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Chapter 16: “the lost order” --South Mountain.

  • How the Federals found the despatch
  • -- with every advantage mcclellan “made haste slowly” --lee turns back to meet him at South Mountain -- Longstreet preferred that the stand should be made at Sharpsburg -- the battle at the Pass -- many killed -- General Garland of the Confederate and General Reno of the Union side -- a future President among the wounded -- estimate of forces engaged.

The strange losing and stranger finding of Lee's “General order no. 191,” commonly referred to as “the lost despatch,” which he had issued September 9 for the movement of his army, made a difference in our Maryland campaign for better or for worse.

Before this tell-tale slip of paper found its way to McClellan's Headquarters he was well advised by his cavalry, and by despatches wired him from east and west, of the movements of Lee's army, and later, on that eventful 13th day of September, he received more valuable information, even to a complete revelation of his adversary's plans and purpose, such as no other commander, in the history of war, has had at a time so momentous. So well satisfied was he that he was master of the military zodiac that he despatched the Washington authorities of Lee's “gross mistake” and exposure to severe penalties. There was not a point upon which he wanted further information nor a plea for a moment of delay. His army was moving rapidly; all that he wished for was that the plans of the enemy would not be changed. The only change that occurred in the plans was the delay of their execution, which worked to his greater advantage. By following the operations of the armies through the complications of the campaign we may form better judgment of the work of the commanders in finding ways through its intricacies: [213] of the efforts of one to grasp the envied crown so haplessly tendered; of the other in seeking refuge that might cover catastrophe involved in the complexity of misconceived plans.

The copy of the order that was lost was sent by General Jackson to General D. H. Hill under the impression that Hill's division was part of his command, but the division had not been so assigned, and that copy of the order was not delivered at Hill's Headquarters, but had been put to other use. The order sent to General Hill from general Headquarters was carefully preserved.

When the Federals marched into Frederick, just left by the Confederates, General Sumner's column went into camp about noon, and it was then that the despatch was found by Colonel Silas Colgrove, who took it to division Headquarters, whence it was quickly sent to the Federal commander.

General McClellan reported to General Halleck that the lost order had been handed him in the evening, but it is evident that he had it at the time of his noonday despatch to the President, from his reference to the facts it exposed.

It is possible that it was at first suspected as a ruse de guerre, and that a little time was necessary to convince McClellan of its genuineness, which may account for the difference between the hinted information in his despatch to General Halleck and the confident statement made at noonday to the President.

Some of the Confederates were a little surprised that a matter of such magnitude was intrusted to pen-and-ink despatches. The copy sent me was carefully read, then used as some persons use a little cut of tobacco, to be assured that others could not have the benefit of its contents.

It has been in evidence that the copy that was lost had been used as a wrapper for three fragrant Confederate [214] cigars in the interim between its importance when issued by the Confederate chief and its greater importance when found by the Federals.

General Halleck thought the capital in imminent peril before he heard from McClellan on the 13th, as shown on that day by a despatch to General McClellan:

The capture of this place will throw us back six months, if it should not destroy us.

But later, the “lost despatch” having turned up at headquarters of General McClellan, that commander apprised the authorities of the true condition of affairs in the following:

Headquarters, Frederick, September 13, 1862, 12 M. (Received 2.35 A. M., September 14.)
To The President:
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.

Frederick City, Md., September 13, 1862, 11 P. M. ( Received 1 P. M., September 14.)
Major-General H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief:
1 An order from General R. E. Lee, addressed to General D. H. Hill, which has accidentally come into my hands this evening,the authenticity of which is unquestionable,--discloses some of [215] the plans of the enemy, and shows most conclusively that the main rebel army is now before us, including Longstreet's, Jackson's, the two Hills's, McLaws's, Walker's, R. H. Anderson's, and Hood's commands. That army was ordered to march on the 10th, and to attack and capture our forces at Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg yesterday, by surrounding them with such a heavy force that they conceived it impossible they could escape. They were also ordered to take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; afterwards to concentrate again at Boonsborough or Hagerstown. That this was the plan of campaign on the 9th is confirmed by the fact that heavy firing has been heard in the direction of Harper's Ferry this afternoon, and the columns took the roads specified in the order. It may, therefore, in my judgment, be regarded as certain that this rebel army, which I have good reasons for believing amounts to 120,000 men or more, and know to be commanded by Lee in person, intended to attempt penetrating Pennsylvania. The officers told their friends here that they were going to Harrisburg and Philadelphia. My advance has pushed forward to-day and overtaken the enemy on the Middletown and Harper's Ferry roads, and several slight engagements have taken place, in which our troops have driven the enemy from their position. A train of wagons, about three-quarters of a mile long, was destroyed to-day by the rebels in their flight. We took over fifty prisoners. This army marches forward early to-morrow morning, and will make forced marches, to endeavor to relieve Colonel Miles, but I fear, unless he makes a stout resistance, we may be too late.

