WHAT WAS ARGUABLY THE MOST INCREDIBLE STRING OF COINCIDENCES that occurred during the American Civil War took place on the morning of September 13, 1862.
The extraordinary events of that day began between 9:00 and 10:00 A.M. when Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana sought some shade in which to rest as his regiment completed a march to Frederick, Maryland. His unit, like much of General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, was in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, which had crossed the Potomac River and entered Maryland several days earlier. As Mitchell stretched out under a tree alongside a fencerow, his eye caught sight of a foreign object nearby: a rather bulky envelope lying in the grass not far from where he was resting. (1) His curiosity prompted him to pick the envelope up, and inside he found a sheet of paper wrapped around three cigars. The heading on the paper read:
Hd Qrs Army of Northern Va Sept 9th 1862
Special Orders No 191
The document was nothing less than Lee's detailed marching orders for the Maryland campaign. They were addressed to "Maj Gen D. H. Hill Comdg Division" and were signed:
Command of Gen R. E. Lee
R. H. Chilton
A A General (2)
Corporal Mitchell alerted his first sergeant, John M. Bloss, and they carried the orders, and the cigars, to the company commander, Captain Peter Kopp. Captain Kopp sent the two men at once to the regiment's commander, Colonel Silas Colgrove, who in turn promptly headed off with the document to Twelfth Corps headquarters. As Colonel Colgrove subsequently related in an article published in the Century Magazine in 1886, "General A. S. Williams was in command of our division. I immediately took the order to his headquarters, and delivered it to Colonel S. E. Pittman, General Williams's adjutant-general."
At this moment, the series of coincidences surrounding Lee's "Lost Orders" took perhaps their most extraordinary turn. "The order was signed by Colonel Chilton, General Lee's adjutant-general, and the signature was at once recognized by Colonel Pittman, who had served with Colonel Chilton at Detroit, Michigan, before the war, and was acquainted with his handwriting," Colgrove wrote. "It was at once taken to General McClellan's headquarters by Colonel Pittman," he added. (3)
McClellan knew full well what had fallen into his hands: Lee's detailed plans for the Maryland campaign, giving the line of march for the various units of his army, orders that had been fully authenticated by a Union officer who could say without question that the document was genuine. "I have all the plans of the Rebels and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency," McClellan telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln at noon on September 13. "Will send you trophies." (4) The bloodiest single day of the Civil War was soon to follow along the banks of Antietam Creek.
Colgrove's tale of the discovery and verification of the "Lost Orders" remained the standard version of these events well into the twentieth century. (5) Not until Stephen W. Sears published his essay "Last Words on the Lost Order" in 1999 were some critical elements in Colgrove's 1886 account called into question by a prominent historian. "As Colgrove remembered their conversation, Pittman said he had served with R. H. Chilton in the old army in Michigan before the war and recognized his handwriting, but Colgrove's recollection was faulty," Sears wrote. "Pittman had entered the army only in September 1861, six months after Chilton resigned his U.S. commission to join the Confederacy." Citing evidence gleaned from Pittman's pension record and an 1886 article in a Detroit newspaper, Sears went on to say that according to "Pittman's own postwar recollection, he simply recognized Chilton's name as the army paymaster stationed in Detroit when he had lived there. …