Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part three)

TurningPoints-logo(part three of three)

What exactly the Lost Order told McClellan has been the subject of much heated debate and controversy almost from the moment he glanced its contents.

From an intelligence standpoint, the Lost Order was important to McClellan, but not as much as has often been portrayed. As stated in the previous installment of this series, the most perplexing part about the campaign thus far to McClellan had been what Lee’s movements, heading in two different directions, meant. Now, the Lost Order simply solidified in McClellan’s mind exactly what Lee’s odd movements were all about. “I obtained reliable information of the movements and intentions of the enemy, which made it clear that it was necessary to force the passage of the South Mountain range and gain possession of Boonsborough and Rohrersville before any relief could be afforded to Harper’s Ferry.”[1]

Despite the clarification, the Lost Order was four days old when McClellan read it, and the wording called for the various parts of Lee’s plan to be achieved by Friday, September 12—the day before Union soldiers found the order. 

Naturally, the first thing to be done was to get his cavalry chief Pleasonton to verify the days old order. At 3:00 pm, Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy updated Pleasonton’s mission.[2] While time faded away as Pleasonton’s horsemen went about their business determining the veracity of the order, McClellan, now very aware of the possibility that Lee’s army may be divided in his front, pushed more of his army in that direction almost instantaneously.[3]

While setting the van of his army in motion, McClellan continued to browse through the order. It did seem that the discovery was a great find, but for as much as it told McClellan of Lee’s thus far undetermined intentions, the fog of war did not dissipate away like an early morning’s blanket of haze.

First, the order—which had been addressed to Gen. D.H. Hill, dropped by someone in the Confederate army, and then scooped up by three Indiana soldiers—began with Paragraph III. Either the Confederate high command proved unable to perform a simple arithmetic function (a highly unlikely proposition) or there was more to the order than what McClellan held in his hands. What did the first two paragraphs say further about Lee’s intentions?

A simple glance in the Official Records reveals that Paragraphs I and II state nothing about Confederate plans in Maryland. For McClellan to have known that was an utter impossibility. Certainly, the unanswerable question hung over his head throughout all of this: what was missing from the Lost Order?[4]

The wayward copy of Special Orders No. 191 also did McClellan no favors in the numbers department, already not one of the general’s best attributes. Earlier reports flooding into headquarters told McClellan of an enemy force numbering as high as 200,000 strong.[5] By the end of September 13, McClellan lowered this estimate not quite by half, concluding the enemy in his front “amounts to 120,000 men or more.”[6] The Lost Order does not mention anything of troop strength, but clearly designates five separate enemy columns before dropping in two vague references to the main body. Was the main body another column or one of the columns already mentioned, just by a different name? In addition, the very essence of Lee’s plan outlined in Special Orders No. 191 suggested a large number of Confederate soldiers in Maryland. Would the enemy divide itself into such disparate columns in a foreign land if it was such a small force? The Lost Order could not answer that question either.

Despite all of this, McClellan did plan an attack for September 14, armed with the solid information he did glean from Lee’s campaign plan. He began moving his forces into position on September 13 to carry the next series of ridges cutting north-south across the landscape of western Maryland.[7] So if the Lost Order did not provide McClellan with all of the information that he might have sought from such a fortuitous find, what then did it do?

As September 12 ended, the Army of the Potomac’s goals were to push west from Frederick and gain possession of Catoctin Mountain, a natural defensive barrier buttressed even more by the Confederate cavalry guarding the mountain passes. McClellan hoped that by carrying this mountain, Pleasonton’s cavalry could be in position the next day to go up and over the next barrier facing him—South Mountain.

The battle of South Mountain occurred on Sunday, September 14, and probably would have happened anyway, though perhaps on a smaller scale, as a natural extension of the Federals’ westward movement from Frederick whether the Lost Order was discovered or not. In McClellan’s first written report of the campaign, dated October 15, 1862, he also rightly recalled that the first place he received “reliable information that the enemy’s object was to move upon Harper’s Ferry and the Cumberland Valley, and not upon Baltimore, Washington, or Gettysburg” was while in Urbana on September 12.[8]

This is not to pronounce that the Lost Order had no significance whatsoever. Until that document came into McClellan’s hands, he was peering through the smoke screen attempting to derive the intentions of his opponent mostly unsuccessfully. Where the Lost Order proved crucial to McClellan’s intelligence reports was in its clear indication of what Confederate movements towards Harpers Ferry and the Maryland-Pennsylvania line meant. There were many other questions Special Orders No. 191 presented to the commanding Union general, but Lee’s intention no longer remained one of them.

