The tired summer grass and leaves were lightly coated with dust from the road. First Sgt. John M. Bloss ordered his line of skirmishers to take a break in a clover field about two miles south of Frederick. These skirmishers were the vanguard of the main force, members of Company F of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, 12th Corps. Up since before dawn, they had been selected because they were familiar with this area.
They had crossed the Monocacy River at a shallow point, stepped over the rails of the Frederick spur of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and stopped about 100 yards east of Georgetown Pike. It was 9 a.m. Sept. 13, 1862, and already too warm for comfort. They stacked arms and spread out in the shade near a rail fence. Down the slope they could see the road to Frederick.
They drank from their canteens and watched the artillery smoke rising west of Frederick and engaged in small talk. The group was spread out in the grass; Bloss, in charge of the Company F skirmishers, Cpl. Barton Warren Mitchell and Pvt. David Bur Vance.
Their blue wool uniforms were dusty and looked as though they'd been slept in, which they had. The insects hummed as the soldiers mopped their brows. They could see signs of a previous encampment. The word was that Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had camped here a few days earlier.
As they talked, Bloss noticed an envelope in the grass. He retrieved it and examined it. The group looked at it in silence. This moment was profound beyond their understanding.
War going badly for North
In September 1862 the war was going poorly for the North. France and Britain were ambivalent in their support. Either nation's aid could swing the tide of victory, and victory would decide the emotionally charged issue of slavery.
The Union's Maj. Gen. John Pope had suffered a humiliating defeat with heavy losses at the Second Battle of Bull Run the previous month, and his troops had scattered back to the entrenchments at Washington.
Pope was relieved of command and reassigned to the Department of the Northwest.
President Abraham Lincoln, alarmed by Union failures in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign against Richmond, Va., appointed Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck as his top military adviser, and ordered McClellan to withdraw from Virginia and report to Washington, where he resumed command of the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan's men rallied to his cocky leadership. He was said to be arrogant, conceited and critical of his peers and superiors. But the summer and winter of 1861-1862 passed with no Union move against rebel forces in Virginia. It's reported that a frustrated Lincoln suggested to Halleck that he should ask McClellan that if he wasn't going to use the army, could Lincoln borrow it?
After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee astonished the Union by invading Maryland with about 50,000 troops in September 1862.
The presence of Confederate forces under Lee was regarded as an unacceptable threat to lightly defended Washington, Baltimore and even Philadelphia. McClellan's 90,000-man Army of the Potomac encampment spread from Rockville north to Brookeville. Lee's unexpected invasion spurred McClellan to move west against him.
McClellan had hired Allan Pinkerton, a Chicago detective, to provide military intelligence though Pinkerton had no familiarity with military matters. He grossly overestimated Southern forces, thus providing McClellan with a seemingly valid reason for his reluctance to engage the rebels. Pinkerton and other sources gave McClellan the impression that he faced a Confederate force of close to 120,000 men. McClellan was understandably loath to attack a force twice the size of his own.
Lee was aware of McClellan's westward movement. He believed that McClellan would move cautiously, which he did. McClellan divided his army into three wings to take advantage of marching on parallel routes, one on the National Road and a wing on either side.
In one of his most daring military decisions, Lee abandoned his plan to march through Maryland to Wheeling, W.Va., and destroy the railroad bridge there to cut off supplies to the Union from the west. He intended then to march east toward the Baltimore-Washington area.
With news of McClellan's movement west, Lee surprised all by dividing his force into four elements with 26 of his 40 brigades marching to capture Union-held Harper's Ferry, W.Va.
After accomplishing their objectives at Harper's Ferry, and a similar mission to Martinsburg, W.Va., all units would reunite at Boonsboro or Hagerstown. This plan, bold, daring and unexpected by the Union, was described in Lee's Special Order No. 191 to all his unit commanders. A copy of this order was in an unmarked envelope that Bloss had found in the grass in the former Confederate camp.
Bloss opened the envelope, and three cigars slid out. While his companions sniffed the cigars and started looking for a match, Bloss saw a paper in the envelope and took it out.
As he began reading, names leaped out at him; stunning names such as James Longstreet, Hagerstown, Lafayette McLaws, Richard Anderson, Harper's Ferry, Fredericktown. Breathlessly, Bloss looked at the top of the sheet: "Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia." His eyes jumped to the bottom of the sheet and read "By command of General R. E. Lee."
