Monday, September 17, 2012

One hundred fifty years ago ...

If a soldier hadn't found three cigars wrapped in paper lying on a field, Abraham Lincoln might have issued the Emancipation Proclamation many months later than he eventually did ... with who knows what effect on history.

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Copy of Special Order No. 191 (Wikimedia Commons)
A few days before, on Sept. 9th, 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee, having not long before whipped Maj. Gen. John Pope and the Army of the Potomac at Second Manassas, decided on a strategy to take the pressure off the South.  Lee knew that the Confederacy could never win a strictly defensive war; outpopulated by the Union, attrition would eventually whittle away rebel forces until surrender became inevitable.  On the other hand, President Abraham Lincoln was under pressure from two sides: Radical Republicans, unhappy with his less-than-successful prosecution of the war and slowness to strike a blow against slavery, and pro-Southern, anti-war Democrats ("Copperheads"), unhappy with the federal government's intervention in state affairs and the Administration's suspension of habeas corpus.  

 Unknown to him, and to most people, Lincoln had drafted a preliminary proclamation a couple of weeks before.  However, Secretary of State William Seward convinced him to shelve it at least temporarily, telling the president that, in the absence of martial victories, the measure would appear to be "the last shriek on the road to defeat".  Lincoln reluctantly saw the sense in this and put it away for a better opportunity.


A push into Maryland, Lee reasoned, could do several things. For one, it would take the burden of the war off Virginians for at least a short time, while setting the North on the defensive.  A successful campaign could conceivably convince the Maryland population to join the Confederacy, which would isolate Washington, DC.  Finally, it could increase the pressure on Abraham Lincoln to either resign or end the war on terms favorable to the South; while Lee couldn't and didn't count on this particular outcome, it was a tantalizing thought.

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Cpl. Mitchell
Accordingly, Lee drafted Special Order 191.  In the order, he split the Army of Northern Virginia into four parts, sending three of them north under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (in what was then part of Virginia).  This would not only provide some much-needed stores for his underequipped army but also secure one end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which would help transport food from the Shenandoah Valley to the ANV in Maryland.  The rest, under the command of Maj. Gen. James "Pete" Longstreet, would await them at Boonsboro, Maryland.

How the one copy got lost, no one really knows.  Lee's adjutant, Robert H. Chilton, is known to have written and countersigned four copies, one of which was sent to Jackson.  Jackson in turn wrote out two more copies, one of which he gave to his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, whose division had camped out on the Best farm near Monocacy, MD, the night before it was found.  Jackson, a very strict Presbyterian, didn't smoke.

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Source: Thomas' Legion.
The state of literacy being what it was, 46-year-old Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry may not have realized what the paper was when he picked it up on Sept. 13th.  However, his sergeant, John M. Bloss, did.  Quickly, the paper — with or without the cigars — flew up the chain of command, until it landed in the hands of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, to whom Lincoln had handed command of the Army of the Potomac shortly after Second Manassas.

McClellan, to his credit, immediately recognized the gift that had been handed to him almost as deus ex machina.  "Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I would be willing to go home."  And yet, incredibly, he proceeded to fritter away his advantage by waiting a full eighteen hours before setting his army in motion.  Nevertheless, once McClellan set his forces in motion, the movement went rather swiftly.  On September 14th, the Army of the Potomac dashed up the Old National Road to attack Lee's forces, meeting them in battle at South Mountain about 4.3 km southeast of Boonsboro.  Lee and Longstreet fought a largely successful delaying action which allowed Jackson just barely enough time to force the garrison at Harpers Ferry to surrender, then retreated to a line just east of the town of Sharpsburg, with their left on the Potomac and their right on Antietam Creek.

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Source: BelThorn Design Studios.
There are other places where you can find greater detail on the Battle of Antietam that was fought this day a century and a half ago.  Suffice it to say that, again, McClellan exaggerated Lee's forces and wasted his actual superiority in uncoordinated, piecemeal attacks against strong positions such as the Sunken Road (forever after known as "Bloody Lane").  The one attack that might have led to victory — Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnsides' attack from the bridge against Longstreet's corps — was delayed so long by poor scouting that it enabled Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill's division to arrive just in time to reinforce Longstreet and push Burnside back.  For all of that, only 2/3rds of the Army of the Potomac had been engaged in the struggle; had McClellan committed his reserve to an all-out push, the Army of Northern Virginia, with its back to the Potomac and one pathetic little ford its only line of retreat, would not only have been defeat but destroyed.  As it was, after spending the 18th silently daring McClellan to make another assault, Lee led his forces back over the river and into Virginia.

But not unmolested.  Although more soldiers lost their lives at Shiloh just a few months before, Antietam was the bloodiest single day of the war up to that point.  The Union suffered 12,400 killed, wounded, captured or missing, or about 16.5% of a total combat strength of 75,000; the Confederates lost 10,300, or about 27.1% of the 38,000 effectives Lee had had at the start.  Moreover, while tactically the battle was a draw, strategically it was a defeat for Lee — his plan to shift the burden of the war northward had ended before it had really begun.

The true import of Antietam was yet to be realized.  While Lincoln admitted that the outcome wasn't all that he had hoped for, it was enough.  On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation, setting the stage for one of the watershed events of American history.  While Seward complained, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free," contemporary estimates hold that at least 20,000 African-Americans in Union-held areas of the Carolinas, the lower Shenandoah Valley and around Alexandria, VA were immediately freed, as were uncounted hundreds and thousands of slaves being cared for behind Union lines as "contraband".  

Moreover, having finally put his foot across the line, Lincoln found the political courage to back the proclamation with an amendment to the Constitution officially ending slavery once and for all.  The Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress on January 31, 1865 and was ratified before the year ended.

Corporal Mitchell, the soldier who had found Lee's dispatch, was wounded in the leg at Antietam.  Suffering from chronic infection of the wound, he was discharged in 1864.  He did live to see the Thirteenth Amendment become law, dying in 1868.  But I wonder if he ever got one of those cigars.