The discovery of the Lost Order truly is an incredible story. Who could not indulge in a story like it? Its mysterious loss, the seemingly impossible find by three soldiers in a field, and its path up the chain of command right into George B. McClellan’s grasp accord the story a legendary status that few novelists could have framed better. Unfortunately, its import to the outcome of the campaign—and the war, say some—has been whisked into the legend of the Civil War.

Again, to say that the Lost Order’s odyssey is insignificant misses the point. To say that everything that subsequently happened in the Maryland Campaign hinged on this amazing story likewise does not stick to the track of the historical record. It is a story worthy of the ink spilled over its discovery, but does not accord it with the title of a major turning point of the Civil War.

[1] Report of George B. McClellan, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 26.

[2] Randolph B. Marcy to Alfred Pleasonton, September 13, 1862, 3:00 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 829.

[3] Randolph B. Marcy to Jacob D. Cox, September 13, 1862, 3:35 pm, ibid., 827; Edward M. Neill to Orlando B. Willcox, September 13, 1862, ibid., 827-28.

[4] The full text of Special Orders No. 191 is found in OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 603. The text of the Lost Order can be found in McClellan’s Report, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 42-43. The Lost Order reproduced in McClellan’s report omits the paragraph numbers, but the original copy of the Lost Order found in McClellan’s papers in the Library of Congress show the oddly numbered order, GBM Papers, LOC, reel 31.

[5] Andrew G. Curtin to George B. McClellan, September 10, 1862, 10:00 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 248.

[6] McClellan to Halleck, September 13, 1862, 11:00 pm, ibid., 281.

[7] In addition to the references previously cited in this work, George B. McClellan to William B. Franklin, September 13, 1862, 6:20 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 45-46, also provides information about the Army of the Potomac moving into positions to strike at South Mountain and relieve Harpers Ferry on September 13.

[8] McClellan’s Report, ibid., 26-27.

Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part two)

TurningPoints-logo(part two of three)

On September 10, 1862, as he advanced deeper into Maryland, Robert E. Lee began splintering his forces, as outlined in Special Orders No. 191. That day, all of his forces, mustered into five separate columns, started their movements to carry out the investment of the Federal garrisons in the Shenandoah Valley. Three of Lee’s columns marched towards Harpers Ferry (“Stonewall” Jackson’s column headed in that direction via a roundabout march through Williamsport, Maryland, and Martinsburg, Virginia). The two other columns—under James Longstreet and D.H. Hill—followed in Jackson’s footsteps, taking the National Road out of Frederick in the direction of Hagerstown.

However, contrary to what is written in Special Orders No. 191, only Hill stopped at the two columns’ appointed destination—Boonsboro.[1] Rumors of Federals approaching Hagerstown from Pennsylvania compelled Lee to further divide his forces by continuing Longstreet’s march until they reached Hagerstown near the Mason-Dixon Line.[2] 

Concurrent with Lee vacating Frederick, more information made its way into McClellan’s hands. The Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy repeated twice on the night of September 11 that he (and McClellan) received reports of the enemy leaving Frederick on the road to Hagerstown, two days before the Lost Orders came into the Federals’ possession. Confident enough in these reports, Marcy ordered Ambrose Burnside’s command to occupy Frederick the next day.[3]

Despite the certainties in the enemy movement out of Frederick, the fog of war still existed over the enemy’s movements as a new fold entered the intelligence sphere arriving at army headquarters. At 10:00 am the next morning, September 12, McClellan reiterated to Halleck his belief in the enemy’s abandonment of Frederick. This time, though, McClellan revealed that the route of the enemy’s movement stretched in two very different directions—one on the road running practically north towards Hagerstown and the other headed south in the direction of Harpers Ferry.[4]

An enemy army in foreign territory moving two separate ways surely must have puzzled George B. McClellan. Ambrose Burnside, in the van of the Army of the Potomac, echoed this: “I can hardly understand how they can be moving on these two latter roads at the same time,” he wondered. “If they are going into Pennsylvania they would hardly be moving upon the Harper’s Ferry road, and if they are going to recross [the Potomac into Virginia], how could they be moving upon Gettysburg?”[5] Regardless of the confusion, the head of Burnside’s column and portions of Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry command occupied Frederick by the evening of September 12.