Bloss admonished the group to return the cigars and listen. He read it to them carefully. They listened, hardly breathing. Bloss was probably the best educated among them, being the only member of his regiment who had graduated from college.
The order detailed Confederate plans for the next four days. It was dated Sept. 9. The order was to go into effect the next morning. Today was the 13th. Confederate forces were already on the move. Bloss understood the importance of the document in his hands and his companions agreed. If it was authentic, it could change the course of events in the days to come.
Captain Kop was commander of Company F located about a hundred yards away. He read the order and agreed with Bloss that it should go immediately to the regimental commander, Col. Silas Colgrove about half a mile away. It was 9:30 a.m.. As Colgrove read the document in dismay, Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball happened by.
He read the order and at once suggested that he and Kimball would bypass brigade headquarters and take the document straight to the 12th Corps acting commander, Brig. Gen. Alpheus Starkey Williams. Bloss and Kop returned to their unit. History has no account of what happened to the three cigars.
A prewar connection
By 9:45 a.m., Kimball and Colgrove arrived to find that Williams was not there. They showed the paper to Captain Pittman, the assistant adjutant general. As was the practice, Col. Robert Hall Chilton had written the special order at Lee's direction and had countersigned it. As if finding the lost dispatch weren't strange enough, it turned out that before the war, Pittman was a teller with the Michigan State Bank in Detroit and Chilton had been the local army paymaster.
Pittman authenticated the handwriting and signature as Chilton's and reported the matter to Williams on his return about 10:30 a.m. Pittman wrote a note for Williams to sign, which sent Kimball and a fast courier to deliver the document and note to McClellan's assistant adjutant general at Frederick.
About noon, McClellan's chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Randolph B. Marcy, handed the documents to McClellan. He described the circumstances of the finding and reported Pittman's verification of Chilton's signature. McClellan reflected on his unbelievable good fortune and finally exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!"
With a tremendous advantage that few commanders could even dream of, McClellan delayed another full day before beginning the move of his army west toward South Mountain and Hagerstown beyond.
Believing that he faced a Confederate force of 120,000 men, "Little Mac," as he came to be called, sent Lincoln, through Halleck, a request for every man that could be spared from the defense of the capital. He was expecting some 72,000 men. A dubious Lincoln sent one corps of 21,000. With the copy of Special Order 191 in his hand, McClellan bragged to an old army buddy, "Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home."
In spite of this bravado and self-confidence, he was still over-cautious. Some say an unidentified civilian overheard Little Mac talking about his good fortune in having a copy of Lee's operations plans and of his feeling in complete command of events to come.
A report to Lee
The unknown civilian, having Southern sympathies, may have been one of a group of visitors from Frederick discussing relations between the army and citizens of the town.
Given the importance of the information, many believe it unlikely that McClellan said more than that Lee's armies were moving. In any case, the civilian rode that afternoon to report the incident to Lee's cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, who relayed it to Lee at once.
With his four elements already following the directions in Special Order 191, Lee could only rely on McClellan's excessively prudent reaction. And in fact, McClellan sent Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton's cavalry to probe the rebel presence at Turner's Gap, a 400-foot-wide pass in South Mountain through which the National Road ran west toward Hagerstown.
The scouting party was chased off by Confederate skirmishers. The party learned nothing. Little Mac had already erroneously concluded that rebel strength at Turner's Gap was approximately 30,000.
Therefore, he predictably decided to wait until the next morning, when conditions would favor his advance.
In spite of other miscalculations on his part, Lee's estimate of McClellan was accurate and he relied again on Little Mac's slow responses to grant the time for the Confederate forces to complete the missions described in S.O. 191 and still rejoin at or near Sharpsburg or Hagerstown. And that almost happened, but Lee modified S.O. No. 191 as circumstances required.
As Lee expected, McClellan took his careful time. Expecting to meet a force of 30,000 rebels at Turner's Gap, McClellan sat astride his horse Dan Webster and encouraged his far superior force toward the gap. With fewer than 5,000 troops, Confederate Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill withstood the onslaught of the entire Union army intent on breeching Turner's Gap. As night fell, Confederate forces decided they must withdraw before dawn.
They did so without losing a single cannon, wagon or ambulance.
Similarly, the rebels eventually yielded Fox's Gap and the southernmost Crampton's Gap. All three routes through South Mountain were now in Union hands.
