Archive for April, 2015

by Andy Mateja

The Battle of Antietam as many of us know was the bloodiest single day in American History. While there were many factors that led up to this epic struggle, it is important to understand the controversial effect that Special Order 191 had on the development of this battle.

As Gen Robt E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia moved north after their stunning victory at Second Bull Run (or Manassas), his plan was to draw the defeated Union army out of the fortifications surrounding Washington.  Lee intended to attack Maj Gen George B. McClellan, who was now back in command of the Army of the Potomac,   once it was out in the open. To provide clear and concise instructions to his military commanders, Lee issued Special Order 191 on Sept 9th 1862.  Lee was counting on McClellan’s extreme caution to beat him again as he did earlier during the Peninsular Campaign.

Special Order 191 addressed the issue that the Union troops at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg did not retreat on Lee’s advance so they had to be dealt with first before attacking McClellan.  Lee’s supply line would be in jeopardy otherwise.

Maj Gen “Stonewall” Jackson assigned the task of disposing of these Union troops with six battle- hardened Confederate divisions. Lee figured it would take only three days to accomplish this while the rest of his army waited for their return. Lee was not worried about dividing his army in the face of an approaching enemy due to McClellan’s overcautious approach while protecting Washington and Baltimore at the same time. Lee would re-concentrate his army before McClellan figured out what was happening.

Unfortunately fate took a strange turn which was about to affect upcoming events. As Union forces cautiously moved forward to find their Confederate opponents moving unobstructed through Maryland, on September 13th a corporal by the name of Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana found envelope by the roadside about one mile south of Frederick.  It contained single sheet of paper written on both sides wrapped around three cigars.  The heading on the letter stated “From Hdqrs Army of Northern VA – Special Order 191 CONFIDENTIAL.  It was addressed to Confederate Maj Gen D.H. Hill and turned out to be Lee’s operational plan.

Lee had sent copies of Special Order 191 to all of his division and command generals. Jackson himself also sent a copy to D.H. Hill who was temporarily serving under his command. While Hill did receive the copy from Jackson, the original order from Lee’s Hdqrs was the one that never delivered and was ultimately the copy that would up in the hands of Union Commander Maj Gen George B McClellan.

McClellan was ecstatic. It was at was at this time that McClellan uttered the immortal statement to Gen John Gibbon “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home”

Up till this time McClellan had no idea what Lee was up to. He thought perhaps Lee might have been trying to head into Pennsylvania or return back to Virginia as he believed Lee  “didn’t really want to fight him” .  When he received the lost order, he immediately telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln saying “I think Lee has made a gross mistake and that he will be severely punished for it….I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged….I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency”.

In essence, McClellan now knew that Lee had divided his army into four separate parts three days earlier and was going after the Union forces at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg via separate march routes for each. The Army of Northern Virginia would reassemble at either Hagerstown or Boonsboro and the entire operation was on a timetable.

However due to conflicting field reports, McClellan began to “second guess” the plan that Lee had outlined in Special Order 191 and became even more cautious. Deliberate attempts at confusion were the results of efforts by Stonewall Jackson & Maj Gen JEB Stuart. And has been his nature, McClellan was also nervous about being “outnumbered”.  He told the War Department that Lee had 120,000 men entering Maryland (the actual number was around 40,000).  McClellan believed Longstreet & DH Hill had the fewest amount of troops on hand and determined to attack them first. However unbeknownst to him, Jackson and Longstreet had already modified their orders from Lee, with Longstreet moving on Hagerstown instead of Boonsboro and Jackson moving on Harpers Ferry instead of Martinsburg.  Only D.H. Hill’s single division now remained at Boonsboro.

However to the dismay of Lincoln and the War Department, McClellan vacillated for almost 18 hours after finding the lost order before he advanced his army. Lee’s army had already been divided and scattered for several days and ripe for attack by a more aggressive opponent. Three Confederate divisions headed for Harpers Ferry while Jackson with the other three divisions advanced on Martinsburg. Maj Gen James Longstreet with D.H. Hill and two additional divisions would wait at Boonsboro for the piecemeal return of the Jackson and his forces.  Sept 12th was set for the commencement of the operations at Harpers Ferry.

McClellan did however order some of his troops to also advance on part of the Confederate forces near Harpers Ferry which were still on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. He felt he would be able to pin them against the river. However McClellan once again waited to long to order the advance.

McClellan’s version of events now began to evolve into something contrary with reality.  He reported to Washington that the “found order” he had had since noon was now just received that “evening” and only covered “some” of Lee’s plans. Pennsylvania was Lee’s supposed target now and McClellan would later claim erroneously that he frustrated Lee’s plans to invade The Keystone State.

As for the lost order itself, at first D.H. Hill was blamed for its loss. He was accused of dropping it or throwing it away since he had already received a copy direct from Jackson.  Hill said he NEVER received the order from Lee’s Hqrs – only the copy from Jackson.  The loss went undetected for several days before Lee found out and had to hastily change his plans.

