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Special Order 191 - Perhaps The Greatest "What If" Of American Military History

- what might have happened differently? -

There is a theory of the nature of time which suggests that 'the fourth dimension' is like a river. That is, there are ebbs and flows, and more importantly, vortices to which people and events are inexorably drawn. Is September 14-17, 1862, one of these focal points in history? Whether your answer is yes or no, a discussion of Special Order 191 (SO 191) begs many questions, not the least of which is "Would the CSA have won the war had SO 191 not been found?"

A thorough discussion of SO 191 is beyond the scope of any single submission to this site. The author hopes that this article will stimulate further speculative discussion, grounded in fact, regarding the amazing historical importance of this order in history.

SO 191 was discovered near Frederick, MD, a day after the CSA Army of Northern Virginia, R.E. Lee Commanding, vacated the town. It seems a matter of historical fact that the order was found wrapped around three cigars, which adds some spice to the story. In fact, the loss of SO 191 by whomever had this copy is the basis of no fewer than 11 novels by Harry Turtledove, the alternate history novelist. He posits what would have happened had someone in the CSA rapidly recovered the order once dropped, leading to a crushing CSA victory over the Army of Potomac at Camp Hill, PA, recognition of the CSA by England and France, and thus the end of the Civil War in 1862.

There is little doubt that the discovery of the order, its rapid authentication by those who recognized the handwriting of one of Lee's adjutants, and the speed with which it was in George McClellan's hands as the CO of the Army of the Potomac, together comprise one of the great intelligence coups in American History. Speculation regarding McClellan's actions after confirming the authenticity of the order has centered primarily on 18+ hrs of 'freedom' that McClellan granted Lee before engaging the Confederates, first at South Mountain, and shortly thereafter, at Antietam.

Perhaps more intriguing is asking what might have happened has SO 191 never been lost by the CSA, nor found by the USA. Consider that the entire motivation between SO 191 was for Lee to clearly delineate what the separate pieces of his army, once divided, should do prior to reforming as a unit.

Lee could only write such an order without the emergent danger such an order entailed, if he felt certain the McClellan would not act until pressed. And by then, had Lee's separate commands - Jackson, Longstreet, and himself - accomplished what he desired, further moves could be considered from that point with McClellan presumably still cautiously deciding on a course of action.

So, for example, one possible scenario would be very similar to that which developed nearly a year later, in the Gettysburg Campaign of Summer, 1863. Had Lee been able to secure his supply lines, one of the goals of SO 191 via the capture of Harper's Ferry, he could then move even deeper into the North and essentially dare the Army of the Potomac to stop him. A year later, we see Lee attempting to do much the same.

However, considering the situation in September, 1862, one can envision a very different outcome to that of July, 1863. In September, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was still waiting for a Union victory. The Union was reeling from several defeats, including the debacle of Second Manassas. Washington DC was itself threatened. All of this mere months after McClellan stood not seven miles from Richmond.

And despite Lee incorrectly gambling that Marylanders would flock to the Southern cause, that would be rendered moot if, as Lee and Jefferson Davis both hoped, England and/or France formally recognized the CSA. England desperately required the cotton the CSA provided, yet neither England nor France, was willing to fully support the Confederacy if it appeared the Union would recover and win. A major victory on Union soil, with the possible threats to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, would quite possibly have led to that recognition and the division of the United States into two sovereign nations.

As it happened, however, SO 191 was indeed found, and although McClellan acted as Lincoln put it as though 'he had a case of the slows', a coordinated attack at Antietam might well have put paid to the Army of Northern Virginia and ended the war then and there. Indeed, had McClellan moved immediately upon receiving SO 191, while possibly reckless without verification of the order, the Army of the Potomac quite possibly could have destroyed Lee's army piece by separated piece. Think of the ramifications of the war ending in September, 1862 vs. April, 1865.

The author hopes that this introduction to one of history's great "What If"s will stimulate further discussion on the sequalae of either the discovery of SO 191, or alternatively, the failure to discover SO 191.


-- Steven Charnick, Lansdale, Pennsylvania
AotW Member