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Who Wrote The Lost Order?
General Lee


 

The historical record, as examined here, indisputedly shows there are important facts which must be considered in weighing the credibility of General Lee being the person responsible for the writing of the Lost Order. First, there is the glaring fact that the Lost Order was not written by one of Lee’s staff officers. The record shows that, during the Sharpsburg Campaign, all of them were enlisted by Lee, at one point or another, to write orders and letters at his direction: Chilton wrote Lee’s letter to Davis , dated September 14, 1862 . Charles Marshall wrote Lee’s letter to Davis , dated September 12, 1862 , which enclosed  the official eight paragraph copy of the order, labeled as Special Order 190. A.P. Mason wrote Special Order 191, directing Walter Taylor to return to Virginia on the 9th and added to it, in Chilton’s letterbook, the eight paragraph version labeled as S.O. 190. From Hagerstown , on September 14th, Charles Venable wrote General McLaws, who was then at MarylandHeights . According to the standard story of the Lost Order, the document is presumed to have been written for transmission to General D.H. Hill, in his campground at Frederick . If this is true, then it becomes inexplicable why the document does not match the writings of one of Lee’s staff officers.

 

Second, if the document was prepared in the usual and customary way, it is inexplicible why the paper stock of the Lost Order, with the Platner & Porter Manufacturing embossed stamp, does not match the paper stock ofthe existing letters and orders written by Lee’s staff during the Sharpsburg Campaign.

 

Third, it is inexplicable why the historical record is devoid of any direct statement made by any of Lee’s staff officers, in their personal writings and speeches, which constitutes an admission by one of them that he either wrote the Lost Order, or knows who did. The statement by Walter Taylor, in his book, Four Years with General Lee, that Charles Veneble “always said” he knew (or thought he knew) how the order was lost, does not add any weight to the scales when the issue is how and by whom it was written.

 

Fourth, the fact that a rain storm, lasting at least twelve hours,passed over Frederick on September 11, 1862, creates the impossibility that, on September 9th or 10th, the Lost Order could have been dropped accidently in the field by a negligent courier. Whether in an envelope or not, the paper stock of the order would have been turned into paste by the rain. (Unless, of course, the cast of professional story-tellers make their envelope waterproof). Certainly, as a consequence of exposure to a rain storm, the Lost Order would not exist in the condition that it is presently found in the Library of Congress. From this, the conclusion must reasonably follow that, in fact, the Lost Order was never in the hands of a courier to lose.

 

Fifth, an objective analysis of the strategic situation Lee’s army was in, on Septembr 9th,highlights the fact that, as he approached Frederick after Lee was gone, George McClellan learned from many sources that Lee seemed clearly to be taking his army back across the Potomac into Virginia. Faced with the enemy’s retreat, any reasonably intelligent general (and Mac was certainly that) would naturally have moved the weight of his army toward Harper’s Ferry; crossing the Potomac at that location the Union general would have then moved out between the tracks of the Winchester Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, toward Winchester expecting to encounter Lee’s rear guard and engage in battle. If McClellan had decided to do this, there was no possible way Lee’s detached forces could force the surrender of the Ferry’s garrison. Which meant Lee had no strategic choice at Frederick but to retreat to Virginia . He certainly could not permit his army to engage in a general battle with his line of communication with Winchester threatened by the 12,000 troops holding Harper’s Ferry. Therefore, something had to be devised whereby Lee might cause McClellan to waste enough time getting to Harper’s Ferry that Stonewall might first capture it. The only logical way to induce McClellan to waste time was by inducing him to shift the main weight of his advance away Harper’s Ferry and toward Hagerstown . In light of the strategic situation, then, it is not unreasonable to recognize why Lee might seize on the old device of a ruse of war.

 

From Lee’s 1868 letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

Another example from the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From a letter from Lee to Davis, 1863

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s 1868 letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another example from the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another example from the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 



 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to D.H. Hill:

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Lee’s letter to Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The letter “F”

 

From Lee’s letter to Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

From Lee’s letter to Hill:

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

From Lee’s letter toHill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lost Order:







 


From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

From the Lost Order:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a close call. Several factors must be considered in rendering a verdict. First, the  resolution of the images compromise the analysis to some extent, because the original documents are over 150 years old and precise detail of the ends of letters can be better seen by examing the original documents. Second, the person writing the Lost Order was using pencil while General Lee was using a pen in writing to Hill. Third, General Lee’s writing hand might have been injured to some extent when the Lost Order was written, while, in writing to Hill,  his hand was not injured. Fourth, the handwriting examples are separated by almost six years of time.