A report came in just this moment that Miles was attacked to-day, and repulsed the enemy, but I do not know what credit to attach to the statement. I shall do everything in my power to save Miles if he still holds out. Portions of Burnside's and Franklin's corps move forward this evening.

I have received your despatch of ten A. M. You will perceive, from what I have stated, that there is but little probability of the enemy being in much force south of the Potomac. I do not, by any means, wish to be understood as undervaluing the importance of holding Washington. It is of great consequence, but upon the success of this army the fate of the nation depends. It was for this reason that I said everything else should be made subordinate to placing this army in proper condition to meet the large rebel force in our front. Unless General Lee has changed his plans, I expect a severe general engagement to-morrow. I feel confident that there is now no rebel force immediately [216] threatening Washington or Baltimore, but that I have the mass of their troops to contend with, and they outnumber me when united.

Geo. B. McClellan, Major-General.

With the knowledge afforded by securing Lee's “lost order” the passes of the South Mountain became important points. If he could force them, McClellan might fall on the divided columns of the Confederates and reach Harper's Ferry in time to save its garrison; but Lee received intelligence of his only moderate forward movement, and, without knowing then how it came to be made, recalled a force to make resistance, and, so supplementing or complementing by his rapid moves the Federal commander's slowness, saved his campaign from the disastrous failure that threatened it.

General McClellan claimed to have been more vigorous in pursuit after he received the “lost despatch,” but events do not support the claim. He had time after the despatch was handed him to march his army to the foot of South Mountain before night, but gave no orders, except his letter to General Franklin calling for vigorous action, which was afterwards tempered by caution to wait for developments at Turner's Pass. He gave no intimation of the despatch to his cavalry leader, who should have been the first to be advised of the points in his possession. General Pleasonton had pushed the Confederate cavalry back into the mountains long before night of the 13th under his instructions of the 12th. Had he been informed of the points known by his chief in the afternoon, he would have occupied South Mountain at Turner's Pass before any of the Confederate infantry was therefor apprised of his approach. General McClellan's orders for the 14th were dated,-- [217]

He wrote General Franklin at 6.20 P. M., giving the substance of information of the despatch, but not mentioning when or how he came by it, and ordered him to march for the mountain pass at Crampton's Gap, to seize the pass if it was not strongly guarded, and march for Rohrersville, to cut off the command under McLaws about Maryland Heights, capture it, and relieve the garrison at Harper's Ferry, and return to co-operate in capturing the balance of the Confederate army north of the Potomac; but, in case the gap was occupied by a strong force, to await operations against it until he heard the engagement of the army moving upon Turner's Pass. He wrote General Franklin that General Pleasonton had cleared the field east of the mountain of Confederate cavalry. After relieving Harper's Ferry, Franklin was to destroy bridges and guard against crossing of the Confederates to the north side, his idea being to cut the Confederate army in two and capture or break it up in detail. His appeal was urgent for the best work that a general could exercise. The division under General Couch was ordered to General Franklin, without waiting for all of its forces to join. This is the only order of the records that indicates unusual action on the part of the Union commander, and General Franklin's evidence before the Committee on the Conduct [218] of the War shows that his orders of the 13th were so modified on the 14th as to direct his wait for Couch's division to join him, and the division joined him after nightfall.

The divisions of the Ninth Corps reached Middletown on the 13th, under the orders of the 12th, issued before the lost despatch was found, one of them supporting Pleasonton's cavalry; but Rodman's, under misconception of orders, marched back towards Frederick.

