A Lee Letter on the “Lost Dispatch” and the Maryland Campaign of 1862
Hal Bridges

Note: The following is taken from the April 1958 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 66), pp. 161–66.

Edited by HAL BRIDGES*

ONE of the most controversial ocurrences of the Civil War was the loss of General Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, the famous “Lost Dispatch,” during Lee’s Maryland campaign of 1862. It has been commonly supposed that after the war Lee refrained from putting into writing his opinions regarding the lost orders and their effect upon his fruitless invasion of Maryland. His reluctance to engagein postwar military disputes is well known. Nevertheless, he did comment at some length on the Maryland campaign and the Lost Dispatch in a signed autograph letter of February 21, 1868, to his former division commander General D. H. Hill. A photostat of the letter, which is published below, is in the Daniel Harvey Hill Papers, Southern Historical Collections, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A copy of it also appears in Lee’s personal letterbook in the Library of Congress. The original has not been found.1

D. H. Hill was a key figure in the events that centered about the Lost Dispatch. Special Orders No. 191, dated September 9, 1862, and issued at Frederick, Maryland, where the Confederate army was concentrated, sent troops under Generals “Stonewall” Jackson, Lafayette McLaws, and John G. Walker on a wide sweep west and south to capture the Union garrisons at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. General James Longstreet’s command, the reserve artillery and supply trains, and Hill’s division as rearguard were sent to Boonsborough, at the western base of the portion of the Blue Ridge known as South Mountain. The mountain and General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry to the east of it screened Lee’s divided army from General George B. McClellan’s oncoming Union host of more than eighty thousand men, moving slowly and cautiously along the National Road out of Washington. When Harpers Ferry, Lee’s main objective, had been taken, the Confederate army was to be reunited at either Boonsborough or Hagerstown.2

Jackson occupied Martinsburg on September 12; Harpers Ferry surrendered on September 15. But meanwhile, on September 13, an official copy of Special Orders No. 191 was found by a Union private on D. H. Hill’s old camp ground at Frederick and conveyed to McClellan. The copy had been issued from Lee’s headquarters, and was addressed to Hill.3 Thus apprised of Lee’s plans, McClellan attempted to drive across South Mountain and crush the separate portions of the Confederate army. On September 14 he launched some seventy thousand Union troops against the principal pass of South Mountain, Turner’s Gap, near Boonsborough, and at the same time sent General William B. Franklin with eighteen thousand men to attack Crampton’s Gap, which led to Harpers Ferry.4 Disaster threatened Lee, but the heavily outnumbered Confederates on South Mountain held back the Union troops until after night on the fourteenth,5 and Lee managed to reconcentrate and to fight the battle of Sharpsburg (September 16 and 17) before withdrawing across the Potomac into Virginia.

After the war, D. H. Hill reviewed the whole question of the lost orders and the Maryland campaign in an article entitled “The Lost Dispatch” that appeared in The Land We Love, a monthly magazine that he edited and published in Charlotte, North Carolina.6 He sent a copy of the article to Lee, who replied in his letter to Hill of February 21, 1868.

Hill’s purpose in writing the article was to refute an accusation by Edward Albert Pollard, who in his book The Lost Cause had declared that Hill had lost Special Orders No. 191 by throwing the paper to the ground “in a moment of passion.”7 Hill branded this charge as completely untrue. If it were true, he declared, he deserved to be shot; yet Lee, “who ought to have known the facts, as well as Mr. E. A. Pollard,” had never brought him to trial for such an act, and President Jefferson Davis had later promoted him to lieutenant general.8

Continuing his refutation of Pollard, Hill pointed out that the missing copy of Special Orders No. 191 might have been lost in Lee’s office, or by Lee’s courier. It was “very improbable,” he argued, that Lee should have sent a copy directly to him, as at the time he was under Jackson’s command, and received all orders through Jackson. The copy of the orders that Jackson had sent him he had carefully preserved. But he had no recollection of receiving a copy from Lee. Furthermore, he had the certificate of his adjutant, Major J. W. Ratchford, that no copy from Lee had been received in divisional headquarters.9

As to the effect of the Lost Dispatch on the Maryland campaign, Hill maintained that the accurate information that McClellan had gained from the lost copy of Special Orders No. 191 was that Lee had divided his forces in order to capture Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. But McClellan must have learned this much anyway, from the sound of the artillery at Harpers Ferry and from information brought him by his scouts. Moreover, the lost orders conveyed additional information that was inaccurate, and that had “mystified and deceived” McClellan. The orders had led him to belive that Longstreet on September 14 was at Boonsborough, when in fact Longstreet, accompanied by Lee, had marched his troops thirteen miles further north to Hagerstown.10 McClellan must also have thought that on September 14 Jackson was at Boonsborough, to which point the orders directed him to return after taking Martinsburg. But Jackson, “in violation of Lee’s order” had gone on to Harpers Ferry, and on September 14 was directing the attack on the Harpers Ferry garrison.11 When McClellan on September 14 attacked Turner’s Gap, he moved slowly and cautiously because he thought he was fighting the troops of Longstreet and Jackson as well as those of Hill; but actually through most of that day Turner’s Gap was defended only by Hill’s battle-depleted division of some five thousand men. Longstreet did not get back from Hagerstown to help defend the pass until after 3 P.M. Had McClellan not been deceived by the Lost Dispatch he would immediately have brushed aside Hill’s little force, cut Lee’s army in two, and captured his reserve artillery and supplies. McClellan’s misinformation, wrote Hill, “saved Lee from destruction; and in the inscrutable Providence of God the loss of the dispatch prolonged the Confederate struggle for two more years.”12

Lee, after reading this argument, was moved13 to take issue with Hill in the letter of February 21, 1868, which follows:

Lexington Va: 21 Feb. 1868

Genl D. H. Hill
Charlotte N.C.

