“Six Days in September”: Author Alexander Rossino Adds His Voice

I interviewed Ted Savas, publisher of Alexander Rossino’s fiction work Six Days in September. At that time Alex Rossino graciously offered the opportunity for an interview. Time is a slippery fish, and sometimes it gets away from me, but finally, I am able to introduce ECW readers to Alexander B. Rossino, award-winning WWII historian and the author of Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity.

MG: Before we get to Six Days in September, tell us something about yourself, please.

ABR: Sure. I’m a bit of an odd bird in the Civil War field. I hold a doctorate in modern European history from Syracuse University and worked in the research institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC for about 9 years. In 2003 I published a monograph study titled Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (University Press of Kansas) that took a detailed look at ideologically motivated violence during the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. It won a Choice Book Award for that year, but despite my success in the field, I walked away from it. Not wanting to teach leaves precious few options for historians so I wandered in the wilderness for a while, so to speak. I still wanted to write and publish, though, and given that my interest in the American Civil War dates back to childhood, it made sense to explore the possibilities. The ball really got rolling when I began visiting Western Maryland regularly in 2009. The landscape fired my imagination about Civil War history in general and the 1862 Maryland Campaign in particular. It made sense after a while to turn my keyboard in that direction.

MG: What was the inspiration for writing Six Days in September as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction?

ABR: Several factors took me in the direction of historical fiction.

First, I wanted to challenge myself. I’d already published a well-received academic history and several scholarly articles, so non-fiction history was familiar territory. Writing historical fiction, by contrast, wasn’t familiar in the least. Making the transition from historical writing to historical fiction was definitely daunting. Not only is the use of a different voice required—typically a first-person perspective versus the third person—there is also the question of dialogue. For those of us trained as historians, the thought of creating dialogue can be nauseating. Initially, there is the psychological/training barrier to overcome and I struggled mightily with that. It’s the little voice in your head saying, ‘who are you to put words into the mouth of Robert E. Lee?’ as you type. Then there is the task of writing in a way that captures the reader’s attention and holds it. The personalities need to come alive to the point that even after a reader puts down the book he/she will ruminate on what Lee, or Longstreet, or Jackson said. If you can accomplish that then you’ve won the biggest battle (other than finding a publisher)! I took accomplishing that as a personal challenge and wanted to see if I could master the process.

My second reason for writing a novel rather than a non-fiction history had to do with wanting to draw public attention to the Maryland Campaign. Lee’s 1862 campaign often gets overlooked because of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. The three-day fight at Gettysburg in July 1863 was indeed important, but I’m in agreement with a lot of Civil War scholars who believe the war’s real turning point occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lee’s reverse there ended the possibility of European intervention in the war and it provided Lincoln with political cover to introduce the Emancipation Proclamation. Two-plus years of bloody conflict remained to be fought, but the Confederacy’s best chance to win the war came and went in September 1862. Most general readers don’t know that, so I wanted to raise the Maryland Campaign in the public’s consciousness. I thought doing so might bring more visitors to Sharpsburg and to the Antietam National Battlefield, and I hoped my work would boost the sale of Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle histories. Historical fiction is the gateway drug of interest in Civil War history so I thought I’d try to run with it. Gettysburg saw a huge uptick in visitation after Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels. I hoped I might be able to achieve a similar result for Antietam.

Lastly, I think there are already solid histories out there of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. In a crowded field like that one needs to find a new angle. Historical fiction seemed like a wide-open road.

MG: What specific primary sources did you use for Six Days?

ABR: Everything I could get my hands on. I used the Official Records, regimental histories, memoirs, etc. I also did some primary research at the Sharpsburg Historical Society, leveraged photographs and maps and walked the combat sites. Basically, I approached researching the book in the same way I approach researching a non-fiction history. The only differences are in writing up the evidence and in the perspective presented.

MG: How did you use primary source materials to create the relationship between “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee?

Alex Rossino

ABR: This was a tricky task that required looking beyond the primary sources because I didn’t find much out there that described interactions between the two men. I read back into everything available on their interaction from Lee’s assignment as head of the Army of Northern Virginia to the invasion of Maryland and beyond. We need to remember that as of September 1862, Lee and Jackson hadn’t known each another very long. Lee had only been in command of the ANV since the beginning of June that year. Before then he had exchanged some correspondence with Jackson concerning Harper’s Ferry and operations in the lower Shenandoah Valley, but that was about the extent of things. The best I could do was put myself in the shoes of each man when they were conversing – Lee, formal and aloof, in most cases. Jackson, quirky, snappish, and taciturn. If an occasion did exist where there was recorded dialogue between the two men I did my best to weave it into the text. Even then, however, I made slight changes in phrasing because of the questionable nature of memory. As Ted Savas, Managing Director of my publisher Savas Beatie, likes to say from his experience as an attorney, people’s memories can’t be relied upon. Even direct witnesses will come away from events with different opinions on what others said. Add a few days or weeks and those memories become increasingly suspect. As an historian I’ve learned not to take any quote as sacrosanct unless multiple sources record it exactly the same way and that almost never happens.