The picture of Confederate dispositions percolating in McClellan’s mind did become clearer to the commanding general on September 12. His afternoon dispatches show him favoring the idea that Lee’s main column was marching towards Williamsport, Maryland, to return to Virginia.[6] Even in a nighttime note, McClellan told President Lincoln, “The main body of my cavalry & horse artillery are ordered after the enemy’s main column,” using the National Road out of Frederick.[7]

However, hunches or estimations could not be solely relied upon in a campaign fraught with so many consequences should the United States Army fail. Thus, McClellan ultimately had to admit, “My movements to-morrow will be dependent upon information to be received during the night” but told Burnside to bring his command to Frederick, prepared “to move in any direction that may be required.”[8] The bloodhound caught the scent, but did not yet know which path to follow. Above all of this, the question still hovered: what were the enemy’s intentions by moving on two roads in opposite directions?

By September 12, the momentum of the campaign began to shift away from Lee towards McClellan. Now in a position of relative strength with the Army of the Potomac beginning to mass around Frederick, no longer was the talk in McClellan’s dispatches of garnering reliable information. Rather, indications of striking at the enemy’s main column and having his commands ready to move at a moment’s notice dominate the correspondence of September 12. George McClellan was prepared to leap at the enemy, if only he could decipher exactly what that enemy was up to.

Saturday, September 13 began with Pleasonton’s cavalrymen saddling their horses and organizing for action. By daybreak, the blue horsemen trotted out of their Frederick camps in all directions ready for another day’s hard work. The weight of Pleasonton’s command pushed west on the road to Williamsport and Hagerstown.[9] Alfred Pleasonton set a lofty bar for his command to meet that Saturday—“If possible I shall go to Hagerstown tomorrow,” he reported on September 12.[10] Surely, the Confederate cavalry would have something to say about that.

Only a few miles west of Frederick, the Union horsemen stumbled into Jeb Stuart’s next line of defense atop Catoctin Mountain. A battle ensued there for much of the morning and, with the help of Burnside’s infantry, did not conclude until the early afternoon.[11] “A rapid pursuit was made,” recounted Pleasonton and, following several other skirmishes around Middletown, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry ended the day at “the foot of [South] mountain.”[12] In the time Pleasonton’s soldiers further developed the enemy and its whereabouts all day on September 13, developments behind them carried the Maryland Campaign into its next stage.

The Confederate roadblock at Turner’s Gap in South Mountain proved “to be too strong a position to be carried by my force,” Pleasonton admitted, but help was on the way.[13] Sometime after noon on September 13, a lost copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 came into McClellan’s hands.[14]

(to be concluded)

[1] The full text of Special Orders No. 191, not the Lost Order, is found in OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 603.

[2] Report of Robert E. Lee, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 145.

[3] Randolph B. Marcy to Edwin Sumner, September 11, 1862, 7:00 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 815; Randolph B. Marcy to Ambrose Burnside, September 11, 1862, 10:00 pm, ibid., 818.

[4] George B. McClellan to Henry Halleck, September 12, 1862, 10:00 am, GBM Papers, 448.

[5] Ambrose Burnside to Henry Halleck and George B. McClellan, September 12, 1862, 5:30 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 272-73.

[6] See George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, September 12, 1862, 3:00 pm, GBM Papers, 449.

[7] George B. McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, September 12, 1862, 9:00 pm, GBM Papers, 452; Randolph B. Marcy to Ambrose Burnside, September 12, 1862, 11:00 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 823.

[8] George B. McClellan to Henry Halleck, September 12, 1862, 5:30 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 271; Randolph B. Marcy to Ambrose Burnside, September 12, 1862, 6:15 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 823; Randolph B. Marcy to Ambrose Burnside, September 12, 1862, 8:30 pm, ibid.

[9] Report of Alfred Pleasonton, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 209.

[10] Alfred Pleasonton to Randolph B. Marcy, September 12, 1862, 9:15 pm, George B. McClellan Papers, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as GBM Papers, LOC) reel 31.

[11] Alfred Pleasonton to Randolph B. Marcy, September 13, 1862, 1:00 pm, ibid.

[12] Report of Alfred Pleasonton, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 209.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The timing of this being in the “evening” as compared to sometime before noon is clearly established in George B. McClellan to Henry W. Halleck, September 13, 1862, 11:00 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 281.

Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part one)

TurningPoints-logo(part one of three)

Civil War campaigns could often turn on a dime in favor of one army or the other. A sudden change in initiative marked the turning points of the war that scholars love to toss around the table. Described varyingly as “the all-time military jackpot,” a great intelligence coup handed out “on a silver platter,” and more, the idea that a lost copy of Robert E. Lee’s operational plans in Maryland mysteriously coming into the hands of Federal commander George B. McClellan turned the tide of the campaign—and maybe the war—has been passed down from one historical sage to the next, making the event one of the war’s memorable stories.[1]

At least, that is the story told with the gift of hindsight lighting our eyes. Indeed, the words of previous historians have been taken at face value, passed down as accepted truth, that Lee’s “Lost Order” gave McClellan every bit of information he—or any commander throughout all of history—could have ever hoped to find. Past historians have been quick to point out the importance of the discovery in a field outside Frederick, Maryland, but just as quickly dismiss its significance by passing off McClellan’s failure to capitalize on this stroke of luck.

Covering, and attempting to answer, all of the uncertainties still surrounding the lost copy of Special Orders No. 191 goes beyond the scope of this piece. More than enough ink—well more than what is contained on the Lost Order—has been spilled to attempt to solve all of the uncertainties. Instead, what this will aim to do is strip away the veneer painted over the Lost Orders in the last 155 years, forego the art of repeating historian after historian, and strictly go back to the written record of September 1862 to answer the perplexing question: how much of a turning point was the discovery of the Lost Order?

Early September 1862 produced rumors at epidemic proportions in Washington City and amongst the Federal high command. “Rumors of all kinds, defeats, victories,” jotted one Union soldier into his diary.[2] News of Confederate forces crossing into Maryland a few days into the month drifted downstream, into the city, further enhancing the wild nature of reports. One piece of gossip began floating around on September 7 that Braxton Bragg and his army were marching to reinforce the Confederates in Maryland, though Bragg in reality sat hundreds of miles away with no intent to enter the Old-Line State. However, the rumor could not be suppressed—and the truth discovered—for three whole days.

As the Army of the Potomac began its advance northwest from Washington, it might as well have marched with a blindfold over one eye. Information from multiple sources flooded McClellan’s mind, much of it coming from “unreliable sources & is vague & conflicting.”[3] McClellan’s own superior, Henry Halleck, remained in a state of near mental instability throughout the campaign, though mostly not of his own doing. The situation did not provide any clarity whatsoever for the commander in the field.

Beaten down from the rigors of running the war effort, Halleck snapped by early September 1862. While working in Washington, his wife lay ill in New York. Halleck’s brother in law clung to life, fighting the effects of his battlefield wounds. Four straight nights of no sleep did his mind no favors. As if all of this was not bad enough, a “very severe” case of hemorrhoids plagued the general, making him a bed-ridden general-in-chief likely taking opium to cure the ailment.[4] Halleck’s plagued and fuzzy mind unfortunately brought more confusion into the picture.

For Henry Halleck, Lee’s move into Maryland was nothing more than a ruse, a trick to draw much of the Union army away from Washington, thus draining the city’s defenses. Once Lee felt the Federal forces pursuing him were far enough away from the nation’s capital, he would turn his columns south, recross the Potomac River back into Virginia, and hit the weakened underbelly of Washington.[5] George B. McClellan did not—nor could he—dismiss these claims originally. “It is hard to get accurate news from the front,” he wrote on September 9.[6]

But by September 11, the enemy’s intentions became clearer to him. “At the time this army moved from Washington, it was not known what the intentions of the rebels were in placing their forces on this side of the Potomac,” McClellan wired Halleck. Was the force north of the Potomac meant, as Halleck feared, to weaken Washington’s fortifications in favor of a Confederate attack from the river’s south side? No, McClellan did not believe that anymore. “All the evidence that has been accumulated from various sources since we left Washington goes to prove most conclusively that almost the entire rebel army in Virginia, amounting to not less than 120,000 men, is in the vicinity of Frederick City.”[7]

By September 11, as evidenced by his telegram to Halleck, McClellan had cracked the first code of the Confederate invasion of Maryland. From numerous sources, he culled together the facts that the enemy meant to be—and stay—in Maryland, not move south and hit the nation’s capital. Even by that same night, more information began making its way to army headquarters.

(to be continued)


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 537; Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), 219.

[2] John S. Ellen Journal, September 2, 1862, Western Reserve Historical Society.

