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General Lee’s Lost Orders


Nearly 150 years ago today, on September 13, 1862, Union soldiers of the 27th Indiana found a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s Special Order No. 191, on the Best Farm in Maryland. The order had been dispatched on September 9th, but lost.

The Union Army obtained valuable information on the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as their campaign plans.

Upon reading the orders, Major General George B. McClellan exclaimed, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

To this day, speculation about the outcome of the war is still under debate. If these orders weren’t lost, would the war have ended differently?

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

1. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling while overrun by members of this army, to open their stores, in order to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which cases they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.

2. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Virginia, and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpepper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe, will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.

3. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson’s command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harpers Ferry.

4. General Longstreet’s command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.

5. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harpers Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harpers Ferry and vicinity.

6. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek’s Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key’s Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.

7. General D. H. Hill’s division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.

8. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.

9. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.

10. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance-wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood &c.

By command of General R. E. Lee
R. H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant General

For more information on this historic lost order, visit these sites:

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  1. Sharla Rae says:

    Interesting! I’d never heard of any lost orders! This is stuff you don’t learn school. Thanks.

  2. Angelyn says:

    He gives almost as much attention to the welfare of civilians and the wounded as he does battle tactics. I just read a review of a new book on General Sheridan called “Terrible Swift Sword.” What a contrast to General Lee. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Sharla and Angelyn! I’d heard of the ‘lost orders’ and that Union soldiers had found them, but had never read all the details. But I think Lee’s consideration is what made him so well loved. And it does make you wonder if the outcome of the war would’ve changed if they hadn’t been lost.

  4. How interesting to read this dispatch. He really sounded official and seemed to have it figured out.

  5. Hi, Paisley! Too bad for him that those under him were so incompetent to lose the orders.

  6. What a coup for the Union. I love reading old order. It’s interesting to see that Fredericksburg is still as prissy now as they were back then.

  7. That is two things that were lost of Robert E Lee that I learned about today. See my post today for the other. Great Post! Thank you for teaching me something new!

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