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      "Exasperating and nerve-wearing had been the result of Colonel Chilton's curious and never-explained misunderstanding of orders..."

National Cemetery -- Culpeper, Virginia

The Case Against Robert Hall Chilton

      When I read the accounts of the circumstances surrounding the "Lost Dispatch" I became puzzled as to why no one had seriously investigated Robert Hall Chilton, Lee's Adjutant General who signed the Special Orders 191. I had just finished reading Douglas Southall Freeman's, Lee's Lieutenants, where I remembered Chilton's role being flawed to say the least. Returning to that work, I traced every index reference to Chilton.

      Chilton appears in three major scenes. In every one, his role provided room for suspicion. Here is what I found that established, for me, Chilton as the prime suspect for a historical betrayal.

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      The first situation where Chilton is mentioned at length occurs during the Seven Days Battles. In his appearances, we find him placing Magruder out of position and the ordering Stuart to enter a battle by a bridge much further than necessary.

      "Magruder, the ever-galloping, started immediately by a short route a local guide showed him, and he left his artillery to follow by the road. While he was on his way through the woods, another summons came. Col. R.H. Chilton sent word that he wished to show Magruder where to take position. Without waiting to see what Chilton intended to do, Magruder hurried off Major Brent to Holmes on the unpleasant mission that already has been described. Then "Prince John" dashed off and met the Chief of Staff, who conducted him to a position in the forest on the right of Holmes. There, Chilton explained, Lee wished Magruder to place his troops. Magruder did not wait for more details. He dispatched officers to find his Brigades and to bring them up. In person he spurred away to locate Holmes."

      Magruder dashing about can't find Holmes and orders Semmes to move forward in darkness. Semmes protests. Magruder insists.

      "Off once more rode Magruder, this time to hasten the advance of the remainder of his troops. On the way , he received orders to abandon the movement on the right of Holmes and to return to the support of Longstreet. Most of Magruder's troops by this time had reached New Market, much farther to the rear than he should have directed them. He sent an officer to recall them, and himself waited for them at the junction of the Long Bridge and Darbytown roads. As soon as the head of his column arrived, he put spurs to his mount again and hurried to report to Lee. At headquarters, he was told that, when his troops were at hand, he was to relieve Longstreet. To supervising this transfer of front line position, Magruder devoted himself until 3 AM and then he slept an hour. It was his second hour of repose in seventy-two. His men, of course, were exhausted. Most of them had marched twenty miles that day and had kept the road for eighteen hours, but not one of them had been privileged to draw trigger."    Vol. I. p. 586

      "This, then, was the result of the attempted convergence of all the infantry opposite the line of McClellan's retreat: Holmes had been stopped by superior artillery; the reserve Divisions of Magruder had been worn out to no purpose; Huger had spent the day cutting a road; Jackson had not crossed White Oak swamp; almost 50,000 Confederate troops, for one reason or another, had done virtually nothing on the day when Lee and hoped to overwhelm his adversary."    Vol. I. p. 587

      "[At 3:30 AM on June 30], by his [Stuart] pallet stood a courier with a dispatch from Lee's Chief of Staff: the enemy, wrote Col. Chilton, had been headed off at the intersection of the Long Bridge and Charles City roads; Stuart should recross the Chickahominy to cooperate with Jackson. Grapevine probably would be the best bridge for him to use. [OR, 11, pt. 2 PP. 497, 518] Stuart scrutinized the note: it bore date of June 30, but no hour. When, Stuart demanded of the courier, had the dispatch been written? "Nine PM" answered the man.

      "Stuart did not stop to question the statement or to inquire how a courier could have found him so quickly in the confusing hours of a dark night. he reasoned that if the enemy had been found and had been halted at the designated point, the quickest way to reach Jackson would be to move by Bottom's Bridge, not by Grapevine. Time might be saved, also, if he rode ahead of his troops and ascertained for himself what the situation was. Quickly he mounted and galloped off. The orders left for the men were that they should follow him via the bridge he had chosen.

      "To Bottom's, Stuart rode at his dashing speed. No enemy remained at that point. Up the Williamsburg road he went, then turned abruptly to his left and hurried southward to White Oak Swamp. There the rear Brigades of Jackson's command were moving swiftly over the swamp unopposed. No sound of firing was audible. The Federals evidently were not "headed off" at the crossroads as Chilton had written. Jackson was advancing--and rapidly. If "Stonewall" was to be overtaken and supported, with the least delay, the march of the cavalry should be shifted. The Chickahominy should be crossed below Bottom's Bridge. Then the column could come up on the left of Jackson.