My dear Sir

I am obliged to you for the opportunity you have afforded me of reading your article on the “Lost Dispatch.” I have not read Mr. Pollards account & therefore do not know what he says; but at the time the order fell into Genl McClellans hands, I considered it a great calamity & subsequent reflection has not caused me to change my opinion.

Your division having joined the Army after the 2nd battle of Manassas, was placed in front in its subsequent movement, & was the first to cross the Potomac. When the whole army was ready to cross, Genl Jackson was sent to the front and directed to take command of the advanced troops; and when it became necessary to dislodge the Federal troops occupying Martinsburg & Harpers Ferry, he was by verbal instructions placed in command of the expedition. The special order of 9th Sept: which you quote, was intended to guide the several divisions in the general movement of the Army. In it your division was designated as the rear guard, & it was proper in my opinion that a copy of the order should have been sent to you by the Adjt Genl; and as you were by it withdrawn from Genl Jacksons command, it was also right for you to have been served with a copy from his office.

I do not know on what ground you charge Genl Jackson with a violation of orders by going from Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry. In his official report he says, “In obedience to instructions from the Commg Genl, & for the purpose of capturing the Federal forces & stores then at Martinsburg & Harpers Ferry, my command left the vicinity of Frederick City on the 10th,
& passing rapidly through Middletown, Boonsborough, & Williamsport, recrossed the Potomac into Virginia at Lights ford, on the 11th. x x x x x x x [Lee’s ellipsis marks] “The Commg Genl having directed Major Genl McLaws to arrive with his own & Genl R. H. Andersons divisions to take possession of the Md: Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry, & Br Genl J. G. Walker, pursuing a different route, to cross the Potomac & move up that river on the Virginia side & occupy the Loudoun Heights, both for the purpose of co-operating with me, it became necessary before making the attack to ascertain whether they were in position. x x x x x x” [Lee’s ellipsis marks] “Leaving Genl Hill (A.P.) to receive the surrender of the Federal troops, & take the requisite steps for securing the captured stores, I moved, in obedience to orders from the Commg Genl, to rejoin him in Maryland, with the remaining divisions of my command.”14

These extracts are sufficient to show the manner in which Genl Jackson viewed his orders & the measures he took to execute them. When they were issued (9th Sept.) I supposed there would have been time for their accomplishment & for the army to have been reunited before Genl McClellan could cross the South Mountains. Genl Stuart who was on the line of the Monocacy15 with the cavalry masking our movements & watching those of the Federal army, reported that Genl McClellan had reached Rockville & was advancing very slowly with an extended front, covering the roads to Washington & to Baltimore. Early on the morning of the 14th I recd at Hagerstown a dispatch from him stating that he had fallen back to the South Mountains; that Genl McClellan was pressing forward on the roads to Boonsborough & Rohersville gaps,16 & that he had learned from a citizen of Maryland, that he was in possession of the order directing the movement of our troops.17 Nor did he seem to have been “mystified & deceived” by it; for on the 13th of Sept., the day on which it is said to have reached him, he wrote to Genl Franklin Commg the left wing of the Federal Army, that he had “full information as to the movements & intentions of the enemy”; and after reciting the substance of the orders informing him of the arrangements he had made to force a passage through Boonsborough gap, he continues: “Couch has been ordered to concentrate his division & join you as rapidly as possible. Without waiting for the whole of that division to join, you will move at daybreak in the mor[nin]g by Jefferson & Burkettsville upon the road to Rohersville x x x x x x [Lee’s ellipsis marks] Having gained the pass, your duty will be first to cut off, destroy, or capture McLaws Command & relieve Col: Miles. If you effect this you will order him to join you at once with all his disposable troops, first destroying the bridges over the Potomac, if not already done, and, leaving a sufficient garrison to prevent the enemy from passing the ford, you will then return by Rohersville on the direct road to Boonsboro’, if the main column has not succeeded in its attack. If it has succeeded, take the road to Rohersville, to Sharpsburg & Williamsport, in order either to cut off the retreat of Hill & Longstreet towards the Potomac, or prevent the repassage of Jackson.”18

I do not know how the order was lost, nor until I saw Genl McClellans published report after the termination of the war did I know certainly that it was the copy addressed to you. From what I have stated you will see that I do not concur with you in the opinion that its having fallen into Genl McClellan’s hands was a “benefit” but on the contrary, “an injury to the Confederate arms.”

Wishing you all happiness & prosperity I am very respyy our obt Servt