have all the plans of the rebels..."
in a telegram to
Lincoln, September 13, 1862
"That omission to
deliver in his [the courier's] case so important an
order [would] have been recollected as entailing the
duty to advise its loss, to guard against
consequences, and to act as required... But
I could not of course say positively that I had sent
any particular courier to him [D.H. Hill] after such
a lapse of time."
Robert Hall Chilton
(Lee's Adjutant General who signed the lost copy of
Special Orders 191)
On September 13, 1862, Robert E. Lee's Special Orders 191 was in
Union hands. It detailed the detachments and orders
of march of his Army of Northern Virginia which had
disappeared behind the Blue Ridge Mountains during
its invasion of the North. With this intelligence,
the hesitant George McClellan was able to make an
immediate and concentrated strike at Lee's scattered
army that culminated in the the Battle of Antietam
four days later. This battle ended Lee's first
invasion of the North and, probably, sealed the fate
of the Southern cause.
The circumstances how this order, possibly the most
pivotal document in United States history, came into
Union hands was, and still is, cloaked in mystery.
When and where did the Union
obtain Special Orders 191?
Around noon on the 13th of September 1862 the XII
Corps, 1st division of General Alpheus Williams
bivouacked about a mile southeast of Frederick,
Maryland. Williams' command had recently marched out
of Washington in search of the invading rebel army
which had passed through Frederick and then
disappeared behind a cavalry screen and the Blue
The official story states that while
the division was encamping on a former Confederate
campground, a Private Barton Mitchell of the 27th
Indiana, while chatting with a Sgt. John Bloss, was
said to have found an envelope containing three
cigars wrapped in a piece of paper.1 Upon
observing the paper, he noticed that it appeared to
be an enemy order and took it his Captain Peter Kop,
who in turn conveyed to the Regiment's Col. Silas
Colgrove. Colgrove took the order to General
There it was determined to be a
bona fide document by Capt. Samuel Pittman, Williams'
adjutant, on the basis of his ability to verify the
signature of the order's signer, Col. Robert Hall
Chilton, AAG to Lee. Chilton, it turned out, had been
stationed in the prewar Army at Detroit, home of both
Pittman and Williams, and had known Pittman, and probably
Williams. The circumstances of this relationship is
cited variously as that of a friend, military
colleague, and simply as knowing each other. The most
interesting assertion is that Pittman has been a
teller at a bank where Chilton had kept an account
and therefore knew the signature.2
The order ascertained, Williams hastily sent it to
McClellan, with a cover letter, the only contemporary
document referring to the discovery of the "Lost
Dispatch", also called the "Lost
Order". McClellan was to wire the President on
the same day declaring, "I have all the plans of
When did the Confederates realize
that the order was in the Union's possession?
Versions of the answer to this
question range from as soon as the evening of the
13th to months later when stories of its discovery
were published in the Northern press. Good arguments
are made for both early and late realizations.3
How could such an important order
As the order was addressed to General D.H. Hill, he
became the goat since it was concluded that the order
must have been carelessly used by one of his staff
officers to wrap his cigars which then fell from his
pocket and became lost. The order, issued on the 9th
of September following a conference among Lee,
Jackson and Longstreet, seemingly would have to have
lain on the ground for 48 to 72 hours as Hill's
forces, which formed the rear guard screen of Lee's
movement behind the Blue Ridge, left the vicinity of
Frederick on September 10th.
In post-war statements, General D.H. Hill vehemently
denied that the order reached anyone in his command
with authority to sign for it, that is, him or his
AAG Col. Ratchford. He pointed out that he had
received the same orders in the handwriting of his
immediate superior, Gen. Jackson, and even retained
that order which now resides in the North Carolina
Historical Museum. He also supplied an affidavit from
his AAG, Col. Ratchford affirming that no other order
came to them and then suggested that the order may
have been passed on by treachery.
The writer of the order, Lee's AG.