      "Back Stuart hurried by the same roads. Fortunately, when he reached Bottom's Bridge, he found that his troopers had not passed there and, consequently, would not have to make a double crossing of the river. He soon came upon his men East of the Chickahominy, but he brought them disappointment, because rumor had spread among them they were en route to witness the surrender of McClellan's Army."    Vol. I. p. 637


"'I went into Maryland to give battle, and could I have kept Gen. McClellan in ignorance of my position and plans a day or two longer, I would have fought and crushed him'... The distinct and emphatic impression made on me by the conversation was that Gen. Lee attributed with hesitation the loss of the campaign to the 'Lost Dispatch'". E.C. Gordon as quoted in Vol. I. pp. 717

Click HERE for this analysis.


      At Chancellorsville, Chilton appears to order Jubal Early out of line on the heights above Fredericksburg, in spite of Early's protests, and to march toward Chancellorsville. A gap in the Confederate line is created, which could have collapsed Lee's rear just as he was initiating activities at Chancellorsville. Furthermore, Chilton orders the artillery to be evacuated on the railroad to Richmond effectively removing it form the ensuing conflict.

      April 30, 1863 Fredericksburg. Jubal Early's division is holding heights above Fredericksburg against superior numbers of Union troops. To his rear, in the wilderness near Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson are confronting Hooker who has crossed the Rappahannock and is pressing on Fredericksburg from that direction. Early and others are speculating on how to deal with enemy movements in their front when Chilton appears.

      "Details were being discussed when, about 11 AM, straight from the headquarters of the Army, arrived Col. R.H. Chilton, Chief of Staff. He at once took Early aside and communicated what he described as verbal orders from Lee: As soon as practicable, Early was to march toward Chancellorsville with the entire force at his command, except Pendleton's artillery and one Brigade of infantry. The artillery was to be divided. Eight or ten guns should be left on the heights to support the infantry. The remainder of the artillery, especially the heavy pieces, must be started at once for a place of safety down the RF & P Railroad. Those batteries and regiments left behind were to do their utmost to keep the enemy from seizing the ridge; and if they failed in this, they were to retreat in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House. That part of the order concerning the artillery Chilton repeated to Pendleton.

      "The parson-gunner and, even more, "Old Jube" were stunned by these instructions. Early had Chilton and Pendleton sit down with him and, item by item, he went over the orders. It was impossible, Early argued, to withdraw his force in daylight without being observed by the Federals: They overlooked his position and had up balloons besides. As soon as he abandoned the position to the care of a handful of troops, the Unionists would occupy Fredericksburg and Marye's Heights. Pendleton, in the language of his report, supported Early with "one or two suggestions."

      "To these arguments, Chilton replied that General Lee presumably had decided that the advantage of having Early with him outweighed the loss of Fredericksburg, which could be recovered easily after Hooker had been defeated. To make clearer what Chilton assumed to be the reasoning of Lee, the Chief of Staff, who seemed quite cool, called attention to the Federals then in motion up Safford Heights. He had no doubt, said Chilton, that those troops were marching to join Hooker and to oppose Lee.

      "Early still could not bring himself to believe that Lee had set aside the plain orders given the previous afternoon. The Union troops being held at Fredericksburg, Early expostulated, were more than he possibly could defeat in the Wilderness.

      W"as there any possibility that Chilton had misunderstood orders which were the more liable to misinterpretation because they were more verbal? Chilton was sure there could be no mistake.

      "What, demanded Early, was the reason for dividing the artillery? It was, Chilton explained, because Lee did not need much artillery at Chancellorsville and wished to be sure that the guns at Fredericksburg would be sent to safety in the rear.

      "How long, asked Pendleton in his turn, was he expected to hold the heights against the overwhelming odds he would face? Long enough, answered Chilton, for the artillery and the trains to get to the rear and out of danger.

      "This," Early afterward wrote, "was very astounding...It is true that there was the force massed near Falmouth and the indications were that it was moving above, but still there was a much larger force of infantry stationed below, which evinced no disposition to move."

      "This realistic argument the Fates set at naught. While Early was talking, a messenger brought word that the Federals who had retired under the right bank of the river to get protection from the "feeling-out" fire of the morning had evacuated the position, had crossed the river and had abandoned their bridgehead. Could anything have seemed more positively to confirm Chilton's assertion that the Federals were withdrawing from the district of Fredericksburg to confront Lee in the Wilderness? "Old Jube: a natural skeptic, was shaken but not wholly convinced. He pointed out that the troops near the mouth of Deep Run had not left the Confederate side of the river and that a number of guns remained.