South Mountain range, standing between the armies, courses across Maryland northeast and southwest. Its average height is one thousand feet; its rugged passes give it strong military features. The pass at Turner drops off about four hundred feet. About a mile south of this the old Sharpsburg road crosses at a greater elevation through rugged windings; a fork of this road, on the mountain-side, makes a second way over below Fox's Pass, while another turns to the right and leads back into the turnpike at the summit, or Mountain House.

On the north side of the turnpike a road leads off to the right, called the old Hagerstown road, which winds its course through a valley between a spur and the mountain, and courses back to the turnpike along the top. A more rugged route than this opens a way to the mountain-top by a route nearer the pike.

General Pleasonton, not advised of the lost despatch, did not push for a careful reconnoissance on the 13th. At the same time, General Stuart, forced back into the mountains, finding his cavalry unserviceable, advised General D. H. Hill of severe pressure, called for a brigade of infantry, ordered Hampton's cavalry down to Crampton's Pass to assist Robertson's brigade, Colonel Munford commanding, leaving the Jeff Davis Legion, under Colonel Martin, Colonel Rosser with another cavalry detachment, and Stuart's horse artillery to occupy the passes by the old Sharpsburg road. Colquitt's brigade of [219] infantry reported to him under his call. After posting it near the east base of the mountain to hold the pass, he rode to join his other cavalry detachments down at Crampton's Pass. He only knew of two brigades of infantry pressing him back, and so reported. His cavalry, ordered around the Union right under General Fitzhugh Lee, for information of the force in his front, had failed to make report. General Hill ordered two brigades, Garland's and Colquitt's, into the pass to report to Stuart, and drew his other three near the foot of the mountain. Garland's brigade filed to the right after ascending the mountain, and halted near the turnpike. Colquitt's brigade took its position across the turnpike and down towards the base of the mountain, Lane's batteries at the summit.

It seems that up to the night of the 13th most of the Confederates were looking with confidence to the surrender at Harper's Ferry on the 13th, to be promptly followed by a move farther west, not thinking it possible that a great struggle at and along the range of South Mountain was impending; that even on the 14th our cavalry leader thought to continue his retrograde that day. General Hill's attention was given more to his instructions to prevent the escape of fugitives from Harper's Ferry than to trouble along his front, as the instructions covered more especially that duty, while information from the cavalry gave no indication of serious trouble from the front.

A little after dark of the 13th, General Lee received, through a scout, information of the advance of the Union forces to the foot of South Mountain in solid ranks. Later information confirmed this report, giving the estimated strength at ninety thousand. General Lee still held to the thought that he had ample time. He sent for me, and I found him over his map. He told of the reports, and asked my views. I thought it too late to march on the 14th and properly man the pass at Turner's, and expressed preference for concentrating D. H. Hill's and [220] my own force behind the Antietam at Sharpsburg, where we could get together in season to make a strong defensive fight, and at the same time check McClellan's march towards Harper's Ferry, in case he thought to relieve the beleaguered garrison by that route, forcing him to first remove the obstacle on his flank. He preferred to make the stand at Turner's Pass, and ordered the troops to march next morning, ordering a brigade left at Hagerstown to guard the trains. No warning was sent McLaws to prepare to defend his rear, either by the commanding general or by the chief of cavalry. The hallucination that McClellan was not capable of serious work seemed to pervade our army, even to this moment of dreadful threatening.

After retiring to my couch, reflecting upon affairs, my mind was so disturbed that I could not rest. As I studied, the perils seemed to grow, till at last I made a light and wrote to tell General Lee of my troubled thoughts, and appealed again for immediate concentration at Sharpsburg. To this no answer came, but it relieved my mind and gave me some rest.

At daylight in the morning the column marched (eight brigades with the artillery), leaving Toombs's brigade. A regiment of G. T. Anderson's that had been on guard all night was not relieved in time to join the march, and remained with Toombs. The day was hot and the roads dry and beaten into impalpable powder, that rose in clouds of dust from under our feet as we marched.

Before sunrise of the 14th, General Hill rode to the top of the mountain to view the front to which his brigade had been called the day before. As he rode he received a message from General Stuart, informing him that he had sent his main cavalry force to Crampton's Pass, and was then en route to join it. He found Garland's brigade at the summit, near the Mountain House, on the right of the road, and Colquitt's well advanced down the [221] east side. He withdrew the latter to the summit, and posted two regiments on the north side of the pike behind stone walls, the others on the south side under cover of a woodland. Upon learning of the approaches to his position, he ordered the brigade under G. B. Anderson and one of Ripley's regiments up, leaving Rodes's brigade and the balance of Ripley's to watch for refugees from Harper's Ferry.

