T  H  E    L  O  S  T     O  R  D  E  R     M  Y  S  T  E  R  Y

"I have all the plans of the rebels..."

General George McClellan
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
December 8, 1874
(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 Ridge Mountains.

      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 Williams.

      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 the rebels..."

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 get lost?

      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 "lost".

1  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...

2  Joseph Gruesel, General Alpheus S. Williams, Seidel Printing Co., Detroit, 1911). ...return to text...

3 Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, (Chas. Scribner, NY, 1943) Vol. 2, 715-723. ...return to text...

4  Sears pp. 382-383. ...return to text...

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

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).

1x1tran.gif (43 bytes)interact.gif (462 bytes)

Created and designed by Lowell Boileau