      "It was now between 11 and 12 o'clock on the 2nd of May. Jackson at that hour was well advanced on his march to the left of Hooker. South and Southeast of Chancellorsville, Lee was playing a fine game of bluff with Anderson's and McLaw's Divisions and was trying to make the Unionists believe that he was preparing to attack on that sector with his whole force. Of this general plan of operations, Chilton may have told Early something. All that either of the officers knew of the progress of the action was what they could determine from the sound of the distant artillery. It seemed heavy. By it, and by the whole situation, Early was nonplused. He could not see the logic of his orders, brought by Chilton, but when the Chief of Staff insisted that the instructions were explicit and positive, Early did not feel that his discretion extended to them. Foolish as abandonment of the Fredericksburg front appeared to be, orders were orders. Lee must know more about the operation than Early could.

      "What Chilton required, Early set about doing as promptly as he could. Pendleton dropped plans for bombarding the force at Falmouth and began to designate the batteries that were to start for the rear. To cover their withdrawal he made a show of moving horses and vehicles as if he were increasing the number of guns on the heights. Early devoted himself to getting off his foot troops covertly. Barksdale had one regiment in Fredericksburg. As it could not be withdrawn without attracting attention, it must stay where it was. Harry Hay's Brigade, with one regiment of skirmishers near the mouth of Deep Run, most conveniently could be left.

      "Slow business it was to get the regiments on the ridge, in marching order, an to make them ready to start for the Plank Road. At length, about 2 PM, Early said au revoir to Hays and Pendleton on Lee's Hill, and rode off to expedite in person the movement of his men. To his dismay, as he was leaving, he observed that one of the Federal balloons had risen, most inquisitively, as if "Professor" Lowe had know that the "rebels" had afoot some new treason against the Union. Early concluded that the Federals had discovered his move and he anticipated the worst, but,battling delay, he kept pushing men and wagons on. By late afternoon he had the last of his men in motion toward the Plank Road.

      "Now, abruptly, came another disconcerting messenger. He brought a dispatch which Lee had written after Colonel Chilton had returned and had reported the orders given Early. Those orders, Lee wrote, had been based on a misunderstanding by Colonel Chilton of Lee's wishes. It had not been intended that Early should withdraw from Fredericksburg unless this could be done with safety. The discretion given Early still was to be exercised.

      "How profusely "Old Jube" swore, and whether he went to the extreme of shifting his quid of tobacco to the other jaw , the record does not show. He was relieved of a march but not of a quandary. The enemy, he assumed, already had occupied--or was in the act of seizing -- his abandoned works. These he could not hope with his small force to recapture. If he went back and made the effort and failed, he would deprive Lee of any use of the Division. It simply would have marched out, then have returned, and then have wrecked or, at the least, have immobilized itself when Lee needed it. The start, under misapprehension of orders, had been foolish; an attempt to go back might be equally so. Let the column go on!

      "A mile the exasperated Early rode with his men along the Plank Road and then--another messenger. This one had a note from Barksdale, whose Brigade was following Early's Division. An officer of Pendleton's --so the paper read-- had overtaken the column and had reported to Barksdale that the enemy was advancing against the heights in great strength. Pendleton and Hays had informed the Mississippian that unless they had immediate relief, all the artillery left behind by Early would be captured. The courier who brought this information to Early added that Barksdale was hurrying to help Hays.

      "[Early returned] "On arrival, to his relief, Early found that the Federals had not advanced at Fredericksburg and, on the Confederate,right and not proceeded beyond the Richmond Stage Road. There even was an element of hospitable cheer in the return of the infantry.

      "A singular episode appeared to have closed with more of good luck than the Confederates could have hoped to enjoy. Exasperating and nerve-wearing had been the result of Colonel Chilton's curious and never-explained misunderstanding of orders, but it had involved no loss of life or of ground. The chief complaint was Pendleton's. Had he been apprised earlier, he told the division commander, that Chilton's instructions had been disavowed, the Confederate left would not have been weakened by the withdrawal of those guns that now had gone far southward. With what artillery had had, said Pendleton, he would make the best defense he could. He made no effort, so far as the record shows, to recall during the night the batteries that first had been started to the rear."    Vol. II. pp. 607-610

      "A black entry must have followed an occurrence of the afternoon of May 3. After Chancellorsville had been reached, Lee temporarily halted the advance in order to get entangled units separated an to prepare for an advance that would drive Hooker back against United States Ford. During this pause in the battle, Lee received news of Early's evacuation, by Chilton's order, of the heights at Fredericksburg.   Vol. II. p. 661

All quotes above are from Douglas Southall Freeman's, Lee's Lieutenants, [Chas. Scribner, NY, 1943], unless otherwise stated.

The Lost Order Mystery Synopsis
The Strange Case of Robert Hall Chilton
A Short Biography of Robert Hall Chilton
Chilton's Suspicious Gaffes
The Text of Special Orders 191
The Lost Order Mystery Home Page

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