- Historic Sites
A LEADING CIVIL WAR HISTORIAN CHANGES ONE SMALL HAPPENSTANCE—WHICH IN TURN CHANGES EVERYTHING
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
The orders gave McClellan a picture of the division of Lee’s army into five parts, each at least eight or ten miles from any other, while the most widely separated units were thirty miles apart with the Potomac River between them. No Civil War general ever had a better chance to destroy an enemy army. As usual, however, McClellan moved cautiously. He did drive Confederate defenders away from the South Mountain passes on September 14, but Harpers Ferry fell to Jackson on the fifteenth, and Lee was able to concentrate most of the Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg before McClellan was ready to attack on September 17. After an all-day battle along the ridges above Antietam Creek, Lee was compelled to retreat across the Potomac. The victory, limited though it was, allowed Lincoln to issue his proclamation, but without the discovery of the lost order, things might well have gone very differently.
The odds against the sequence of events that led to the loss and finding and verification of these orders must have been a million to one. Much more in line with the laws of probability is something like the following scenario.
Special Order No. 191 failed to leak out, and while the Harpers Ferry garrison surrendered twelve thousand men and mountains of supplies to Jackson, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry performed outstanding service, bringing up stragglers and guarding the passes through the South Mountain range against the ineffectual probes of Union horsemen trying to discover the whereabouts of Lee’s main force. On September 16 McClellan arrived at Frederick, which Rebels had vacated a week earlier. By then Lee had reconcentrated his army at Hagerstown. Some ten thousand stragglers had rejoined the ranks, and thanks to the supplies at Harpers Ferry, the Army of Northern Virginia was well equipped for the first time in two months.
The Rebels moved north into Pennsylvania, brushing aside local militia and the outriders of Union cavalry who finally located them. Spreading like locusts through the rich farmland of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, Lee’s army—now fifty-five thousand strong—was able to feed itself better than it had in Virginia. On October 1 the van reached Carlisle. Lee sent a strong detachment of cavalry and part of Jackson’s swift-marching infantry twenty miles farther to the railroad bridge at Harrisburg, which they burned on October 3. The Confederate commander also sent his Maryland scouts back into their home state to locate the Army of the Potomac. They found it near Emmitsburg, just south of the Pennsylvania border, moving northward with a determined speed that suggested that McClellan finally meant to find Lee and fight him.
The scouts also reported to Lee that they had discovered a series of hills and ridges around a town named Gettysburg where numerous roads converged, enabling an army to concentrate there quickly. On October 4 Lee ordered his army to Gettysburg; they arrived there only hours before the enemy, and by October 6 the Army of Northern Virginia was dug in on the hills south of town.
McClellan came under enormous pressure from Washington to attack the invaders. “Destroy the Rebel army,” Lincoln wired him. From the Union position on Seminary Ridge, a reluctant McClellan surveyed the Confederate defenses from the Round Tops on the south along Cemetery Ridge northward to Cemetery and Gulp’s Hills. McClellan evolved a tactical plan for a diversionary attack on the morning of October 8 against Longstreet’s corps on the Confederate right. When Lee shifted reinforcements to that sector, the Yankees would launch their main assault through the peach orchard and wheat field against the Confederate left center on low ground just north of Little Round Top, held by Jackson’s corps. If successful, this attack would pierce a hole in the Confederate line, giving Union cavalry massed behind the center a chance to exploit the breakthrough. Napoleonic in conception, this plan had a crucial defect: It left the Union flanks denuded of cavalry.
At dawn the Union I and IX Corps carried out the diversionary attack on Cemetery and Gulp’s Hills. Lee saw through the feint, however, and refused to shift his reserves, A. P. Hill’s light division, to that sector. Longstreet held firm, so when the Union II, VI, and XII Corps attacked through the peach orchard and wheat field, they found Jackson ready for them. Fierce fighting produced a harvest of carnage unprecedented even in this bloody war, with neither side gaining any advantage.