[3]George B. McClellan to Andrew G. Curtin, September 8, 1862, 9:00 pm, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (hereafter cited as GBM Papers), ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), 439.

[4] John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 146-48.

[5] Henry Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 13, 1862, 10:45 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 280-81. This belief continued to control Halleck’s views of the campaign even after the Battle of Antietam concluded. See Henry Halleck to George B. McClellan, September 19, 1862, 12:30 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 330.

[6] George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, September 9, 1862, 5:00 pm, GBM Papers, 442.

[7] George B. McClellan to Henry Halleck, September 11, 1862, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 254.

“Thenceforward and Forever Free”: The Emancipation Proclamation as a Turning Point

TurningPoints-logoWe are pleased to welcome Dan Vermilya, author of the upcoming Emerging Civil war Series book That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam. Dan, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, is also a licensed battlefield guide at Antietam National Battlefield.

When reviewing the history of the Civil War, there are many so-called turning points that emerge. One most often looks to the great battles of the war for these moments of contingency, when the affairs of nations could go in distinctly different and opposite directions. Our historical memory tends to look to Gettysburg as the primary turning point of the Civil War due to the sheer size of the fight there with its immense bloodshed and suffering. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address several months after the battle framed the struggle there as one that determined the future course of freedom.

There were, however, numerous other turning points in the war as well. Battlefields such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Vicksburg, as well as the 1864 campaigns in Virginia and Georgia all played a vital role in the war’s ultimate outcome.

Despite these many crucial battles, perhaps the most significant turning point of the conflict did not occur on the battlefield per se, but instead one that, though influenced by a major battle of the war, was itself an executive action by the President of the United States: the Emancipation Proclamation.

We tend to minimize or discount the Emancipation Proclamation as a point of contingency in the war. One reason for this is it does not stand out as a landmark document of rhetorical power and beauty. Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that the proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Its prose is dense and particular, not grand and moving. The proclamation seems difficult to follow, with legal particulars relating to when and where the proclamation was to take effect. Its nuances lead to questions about its efficacy and impact. Doubts abound over whether or not it actually accomplished anything, or whether it was indeed a turning point.

Through its intricate verbiage, though, Lincoln’s Proclamation is surprisingly powerful, earning its place as one of the most significant—if not the single most significant—presidential actions in American history.

Indeed, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps the turning point of the war. For the first two years of the war, the Federal government had been taking incremental steps toward the cause of freedom and abolition. Congress passed two different Confiscation Acts granting the United States army the ability to seize Rebel property, including slaves, as part of the war effort. Various generals in the field had issued edicts of emancipation, though limited in scale to their specific theaters of operations.

However, by the summer of 1862, there had been no presidential action on slavery as part of the war effort. While clear that the war was indeed about slavery and freedom from the outset (a simple reading of Southern secession documents and correspondence makes this evident), Lincoln had yet to take the step of making abolition a war aim of the Federal government. He was waiting for the right time to make such a bold proclamation.

Events on the battlefield led Lincoln down this path toward emancipation. After a summer of setbacks and defeats for Union forces, the war centered on the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September of 1862. Lincoln had decided that previous July that he wanted to issue a proclamation of emancipation, but was waiting for a Federal victory to strengthen his hand. The sanguinary struggle at Antietam on September 17 provided the victory for which Lincoln had been waiting, forcing General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to retreat from Northern soil that autumn. In the wake of the battle there, Lincoln released his proclamation on September 22, 1862, to go into full effect on January 1, 1863, when the final version was issued.

The proclamation certainly did have its drawbacks. It did not apply to the Border States of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, or Missouri. It exempted parts of the Confederacy that were already under Union control. It didn’t speak of freedom for slaves beyond the scope of the war. All of this was due to the proclamation’s basis as a military measure under Lincoln’s authority as Commander-in-Chief, without which he would have had no basis for issuing the document at all. It had to be specific. It had to have limits to meet its legal requirements. Better to make sure it passed the legal muster by including exceptions than to be too ambitious and be thrown out in a court of law. Yes, the proclamation was not perfect, but it was a legal document written at a complex time in American history. We should embrace and understand its complexity.