News about finding a copy of Special Order 191 made it into the New York Herald on Sept 15th and also in another Northern newspaper. It was suspected that someone “leaked” the story to the press as the story mentioned the “three cigars” and had the name of the regimental colonel who forwarded it to the XII Corps commander. Some suspected multiple leakers as there was a news blackout in place ordered by War Department after Second Bull Run debacle.

After the war D.H. Hill claimed that the lost order actually helped Lee because it had misdirected McClellan as to his true intentions. Lee was furious with this claim and strongly reputed it.  Lee said he had learned during the evening of Sept 13th from JEB Stuart of McClellan’s possession of a copy of Special Order 191.  Being with Longstreet at the time near Hagerstown, Lee immediately ordered him to march back to Boonsboro, which fortunately resulted in the timely arrival and rescue D.H. Hill from certain defeat.

While the accidentally discovery of a copy of Special Order 191 was pivotal in defining the actions taken by both sides in the lead up to the horrific bloodletting at Antietam, image what the outcome would have been if Corporal Barton Mitchell had not stopped to pick up that unmarked envelope along the roadside that September morning in 1862……And would there have been an Emancipation Proclamation if Lee had defeated McClellan as he had originally intended…….???

 by Andy Mateja

It was the beginning of the end – Five Forks April 1st 1865. Some thought it was just an April Fool’s joke – After this great Union victory, Grant immediately notified Washington and ordered full assault on the entire Confederate line extending from Richmond to Petersburg.

The Union siege line continued to expand to the left in order to cut off Gen Robt E. Lee’s potential escape route. However as spring of 1865 approached, Lee had other plans which included an escape and a possible link up with the other remaining major Confederate army which was now in North Carolina.  At the time Grant commanded 112,000 men and Lee had about 50,000.  Lee was planning to link up with Gen Joseph Johnston’s Confederate forces and defeat Maj Gen William Sherman and then turn around with their combined forces and come after Grant.  The plan was ultimately hopeless.

Grant had anticipated Lee’s potential move. He ordered Maj Gen Phillip Sheridan with a combined cavalry and infantry force to cut the Southside Railroad which was Lee’s last line of supply.  In response, Lee ordered his own cavalry and infantry to attack the advancing Union forces at Five Forks.

Due to ineptness on the part of Maj Gen George Pickett who was in overall command of the endeavor, the Confederates suffered a crushing defeat and surrendered 4000 badly needed troops despite Lee’s plea to Pickett  to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards”

Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond the next day (April 2nd)…… a position he held for over NINE months. Lee planned to move westward and converge on Amelia Court House which was 35 miles away and from there move by rail into North Carolina to join Johnston. Sadly one of Lee’s best commanders, Lt Gen A.P. Hill was killed during this move and Lt Gen James Longstreet took over command of Hill’s and his own remaining forces.

Several of Lee’s divisions were cut off from his main body by the debacle at Five Forks. They had to cross the Appomattox River farther north at Bevill’s Bridge.  President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Government escaped the next day from Richmond by train to Danville. After the politicians were safely away, the remaining Confederate troops evacuated the capitol and left it in flames.

It was the beginning of a sad retreat with little or no organization for the Army of Northern VA who had marched 16 miles the first day with Longstreet’s men reaching almost 25 miles. This was an amazing feat for tired and hungry men.  All of them hoped that food and munitions supplies would be found waiting for them at Amelia Court House as Lee had ordered before leaving the lines at Petersburg.

As the Lee’s army moved, the bridge crossing were held by the first arriving division who then passed it on to the next arriving division until the entire army had crossed. This allowed for the scatted forces to successfully regroup at Amelia Court House two days later.

Grant however instead of directly pursuing Lee, sent Sheridan and his cavalry to Jetersville, south of Amelia Court House on a parallel route to prevent Lee from moving south from that position.

If Sheridan arrived there before Lee reached Amelia Court House, Lee would have to continue moving westward and farther away from a link up with Johnston while his army became weaker with every step.

Grant ordered his infantry to advance in two columns; one to follow behind Lee’s army and the other to join up with Sheridan and travel with him on the parallel route.  On Apr 4th Lee still had about 30,000 men who converged at Amelia Court House. To the disappointment of all, only ammunition was available. NO food supplies had arrived.  Inexplicable communication issues between the Confederate War Dept and Lee had delayed their departure from Richmond. Meanwhile, the Union cavalry was catching up but still not an imminent threat.