While he was withdrawing and posting Colquitt's brigade, General Pleasonton was marching by the road three-fourths of a mile south, feeling his way towards Fox's Gap, with the brigade of infantry under Colonel Scammon. Co-operating with this advance, Pleasonton used his cavalry along the turnpike. His batteries were put in action near the foot of the mountain, except one section of McMullen's under Lieutenant Crome, which advanced with the infantry. The battle was thus opened by General Pleasonton and General Cox without orders, and without information of the lost despatch. The latter had the foresight to support this move with his brigade under Colonel Crook. Batteries of twenty-pound Parrott guns were posted near the foot of the mountain in fine position to open upon the Confederates at the summit.

After posting Colquitt's brigade, General Hill rode off to his right to examine the approach to Fox's Gap, near the point held by Rosser's cavalry and horse artillery. As he passed near the gap he heard noise of troops working their way towards him, and soon artillery opened fire across the gap over his head. He hurried back and sent Garland's brigade, with Bondurant's battery, to meet the approaching enemy. Garland made connection with Rosser's detachment and engaged in severe skirmish, arresting the progress of Scammon's brigade till the coming of Crook's, when Cox gave new force to his fight, and after a severe contest, in which Garland fell, the division advanced in a gallant charge, which broke the ranks of the [222] brigade, discomfited by the loss of its gallant leader, part of it breaking in confusion down the mountain, the left withdrawing towards the turnpike. G. B. Anderson's brigade was in time to check this success and hold for reinforcements. Ripley's brigade, called up later, came, but passed to the right and beyond the fight. General Hill had posted two batteries on the summit north of the turnpike, which had a destructive cross fire on Cox as he made his fight, and part of Colquitt's right regiments were put in, in aid of G. B. Anderson's men. About two P. M., General Cox was reinforced by the division under General Wilcox, and a little after three o'clock by Sturgis's division, the corps commander, General Reno, taking command with his last division under Rodman.

As Sturgis's division came into the fight, the head of my column reached the top of the pass, where the brigades of G. T. Anderson and Drayton, under General D. R. Jones, filed to the right to meet the battle, and soon after General Hood with two brigades. The last reinforcement braced the Confederate fight to a successful stand, and held it till after night in hot contest, in which many brave soldiers and valuable officers were lost on both sides.

The fight was between eight brigades on the Union side, with a detachment of cavalry and superior artillery attachments, against two of D. H. Hill's and four of my brigades, with Rosser's detachment of cavalry and artillery. Ripley's brigade of Hill's division marched for the fight, but lost its direction and failed to engage. The Confederate batteries made handsome combat, but were of inferior metal and munitions. Numerically, the Union brigades were stronger than the Confederates, mine having lost more than half its numbers by the wayside, from exhaustion under its forced march. It seems that several brigades failed to connect closely with the action. Ripley's, on the Confederate side, General Hill said, “didn't pull a trigger.” G. T. Anderson claimed that some of his [223] skirmishers pulled a few triggers, while Harland's Union brigade of Rodman's division seems to have had little use for its guns. Lieutenant Crome brought a section of McMullen's battery up in close connection with Cox's advance, put it in, and held it in gallant action till his gunners were reduced to the minimum of working force, when he took the place of cannoneer and fought till mortally wounded.

On the Union side the officers had their time to organize and place their battle, and showed skill in their work. The Confederates had to meet the battle, as it was called, after its opening, on Rosser's detachment. The lamented Garland, equal to any emergency, was quick enough to get his fine brigade in, and made excellent battle, till his men, discouraged by the loss of their chief, were overcome by the gallant assault under Cox. General Reno, on the Union side, an officer of high character and attainments, was killed about seven o'clock P. M. Among the Union wounded was Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, afterwards President of the United States.

The pass by the lower trail, old Sharpsburg road, was opened by this fight, but the Confederates standing so close upon it made it necessary that they should be dislodged before it could be utilized.