MG: Most of us–including me–do not know much about Henry Kyd Douglas as a person. How did you use primary sources to create his unique personality?

ABR: Well, the best primary source is Douglas’s own writing. The trick is to read what he wrote for an understanding of the man, not necessarily for a recounting of events. I Rode With Stonewall was written by a man with a clear desire to be remembered. Douglas’s ego is on full display, so I used his own voice in the book flesh out his historical personality. Where direct information about Douglas was lacking I resorted to context. Accounts of what it was like to be a staff officer with Stonewall Jackson can provide an understanding of what Douglas may have experienced. Weaving the together the context with what I took from Douglas’s writing itself resulted in the character you meet in Six Days. I wanted to be as faithful to Douglas, and all the other historical personalities for that matter, as possible.

MG: Why Antietam, of all the available battles other than Gettysburg?

ABR: Because Antietam deserves more attention than it gets and because Gettysburg has been done to death in both fiction and non-fiction. Antietam, and South Mountain, for that matter, were critically important fights with lasting repercussions. I thought the Maryland Campaign deserved its own iconic novel, which I humbly hope I’ve managed to write. Then, too, there’s the fact that I live in the shadow of South Mountain. The Maryland Campaign is all around me. It just made sense to write about what I experience on a daily basis.

MG: Although Six Days is certainly its own book and stands on its own, how much of a factor was Killer Angels as the book developed?

ABR: It lurked in the background, but I wouldn’t say it was a major factor most of the time. The selection of the Sixth Alabama as the one unit I’d follow was a hat-tip to Shaara’s work, for example. The Sixth fought on the extreme left of the Confederate line on South Mountain, just like the Twentieth Maine fought on the extreme left of the Federal line at Gettysburg. Beyond this, the similarities disappear. Whereas The Killer Angels takes some liberties with the facts of what happened, I tried to make Six Days as meticulously accurate as I could. I may have fallen short here and there but the mistakes are honest and can be corrected in future editions. Shaara also blends the Union and Confederate stories together while I chose to write them up separately. I wanted to detail the Confederate experience in isolation from the experience of Union troops because that is how the participants lived things. Writing from one side of the field provides a certain continuity that is lost when a reader jumps back and forth from side to side. I wanted to achieve a fog of war effect and make the reader feel like even though he/she might know the history, he/she wouldn’t necessarily know what was coming next. I wanted the immediacy of the moment to come through so that one could think with Lee as he worked out what was occurring. In this way, one shares in the decision process and comes away with a better understanding of why Lee took the steps he did.

MG:  Now to the really important question! Who plays whom in the movie? And I am glad there is at least one role for a woman . . .

ABR: Yes, the important question! I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said they’d like to see Six Days on film. Of course, I’d like to see it, too. Movies about the Civil War almost always end up disappointing those of us who know a lot about the history. We need a film that focuses on the story without trying to bring in all of the events; a film that captures the desperation of the moment without being maudlin or melodramatic.

Can you imagine Barry Pepper as Gilbert Farney sweating under his coonskin cap during the fight at the Sunken Road? Pepper played Private Daniel Jackson, the sniper, in Saving Private Ryan. I’ve also thought Adrian Brody would make a good Franklin Turner, the captain from Maryland who volunteers to serve on Jackson’s staff. Either Zac Efron or Jamie Bell would fit the part of Billy Dennis, Gilbert Farney’s best friend in the Sixth Alabama. Bell starred in Turn: Washington’s Spies, which I really enjoyed. We can’t forget about Reverend John Alexander Adams either. Clint Eastwood would be perfect for him at his current age, but it might be too modest a part for an A-lister like him. Bryan Cranston would be a good choice, too.

For the major Confederate characters—Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson—I think the actors need to be entirely new to an American audience. I don’t mean they need to be foreign, just that they need to be new faces. I’ve watched Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen each play Robert E. Lee and throughout their performances, I kept saying to myself, “Hey, its Robert Duvall!” I love the guy’s work, but we need to see Lee on the big screen without the distraction of him being played by a major star, in my opinion. The portrayal needs to be gritty and above all human. Lee showed plenty of emotion on the field, especially at Sharpsburg. That should come through.