Lee, crestfallen and dejected, had no other choice but to order his men delay their movement in order to forage the local countryside for badly needed. At the same time he ordered 200,000 more rations to be sent from Danville where the Confederate government now resided.  The tired and hungry troops not finding any food at Amelia Court House, began to desert and blend away into the woods. There were still a few Confederate brigades that needed to cross the river before the final bridge could be burned to prevent Union pursuit. The delay in foraging cost Lee’s army one precious day and allowed Grant’s forces to get even closer. The saddest part of all was that the forage wagons brought back hardly anything.

On April 5th in order to expedite movement, Lee ordered his infantry to advance on one road toward Jetersville while the wagons and artillery went by another road. Union cavalry attacked the wagons and Sheridan’s dismounted cavalry had already blocked the road beyond Jetersville with Union infantry coming up fast.  Lee alternatively continued on westward toward Farmville. While he was advised by several of his commanders to stand and fight the following morning, Lee would not risk an engagement with his army that was almost starved and with no supplies in site. It now became evident that Lee had lost his lead over his Union pursuers.

Lee’s columns now had to combine with the wagons and artillery on the very same road. It was now a race for life or death.  While the front and rear of the Confederate column were solid, the center of the line was weak and becoming disoriented.

Union infantry now under Maj Gen George Meade had caught up with Sheridan and were planning to attack Lee on April 6th at Amelia Court House. However unbeknownst to Meade, Lee had already moved westward and his infantry pursued as close as possible while Sheridan and the cavalry paralleled Lee’s movements on an alternate road.

On April 6th Lee ordered the Flat Creek Bridge to be burned while his main column advanced toward Rice’s Station. He was also told that 80,000 rations waited for his hungry army at Farmville only a few hours distant….if they can get there. Lee’s men under Lt Gen Richard Ewell unwisely decided to protect the wagons against Union cavalry harassment without advising Lee, thereby creating an unfortunate gap in the center of the line.

Sheridan took advantage of the gap created by Ewell and attacked the weakly defended wagons and artillery at Sayler’s Creek.  He had essentially divided Lee’s column and stood squarely in the way of their reconnecting it.  Ewell further compounded the problem by separating the wagons from the rest of the column and taking an alternate fork to bypass the Union cavalry blockade. By doing so Ewell further separated his men from support of the rest of Confederate army.  Ewell’s 7000 men were now facing the enemy front and rear and completely isolated. Bedlam reigned in Ewell’s ranks as his men, feeling cut off and surrounded, put up only token resistance. Some however did break through to region Lee’s main army.

Lee’s army suffered over 6000 prisoners at Sayler’s Creek including NINE generals.  When Lee learned of this massive capture of men and wagons he said in disbelief “ My God has this army dissolved ?”           He immediately relieved Anderson, Pickett and Johnson of command. His effective army strength was about half of what it was when he abandoned Richmond & Petersburg a few days before. He still had to cross the Appomattox River to reach Farmville and the food rations waiting for his men.

On April 7th Lee’s men reached Farmville and the first food that many of them had in several days.  It was here that the first talk of surrender occurred between Lee’s remaining generals. Compounding the issue was that the High Bridge was not burned as expected allowing the Federal troops to continue to aggressively advance on Lee’s men. The starving Confederates barely had a chance to taste their food before that had to continue moving to escape their pursuers – still moving to the west instead of south.  Their rendezvous with Appomattox Station, where more food supplies awaited, was only 22 miles away.

Grant was also thinking about the surrender of Lee’s army and at 5PM on April 7th he sent a note to Lee under a flag of truce. “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in its struggle. I feel it is so and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C.S. army known as the Army of Northern Virginia” were the words Grant wrote down in his historic communiqué.

Lee still not convinced to throw in the towel, discussed the matter with Longstreet who concurred with Lee and said “Not yet”.  Lee then replied to Grant stating he felt the situation was not hopeless and asked what terms would Grant offer should he consider surrender ?

The next day rumors circulated through the Confederate ranks that notes passed between Lee and Grant and Lee himself was approached by his own artillery chief Maj Gen Pendleton that it was time to surrender. Lee dismissed Pendleton’s recommendation completely and refused to make eye contact with his General.   Grant sent off a reply that afternoon to Lee which didn’t arrive until the morning of April 9th.  In it Grant said that peace was his greatest desire and that the men surrendered take their parole and return to their homes not to bear arms again until properly exchanged. Lee reiterated his believe that the emergence has not yet arisen to call for the surrender of his army but that he gladly discuss the restoration of peace the following morning. Grant did not have the authority for this type of negotiation which he promptly declined. He would only talk about the surrender of Lee’s Army

In the meantime Sheridan had wedged his cavalry between Lee’s army and Appomattox Station and there were Union infantry on his heels.  Lee was trapped.  Lee held his last council of war, and decided it was time to go and meet with Gen Grant after one final attempt to “breakout”.

The attempt was made at 5AM on the morning of April 9th which had failed.  Lee now heard from Longstreet and several of his other generals that it was indeed time for surrender….. All Proud and Gallant Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia could sadly say was “then there is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths…”