming numbers and lacklustre opposition in West Virginia, leading to Union victories which catapulted him to become General-in-Chief of the Union armies.
Then 1862 arrived and McClellan’s good fortune seemed to desert him. His delay in launching a general union offensive caused Lincoln to remove him as General-in-Chief, in effect demoting him to simply being the commander of the Army of the Potomac. His luck also seemed to go astray during his disastrous Peninsula Campaign, where his inordinate caution and meager battlefield generalship threw away a golden opportunity to seize Richmond and perhaps end the war.
After the crushing of Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Bull Run, Lincoln reluctantly placed McClellan back in command to fight against Lee in his invasion of Maryland. Now McClellan was lethargically following parts of Lee’s army, McClellan seemingly gun-shy after his defeat at the hands of Lee in the Peninsula Campaign.
On September 13, 1862 McClellan’s good fortune reappeared in a dramatic fashion. At approximately 10:00 AM that day Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana volunteers found a copy of an order from Robert E. Lee wrapped around three cigars. The order was dated September 9, 1862 and was designated Special Order No. 191. The order presumably was lost by a staff officer of D. H. Hill’s division which had been camping on the ground previously. The order was a movement order which detailed how Lee had divided up his army for the Maryland campaign. The order was quickly sent up the chain of command to McClellan.
McClellan was exultant. With this order he knew how Lee had divided his command and where the separate pieces of the Army of Northern Virginia were marching. “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”, he prophetically told his old friend General John Gibbon. He telegraphed Lincoln:
I have the whole rebel force in front of me, but am confident and no time shall be lost. I have a difficult task to perform, but with God’s blessing will accomplish it. I think Lee has made a gross mistake and that he will be severely punished for it. The army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged. We have possession of Catoctin. I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency. I now feel that I can count on them as of old. All forces of Pennsylvania should be placed to co-operate at Chambersburg. My respects to Mrs. Lincoln. Received most enthusiastically by the ladies. Will send you trophies. All well, and with God’s blessing will accomplish it.
Geo. B. McClellan
Here is the text of Special Order No. 191:
The Army will resume its march to-morrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson’s command will form the advance, and after passing Middletown, with such portions as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday night take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of the enemy as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper’s Ferry.
General Longstreeet’s command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsboro, where it will halt with the reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.
General McLaws with his own division and that of General R.H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet; on reaching Middletown he will take the route to Harper’s Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper’s Ferry and vicinity.
General Walker, with his division after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Check’s ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudon Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Keyes 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 General Jackson in intercepting the retreat of the enemy.
General D.H. Hill’s division will form the rearguard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, etc., will precede General Hill.
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 and bring up all stragglers that may have been left behind.
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 Boonsboro’ or Hagerstown.
Each regiment of the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordinance-wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood, etc.
By command of General R.E. Lee.
R. H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant-General. Major-General D.H. Hill, Command Division