Col. Robert Hall Chilton, stated that he "kept
no operational log or journal that would prove that
his courier returned with the required evidence of
delivery." In letter to Jefferson Davis in 1874,
he blandly said that, "That omission to deliver
in his [the courier's] case so important an order
[would] have been recollected as entailing the duty
to advise its loss, to guard against consequences,
and to act as required... But I
could not of course say positively that I had sent
any particular courier to him [D.H. Hill] after such
a lapse of time."4
Suspicions: The Real Story of
Special Orders 191?
In all the accounts that I have read about this
extraordinary event, I have yet to read of any
attempt to analyze this occurrence from the viewpoint
that treachery was involved. In particular, I
wondered why the signatory of the order, Chilton, has
never been scrutinized in the manner. Perhaps, lack
of hard evidence and the obscurity of time and the
chaos that immediately followed the order's discovery
made the task too daunting.
From what is known, the order was only seen by Pvt.
Barton, Sgt. Bloss, Captain Kop, Col. Colgrove, Capt.
Pittman, Gen. Williams, Gen. McClellan on the Union
side and only by Col. Chilton on the Confederate
side. If treachery was involved, then attention needs
to be turned to Col. Chilton.
I found it a remarkable coincidence that of all the
hands into which the order could fall, if it was
lost, was into the hands of prewar acquaintances from
Detroit capable of verifying his signature. I also
found Chilton's memory loss, stated above,
dissembling at the least. Certainly there must have
been much speculation and inquiry among the
Confederate officer corps when the fact of the
order's discovery became verified in the Northern
Press. Also curious is his lack of a log or journal
of receipts, especially for an order of such gravity.
In those days where command structure relied on staff
officers and couriers, the written or spoken words,
of an AG necessarily carried with it the voice of the
commander who could not be every at once. Had Chilton
decided to be treacherous, he would have been in an
ideal position to duplicate just such a order and
then manage to obscure the fact that there had been
no receipt for it.
The Confederates, who occupied Frederick and environs
from the 4th to the 10th of September, mingled freely
with the public in that generally pro Union region,
most famously at the cavalry ball put on by Jeb
Stuart at nearby Urbana on the night between the 8th
and 9th. If Chilton was bent on passing this order to
his Detroit acquaintances, who could vouch for his
signature, one could speculate that he passed the
order through a civilian in Frederick. That agent
could have passed it directly to Williams or Pittman
who then could have surreptitiously dropped in the
camp thus providing cover for Chilton and directing
the blame on D.H. Hill, who Chilton could have known
would be receiving the same order through Jackson.
Chilton's Blemished Record: Beyond
the Lost Order
If Chilton did pass the order to the Union, was it an
act that could be negated by his service record? Was
it an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern
of Union collaboration?
To answer this question, I began by seeking out all
references to Chilton, in William Southall Freeman's
monumental study of the Southern command, Lee's
Lieutenants. What I found was unflattering to say
the least. In every major instance where he is
mentioned his actions are counterproductive to the
Southern cause. In no instance is he cited for a
productive act or brilliant action. His role reads
like a comedy of errors, grave errors, such that one
wonders why Lee kept him around as long as he did and
whether Special Order 191 was really
Stephen Sears, Landscape Turned Red, (Warner
Books, Inc., 1983) Sears says that the Private Barton
actually found a "bulky envelope" and
"Inside was a sheet of paper wrapped around
three cigars." [p. 123] and that the detail of
the three cigars was not revealed until 1886....return to text...
Joseph Gruesel, General Alpheus S. Williams, Seidel
Printing Co., Detroit, 1911). ...return to text...
Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, (Chas.
Scribner, NY, 1943) Vol. 2, 715-723. ...return to text...
Sears pp. 382-383. ...return
Art work developed
from video capture of Jackson, MI July 29, 1994
reenactment (above) by Lowell Boileau.
All quotes, unless
otherwise indicated, are from letters written by
General Williams to various family members. These
were obtained from original manuscript letters of
Alpheus Williams which reside in the Burton
Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library
and From the Cannon's Mouth, the Civil War
letters of General Alpheus S. Williams edited by
Milo Quaife, (Wayne State University Press and the
Detroit Historical Society, 1959).