The First Corps marched from the Monocacy at daylight and approached the mountain at one P. M. General Hooker had three divisions, under Generals Hatch, Ricketts, and Meade. General Hatch had four brigades, Generals Ricketts and Meade three each, with full artillery appointments. At two o'clock, General Hooker was ordered north of the turnpike to make a diversion in favor of the troops operating on the south side under General Reno. Meade's division was marched, followed by Hatch's and Ricketts's,--Meade's on the right, Hatch on Meade's left, Ricketts in reserve. Meade's division was deployed along the foot-hills. A cavalry regiment under [224] Colonel Williams, First Massachusetts, was sent to the far right in observation. Meade's advance was followed by Hatch and Ricketts.

General Hill's only available force to meet this formidable move was his brigade under General Rodes. He ordered Rodes to his left to a prominent position about a mile off which commanded that part of the field. Cutts's battalion of artillery had been posted on the left of the turnpike, to cover by its fire the route just assigned for Hooker's march. The weight of the attack fell upon Rodes's brigade, and was handsomely received. Evans's brigade, fortunately, came up, and was sent to General Hill, who ordered it out to connect with Rodes's right. Before making close connection it became engaged, and operated near Rodes's right, connecting with his fight and dropping back as the troops on his left were gradually forced from point to point.

As the brigades under Generals Kemper, Garnett, and Colonel Walker (Jenkins's brigade) approached the mountain, a report reached general Headquarters that the enemy was forcing his way down the mountain by the old Sharpsburg road. To meet this General Lee ordered those brigades to the right, and they marched a mile and more down a rugged way along the base of the mountain before the report was found to be erroneous, when the brigades were ordered back to make their way to the pike and to the top of the mountain in double time. General Rodes had five regiments, one of which he left to partially cover the wide opening between his position and the turnpike. In view of the great force approaching to attack him his fight seemed almost hopeless, but he handled his troops with skill, and delayed the enemy, with the little help that finally came, till night, breaking from time to time as he was forced nearer our centre at the turnpike.

Gibbon's brigade had been called from Hooker's corps, [225] and was ordered up the mountain by the direct route as the corps engaged in its fight farther off on the right.

A spur of the mountain trends towards the east, opening a valley between it and the mountain. Through this valley and over the rising ground Meade's division advanced and made successful attack as he encountered the Confederates. Cooper's battery marched, and assisted in the several attacks as they were pushed up the mountain slope. The ground was very rough, and the Confederates worked hard to make it too rough, but the divisions, with their strong lines of skirmishers, made progress. Rodes made an effort to turn the right of the advancing divisions, but Hooker put out a brigade from Hatch's division, which pushed off the feeble effort, and Rodes lost his first position.

It was near night when the brigades under Generals Kemper and Garnett and Colonel Walker returned from their march down the foot of the mountain and reached the top. They were put in as they arrived to try to cover the right of Rodes and Evans and fill the intervening space to the turnpike. As they marched, the men dropped along the road, as rapidly as if under severe skirmish. So manifest was it that nature was exhausted, that no one urged them to get up and try to keep their ranks. As the brigades were led to places along the line, the divisions of Hatch and Ricketts were advancing; the former, in range, caught the brigades under fire before their lines were formed. At the same time Meade's division was forcing Rodes and Evans from their positions, back towards the turnpike.

General McClellan claimed fifteen hundred prisoners taken by his troops, and that our loss in killed and wounded was greater than his own, which was fifteen hundred. He estimated the forces as about equal, thirty thousand each. General D. H. Hill does not admit that the Confederates had more than nine thousand. [226]

Several efforts have been made to correctly report the numerical strength of my column, some erroneously including the brigades detached with R. H. Anderson's, and others the brigade of General Toombs and the regiment of G. T. Anderson's brigade, that were left at Hagerstown. General Hill concedes reluctantly that four thousand of my men came to his support in detachments, but does not know how to estimate the loss. Considering the severe forced march, the five brigades that made direct ascent of the mountain were in good order. The three that marched south of the turnpike, along a narrow mountain trail part of the way, through woodlands and over boulders, returning, then up the mountain, the last march at double time, were thinned to skeletons of three or four hundred men to a brigade when they reached the Mountain House. That they succeeded in covering enough of the position to conceal our retreat after night is sufficient encomium of their valorous spirit.

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part II. p 281.

2 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part i. p. 48.

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