As for female leads, you are right, there are a couple of roles, which I’m grateful I was able to write in. There’s a lot of testosterone in Six Days that needed some balance. We’d need to cast a Savilla Miller, the woman I found to be one of the bravest people I came across in my research. She stood under fire on her front porch all day during the fight at Antietam providing water to Confederate troops. Evan Rachel Wood could probably play her well. More important would be casting Reverend Adams’s wife, Mary Anna. Jessica Lange could probably capture the required bitterness and pathos of the character.

MG:  What are you currently working on, and what is next?

ABR: Good question. Back in January, I submitted an article to Civil War Monitor that I’m waiting to hear about. It’s honest to goodness history about George McClellan in Frederick on September 13, 1862. The date is key, of course, because that was the day when McClellan received the misplaced copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. I co-wrote the article with Gene Thorp, who had done an amazing amount of primary research but didn’t have the time to write it up. We compared notes when I was doing research for my next book and found we had a lot of interpretive points in common so we collaborated on it. The gist of our argument is that McClellan moved with alacrity on September 13 after reading Lee’s orders. We believe the whole “McClellan had the slows” argument is incorrect and in need of re-evaluation.

Concerning the next book, I’m about 50% finished writing the Yankee companion volume to Six Days. The book covers exactly the same period of time but examines events from the Union point of view. I’m writing it to square the circle and tell the other side of the story. The Northern perspective is fascinating. Political intrigue in the command staff of the Army of the Potomac has proven challenging to navigate, and McClellan is generally not a sympathetic character. I’m also focusing on a handful of enlisted guys with the Twenty-Third Ohio, especially an Irishman named Thomas James Kelly. He’s the Gilbert Farney of the book. A new perspective I’m adding is that of a regimental commander—Colonel Jacob Higgins of the One Hundred Twenty Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers. I realized after finishing Six Days that I hadn’t written much to represent the experiences of commanders in the middle ranks. This is something that Shaara covered in The Killer Angels, but it’s new turf for me. Finally, there is also a big role for George Armstrong Custer, who served on McClellan’s staff in Maryland. He plays the aide-de-camp who witnesses events role represented by Franklin Turner in Six Days.

As for women, I’ve been able to fit in a character who nurses Tom Kelly after he ends up wounded at the Battle of South Mountain. She’s a suffragette and so radical in her beliefs (a real Susan B. Anthony type) that she throws Kelly for a loop!

MG: Is there anything I did not ask about that you would like ECW readers to know?

ABR: There is. Folks might want to visit my website every so often. The address is www.alexanderrossino.com. I post tidbits there about the writing process that might answer some questions people have after reading Six Days. For example, I composed an entire introduction for the book which didn’t make it into the published edition so I’ve posted it there.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that although I conceived Six Days as an historical novel, I’ve never thought of it entirely as fiction. Telling the story in the form of a novel required that I create dialogue and a few situations to fill holes, but most of the material is as honest to the history as I could make it. I even used the dialogue to develop my own interpretation of the events. In short, I tried to write a book I thought historians would enjoy and they are a tough crowd. If you can please them you can please anyone. All I hope is that I managed to achieve some success.

*     *    *

I have read Six Days and enjoyed it immensely. I am looking forward to the Yankee version, of course. Movies and good fiction are two excellent hooks to get people interested in history. People love a good story, and those told by the past are among the best. I am sure that Six Days is inspiring imaginations even as I write. Thanks, Alex.

The Field of Blood Now Available

That Field-coverIt’s been a quiet spring for ECW on the publishing front, but we’re delighted to finally have another book to share from our Emerging Civil War Series: the highly anticipated volume on Antietam!

That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 was written by Dan Vermilya. Dan formerly worked at Antietam and is a licensed battlefield guide there. He currently works for Gettysburg National Military Park at its Eisenhower unit.

Aside from the usual great writing you except from an ECWS book—accessible and reader friendly—plus cool Hal Jespersen maps and a ton of modern and historical pictures, The Field of Blood features a foreword by another prominent historian of the battle, John Hoptak.

Best of all, That Field of Blood has some particular hooks that make it stand out from other books on Antietam. 

First, Dan had an ancestor at the battle, a member of the 106th PA. That personal connection offers a unique and personal window into the story of Antietam.

Second, the book contains several never-before-published historical photos of the battlefield during its development.

Third, and most important of all, Dan dismisses the commonly held perception that Antietam was a draw. It was a flat-out Union win, he says—and if that shakes your tail feathers a little, Dan has the evidence to back it up.

Order your copy from publisher Savas Beatie today and you can get a limited edition signed bookplate.

