No other document of the Civil War has generated so much controversy as Lee's Special Orders No. 191. These "Lost Orders" detailed the movements of Lee's army for the operation against Harpers Ferry. On September 9 Lee sent copies of the order to his subordinate commanders. The copy that General George B. McClellan read on September 13 was found by three Federal soldiers in an abandoned campsite near Frederick in an envelope wrapped around three cigars. The envelope was addressed to General D. H. Hill. Due to confusion between General Lee's and General T. J. Jackson's headquarters over Hill's place in the chain of command, two copies of Special Orders No. 191 were sent to Hill. Hill received his copy from Jackson while the copy from Lee was lost.
McClellan's good fortune permitted him to move with a certainty he had never before displayed. Lee was puzzled by McClellan's uncharacteristic speed and took actions to protect his army until it could be concentrated. Later McClellan was criticized for not destroying Lee's army. Whatever criticism was due, it is unfair to argue that McClellan lost an opportunity presented to him by S. O. No. 191. By the time the Federals found the orders, they were already dated. Jackson was safely on the Confederate side of the Potomac and General James Longstreet could easily have crossed the Potomac at Williamsport. Had Lee chosen to seek safety across the Potomac, the Union troops in the Catoctin Valley could not have prevented him from doing so. On September 12 even before learning of S. O. No. 191, McClellan issued orders that would lead to the Battle of South Mountain. These orders placed the vanguard of General Ambrose E. Burnside's troops in the Catoctin Valley on the 13th. McClellan's main force did not arrive at the foot of South Mountain until the 14th.
If the Lost Orders had never been found, the battles of South Mountain and Antietam still would have occurred and Lee's gamble in Maryland still would have failed. Lee's chance for success was lost, not because his orders were found, but because his army remained divided too long and McClellan moved faster than Lee expected.
This is your heritage. To learn about battlefield preservation and interpretation, ask your park rangers. · Donated to the people of the United States by Barton C. Allen, D.D.S of Texas.