Beyond the western slopes of South Mountain lay a shallow valley and through it ran a stream called Antietam Creek. The town of Sharpsburg lay just to the west. Lee's headquarters were at the south end of town.
In the meantime, the Union force at Martinsburg was taken by the rebels, and the garrison at Harper's Ferry surrendered. The rebels marched north to reunite near Sharpsburg.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the rebels' rear-guard action at the three passes through South Mountain was the time it gave Lee's forces to reunite. Longstreet's men made a remarkable forced march toward Sharpsburg, as did other Southern units, and Lee's army of 36,000 positioned itself just to the west and south of the town. Lee would not be able to commit his full 40,000 men until all the units arrived at Sharpsburg.
Antietam Creek wound through the rolling farmland, and to the east of it McClellan's 87,000 men were taking up their positions. Both armies began setting their artillery batteries. Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops arrived from Harper's Ferry Sept. 16, a Tuesday.
During that day Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside began arriving at this assigned position about four hours behind schedule. It was obvious to all that the battle would close in this valley and Antietam Creek.
There were three crossing points along the creek: The southernmost was Rohrbach Bridge, to become known as Burnside Bridge, a middle bridge and an upper bridge. The latter was used by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Hooker to gain a position of advantage.
The morning of Sept. 16, mist clinging to the low ground hampered observation. Later as the mist burned away, long-range cannon fire was exchanged. Typically, McClellan took his time making sure there was no detail unattended.
By midmorning, the sun had burned away most of the mist, and McClellan could see the Confederates shifting guns and making minor changes along their battle line. The oppressive heat discouraged all but the most necessary activity as the men rested. It was almost midafternoon when McClellan decided on a battle plan. He would execute it tomorrow, since today was too far along. His plan included a coordinated three-pronged attack to capture each of the bridges and open avenues for federal troops to swarm in and overcome the Confederates.
Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam opened at dawn with Hooker's barrage of cannon fire on the men in the Miller cornfield north of Sharpsburg.
So murderous was the fire that Hooker later said every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.
Jackson's men were exposed for about an hour to this terrific storm of shell, canister and musketry.
By 7 a.m., a reinforced Jackson counterattacked, and by 9 a.m. the Confederates had regained some of the lost ground. And thus went the day, from dawn to beyond dusk, 14 hours.
It ended with Burnside's forces driven back to the heights near the bridge they had taken earlier.
The battle consisted of three engagements, the morning phase, the midday phase and the afternoon phase. It was during the midday phase that the Sunken Road engagement took place. During its four hours, combined losses totaled 5,700 Union and Confederate troops -- 1,425 per hour or nearly 24 per minute.
The next day about 2 p.m., Lee began his withdrawal.
With an overwhelming numerical advantage including some 26,300 fresh troops, McClellan did not renew the attack, but waited and watched, characteristically, to see what Lee's next move would be.
No decisive victory
There was no decisive victory. Longstreet reported to Chilton on Lee's staff that his ranks were too thinned to warrant a renewal of the conflict. Lee quietly slipped away across the Potomac at Shepherdstown.
Historians have long pondered a number of questions rising out of the Battle of Antietam. No one version of the answer to who lost Lee's Special Order No. 191 is conclusive. Was there an unknown reason why McClellan didn't act instantly and decisively on the information in S.O. No. 191 when received?
There was obviously a combination of factors in McClellan's overestimate of rebel strength. As well-organized and meticulous about procedure and detail as McClellan was, what could account for his planned coordinated three-pronged attack resulting in three separate attacks at three different times of day? Why was Burnside four hours late reaching his designated position?
Why didn't McClellan follow up the next day and engage Lee's army all the way to and across the Potomac? We have only educated guesses and speculation.
Of one thing there is no doubt: Antietam was costly for both sides. During the 14-hour battle, in the 12-square-mile area, nine times as many Americans were killed or wounded (Union 12,410; Confederate 10,700) as on June 6, 1944: D-Day of World War II. That's 23,110 killed or wounded, more casualties than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War combined. The outcome of this battle caused Britain to postpone recognition of the Confederacy.
The battle provided Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the Southern states that were in rebellion. And perhaps, it preserved the nation; it rivals Gettysburg and Vicksburg as a decisive point in the Civil War.
Robert M. Duff is a free-lance writer from Crofton.