What the proclamation did was make clear what the war was about. For the first time in American history, the President of the United States took a bold executive action on the issue of slavery, affecting the lives of millions of men, women, and children held in bondage. By declaring that, as of January 1, 1863, those slaves in the states then in rebellion against the Federal government would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free,” the proclamation was a turning point in American history. The war was no longer being waged to preserve the nation as it once was. That nation had perished on the battlefields of the war. The war was now being waged for a new and better Union, one without slavery. It was an executive action signaling, as Lincoln himself would proclaim eleven months later at Gettysburg, “a new birth of freedom” in the United States. The influential Horace Greeley recognized this significance at the time, writing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “It was the beginning of the end of the rebellion. It was the beginning of a new life for the nation.”

Perhaps the most understated impact the Emancipation Proclamation had on the war was opening up the door for African Americans to serve in the armed forces of the United States during the conflict. By war’s end, over 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union army, and over 20,000 more in the Union navy. This influx of manpower was unavailable to the South due to its firm refusal to arm African Americans until the death rattle of the Confederacy was audible for all in the spring of 1865. Not only did these African Americans help to boost Union forces at a crucial time in the war; their service also did something which was arguably more important. It proved that African Americans were every bit as brave, patriotic, and yes, as human, as white soldiers serving in the conflict. All of this was made possible by the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is also important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation was itself indelibly tied to the bloodshed of the war. If not for the Union victory at Antietam, the proclamation may never have seen the light of day in 1862. Thus, though the Emancipation Proclamation was an epochal turning point, it did not occur independently. Many veterans of Antietam would later recognize this connection between the battle there and Lincoln’s proclamation. In 1903, for a dedication ceremony for Ohio monuments on the Antietam Battlefield, Robert P. Kennedy, a veteran of the 23rd Ohio who would later go on to serve in Congress, noted this undeniable link between the battle and the expansion of freedom in the United States: “Upon this field of Antietam was fought one of the most desperate battles of the War of the Rebellion, upon the outcome of which hung the destinies and liberties of millions of human beings.”

JFK at Antietam

One of the things I love about revisiting a battlefield is to see what jumps out at me this time. Each visit has the opportunity to bring something new if I remain open to it. Such was the case during a recent trip to Antietam.

The museum in the downstairs of the visitor center has some cool stuff on display, but of particular note to me this time was a large photograph of President John F. Kennedy taken during a visit to the park on April 7, 1963. Historian Robert Lagemann is standing with JFK on Burnside’s Bridge. The image itself was cool to see, especially so large, but what really made an impression on me was the quote, reproduced in large letters, that accompanied the photo. 

Antietam symbolizes something even more important than combat heroism and military strategy. It marks a diplomatic turning point of world-wide consequence. From this point onward, our Civil War had a new dimension which was important to the whole course of human liberty.

A veteran himself, Kennedy knew something about combat heroism. Wounded in action during WWII, he was decorated for bravery. And as president of the United States, he knew a little something about diplomacy of world-wide consequence, too, as demonstrated by his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It struck me as no small thing for JFK to make note of Antietam as a turning point not just of the war but of “the whole course of human liberty.”

I can hear him, in his thick Yankee accent, saying those words aloud in that clear, forceful voice of his. His sentiment echoed the brave optimism of his inaugural address, where he vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

JFK at Antietam

image courtesy NPS from a display in the Antietam NB visitor center

What must Kennedy have thought as he stood on that bridge, with his sunglasses on, looking off toward the high western bank of Antietam creek? What impression did the story of America’s bloodiest day make on him? How did he see that “turning point,” with its impact on “the whole course of human liberty”? I wonder about this last question a lot, knowing as I do that America stood on the brink of huge Civil Rights advances, but only after tumultuous, tumultuous times.

I wonder, too, about Kennedy, standing on that bridge where so many Union soldiers were shot down by long-range rifle fire. Knowing that Kennedy would likewise be shot down by long-range rifle fire just over seven months after this photo was taken—a monumental turning point in its own right—I have reason to pause. I think of that “whole course of human liberty” again. JFK’s assassination—55 years ago today—opened the way for LBJ’s ascension to the presidency and, eventually, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Would a Civil Rights Act have happened anyway, without LBJ?

What must Kennedy have thought as he stood there? Could he hear that “whole course of human liberty” flowing around him, like the quiet waters of Antietam Creek passing beneath him between the arches of Burnside Bridge?

A Place for Historical Fiction: Savas Beatie Tests the Waters

Really? Savas Beatie published a novel? No way!

. . . and then I talked to publisher Ted Savas. The following is an interview concerning the publication of Six Days in September, a novel of Lee’s army in Maryland, 1862.

Meg: How did it begin, this business of publishing non-fiction history-themed books?