And speaking of Antietam, don’t forget about our upcoming Pop-Up Tour at Antietam’s Cornfield over Memorial Day Weekend. For only $20, you can join ECW historians Kevin Pawlak and Dan Welch as they follow in the footsteps of George Hartsuff’s brigade through the Cornfield, to the Smoketown Hospital, and even, for some of them, to the National Cemetery. Order tickets here. Proceeds go to help support ECW’s preservation projects with Civil War Trails.

(And yes, while it’s been quiet for ECW on the publishing front, our sister site, Emerging Revolutionary War, launched its own exciting book series this spring: The Emerging Revolutionary War Series.)

Reminder: First ECW Pop Up Tour

George Hartsuff

We are just weeks away from the first ever ECW Pop Up Tour at Antietam. On May 26, Kevin Pawlak and Dan Welch will trace the fighting of George Hartsuff’s brigade in the famous Cornfield. No other First Corps brigade sustained more casualties during the fight than Hartsuff.

In preparation for the tour, we asked guide Dan Welch a few questions. 

ECW: The Cornfield at Antietam has become iconic in Civil War lore. How come?

DW: In the field of military history, it is often the stories heroism or great sacrifice that become a draw for researcher and enthusiast alike. The Cornfield at Antietam has no shortage of either, with the shear number of casualties and minutes of terrifying violence drawing even more significance to that small tract of land.

ECW: What do YOU like about the Cornfield as a Civil War landscape?

DW: For me, I like walking the landscape, becoming a part of it. I can’t even count the number of times I have walked from the North or East Woods through that field following in the footsteps of numerous Union soldiers. Watching the horizon, watching the terrain, both changing about me as I move forward—it becomes part of you.

Most my memorable interaction with the landscape was walking that tract of land on the 150th anniversary. I was working that day and could not get down to the battlefield until 6:30 p.m. that night. Even on the anniversary, I had the Cornfield to myself. I imagined the fight earlier that day and what it must have been like to walk that ground in the late evening among the dead and dying.

ECW: Of all the places on the Antietam battlefield you could’ve chosen to take people, why follow the footsteps of George Hartsuff?

DW: Well, Hartsuff’s brigade will take us to one of most famous and iconic locations on the Antietam battlefield, but it will also tell the story of the some of the units in the Federal army that suffered the highest number of casualties in combat during the battle. When we talk about the destruction and death of the Cornfield, we often talk in abstract numbers and statistics. Hartsuff’s units will personalize that story for us on this tour.

ECW: Your tour will really take a personal focus on the men, following in their footsteps during the battle and talking about their experiences afterwards. That seems like a different approach than the “standard” battlefield tour. Tell us about that?

DW: Kevin and I have talked numerous times in preparation for this tour and how unique this approach is. Both of us have given numerous tours and have been on numerous tours on many, many battlefields, but none of them followed a specific unit throughout their entire battle experience. To take attendees over the ground this brigade fought on, to the hospital where their wounded began a new battle for survival, and the final resting place of those who died on the field and at the hospital will be a moving and powerful way to tell the larger story of the battle through a representative unit.

ECW: Aside from spending time on the battlefield, the tour will visit the Smoketown Hospital and the National Cemetery. What will those sites do to help illuminate the story you’re going to be telling?

DW: We are going to humanize the story, make it personal. Yes, a unit in Hartsuff’s brigade suffered 67% casualties. Who were the men that made up that number? What did they look like? Where were they from and what did they do before becoming soldiers?

ECW: You’ve been doing a lot of work lately focusing on the Smoketown Hospital, which’ll be on your tour. What draws you to that place?

DW: Over the years, the aftermath story of Gettysburg has finally been drawing attention, both in scholarship and public programming. Few other sites of engagements have received that same level of attention for that story, but it’s a story that needs to be told. Smoketown Hospital will ultimately become the largest field hospital at Antietam and the longest serving.

What fascinates me most about Smoketown are the challenges the wounded and doctors faced in an outdoor field hospital during the winter months of 1862-63 in western Maryland, and the fact that as the battle of Chancellorsville waged, and, later, as the Gettysburg campaign began, the wounded of Antietam were still on that battlefield recovering from their wounds months earlier.

ECW: What should people keep in mind as they prepare for the tour? Do they need to study up before they show up? Any logistical things they should prepare for?

DW: Prepare for the weather, rain or shine. Boots if it’s muddy. Sunscreen if it’s sunny. Water and bug spray. There are a number of excellent works on Antietam to study or read before the tour; however, the story of Hartsuff’s brigade will be complete, so just come and enjoy it.


The caravan tour will begin at the New York State Monument monument adjacent to the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center and end at Antietam National Cemetery. The tour will last from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The cost is $20 per person, payable by the link below. All proceeds from the tour will go toward preservation work with Civil War Trails.

We’ll hear from guide Kevin Pawlak next week!

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.