TPS: A long time! It all began with Savas Woodbury and the publication of the journal Civil War Regiments in the very early 90s. That morphed into Savas Publishing in 1995 or 96, and that company was sold in 2001. Savas Beatie began in early 2004. I think you can look at SB as the natural extension of the two former companies with a three-year hiatus. Let’s just say the band needed a break and during my time off I thought about what I would do differently if I ever got back into the business.

Meg: Six Days in September is a novel about the Maryland Campaign from the Confederate perspective. It is not, by definition, a non-fiction book. How did you decide to publish this particular offering?

TPS: Alex [Rossino] self-published a small paperback printing a couple years back and someone told me about it and either mailed me a copy or I bought one. It sat around for months on my desk and I finally read it. The deeper I waded into it the more I enjoyed it and the more it intrigued me. Before I had finished I was thinking like an editor/publisher: What if he added a little more X, or did this to this section, or fleshed out this person a bit more, etc. It is impossible not to do that with any book I read, which is a curse, really.

I sat on it for about a month. It is hard to sell fiction, but I love good historical fiction and I really enjoyed this book. So I reached out to Alex and made him an offer.

Meg: What was it about the book that you enjoyed so much?

Ted Savas

TPS: First, the topic is perfect. It begins just before South Mountain, when the campaign is about slide off the rails for Lee and his army. I think that the fall of ’62 was the high point of the war for the South. The stakes were high. The triumvirate of Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson, now experts at their craft, are caught flat-footed by a Union response they do not fully understand. A bit of hubris lingers in the air above Lee. Longstreet could smell it, and I think it was the beginning of their real differences about how to wage war. It is very evident and I liked the way that was handled. All the characters are well-formed, warts and all, and believable, and include many of the army’s top generals, staff officers like Kyd Douglas, privates in Gordon’s brigade, and several citizens of Sharpsburg (real people Alex has reinvigorated with life).

I also thought the fog of war technique was brilliantly done. You only know what Lee and the main characters knew at the time of the events. And because we know what happened in real life, the decisions they make and how they make them is all the more exciting. Six Days pulses with a pace that makes it difficult to put down.

Meg: And the author is a trained historian?

TPS: He has a Ph.D. in history, worked at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, has a book out on World War II, and lives at the base of South Mountain. He knows the campaign inside and out, and it shows.

Meg: How is the new edition different from the self-published one?

TPS: In most respects, it is the same book. I thought he could have injected a bit more battle material—which he did—and we tossed some ideas back and forth about some of the characters and scenes, and Alex fleshed out the Afterword, which I think is wonderful There are many characters, so I suggested we add a Dramatis Personae and an essay on the real campaign to conclude the book. It also has three really good maps. All in all, it’s a nice package, and Alex was wonderful to work with.

Meg:  I could not help but be reminded of Killer Angels as I read it—did this factor into your decision to publish a book of fiction?

TPS: Like most other folks I loved Killer Angels, but it didn’t have any impact on my decision-making. I am pleased so many people have written or called to say they enjoyed Six Days just as much—or more, which was pleasing to hear. Honestly, it is very similar, and yet very different.

Meg: Will there be more fictional offerings from SB in the future? If so, can you tell us more?

TPS: I have no plans to publish historical fiction going forward on any regular basis. Alex is working on a companion novel from the Union perspective, which should be very interesting. If he wants me to publish it, I would do so.

Ted and Tall Chris

Meg: Whom do you want to play Robert E. Lee in the movie version?

TPS: (laughing). I always though Robert Duvall would have made a wonderful Lee, but he’s too old now, I’m too short, and Chris Mackowski’s too tall, so it might be tough to cast.

Meg: Anything else you would like to add?

TPS: Only that I hope your readers will pick up a copy and read it, because I know they will enjoy it. Encourage your local libraries to get a copy (or donate one to your local library). Many of us got hooked on Civil War fiction early and turned to non-fiction. Let’s keep that tradition alive.

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I have read Six Days, and yes, I was reminded of Killer Angels, but for all the right reasons. It is a good, solid read on its own, and it illuminates the Antietam campaign in ways I had not considered. ECW usually does not review fiction, but we have reviewed movies, television shows, and art. I hope that reviewing such work has set enough of a precedent that I will soon be able to offer a review of Alexander Rossino’s novel, Six Days in September. I agree with Ted–historian or buff, reading Civil War fiction is usually the first foray into history that many of us make.