 

The fact that the question of whether the Lost Order was written in General Lee’s handwriting, is a close call in itself points to Lee as the writer; if what the Library of Congress holds, is the actual document McClellan received, and not a copy, then, of all those who customarily would write orders at Lee’s headquarters, the writing comes closest to being Lee’s. And it makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, that Lee would be the writer.

 

The document in the possession of the Library of Congress has the look of a first draft; drawn in pencil, it has several redos: The writer wrote the number “1” at first, then changed it to a “9” in the date, suggesting that the Lost Order was actually written on the 10th; The “P” in Potomac is redone as is the “F” in Ferry; similar corrections are seen with other letters, and the phrase “of the army” has been crossed out at the end of a sentence in paragraph VII. It makes no sense to suggest that a writer would make these errors in copyingMcClellan’s document. In fact McClellan neatly wrote out a copy ofthe Lost Order for his close friend, Mr. Prime, making no such mistakes.

McClellan died in 1885. His wife, Ellen, was the Executrix of  his estate. Ellen left the United States almost immediately following McClellan’s death. She never returned. According to Dr. Sellers of the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Department, The McClellan Papers were deposited with the Library “in 1911 and 1916. Among these papers can be found an envelope with writing on it in the hand of McClellan’s close friend, William Prime. The envelope size is 9” X 5” with its “V” flap missing. An image of it follows:

Special Order 191

A copy of the letter Mac's son, George McClellan, Jr., wrote the Library of Congress in 1911, sending along the trunks of his father's papers.
Letter writted by George McClellan JR  1911

There are three different envelopes that various writers speak of, when telling their version of the lost order story. Of the three two are authentic and exist, the other is a figment of the writer's imagination.

The first envelope is The Prime Envelope. This envelope was deposited with the McClellan Papers at the Library of Congress between 1911 and 1916. The identity of the person responsible for the deposit is being investigated.

McClellan's copy of the lost order arrived at the Library inside The Prime Envelope. The image of this envelope measures 9" X 5" but, according to Dr. Sellers, the Library's Historical Specialist in charge of the papers, the actual measurement is closer to 3 3/8" X 5 7/8." The difference in measurement can be attributed to the fact that the envelope has a flap on its short end which, when closed, reduces the plane image of the envelope to Dr. Seller's stated measurement. If the actual dimensions of Mac's copy of the order is 10" X 6," when folded on its three crease lines, the surface of the paper is reduced to 3" X 5."

The second envelope is The Williams Envelope. This envelope is said to be among The McClellan Papers. Its existence and dimensions is being confirmed through communication with Dr. Sellers. This envelope has writing on its surface which includes the phrase, ". . . thought to be authentic." The statement refers to the fact that Samuel Pittman, General Williams’s 12th Corps adjutant, thought he recognized the signature on the lost order as R.H. Chilton's. However, the objective evidence shown in Part One of this piece shows indisputedly that Pittman was wrong. The Williams Envelope carried Mac's copy of the lost order from 12th Corps Headquarters  to McClellan's headquarters. No envelope carried the order from Col. Gosgrove’s headquarters to 12th Corps headquarters.

The third envelope is The Bloss Envelope. The story of this envelope began in 1889 when John B. Bloss published an article in which he claimed that he was the finder of the lost order. He was lying on the grass near a fence line with Barton Mitchell and others. He saw a "large, yellow envelope" laying on the grass near Mitchell and said to him, "Give me that envelope." He then opened it and out tumbled cigars and the lost order. Stephen Sears, in his several restatements of the lost order story, includes The Bloss Envelope as an integral underpinning for his version of the story. There is no objective evidence that, in fact, The Bloss Envelope ever existed. The most credible voice in the story of the lost order, is that of Colonel Cosgrove in front of whom Mitchell and Bloss appeared to report the finding of the lost order. Cosgrove reported that the order "was found wrapped around three cigars."




Prime’s statement that the envelope contains “the original order found and on which McClellan was able to plan his movements to SouthMountain ” ought to be admissible in evidence of a rebuttable presumption that the document is what Prime says it is.

 

When the issue of whether Lee wrote the Lost Order is considered in light of the totality of the circumstances shown by the evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude he probably was the writer. Still, there is the documented fact that Lee did suffer some kind of injury to his hand or hands on September 1 which may have involved a fractured finger. There exists a letter written for Lee from Hagerstown on September 13th, to his daughter Annie, which states Lee could not write because of his hands. In a letter to his wife, Mary, in October 1862, Lee wrote that his hands had healed.

 

 It is possible that Lee had someone close to him write the Lost Order, perhaps his son, Custis, whose whereabouts at the time are uncertain, or his son, Rooney, who was Colonel of the 9th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, attached to Fitz Hugh Lee’s brigade.

 

Rooney’s writing follows:





Exemplars of Custis Lee’s handwriting is the subject of a search, since the Virginia Historical Society does not wish to allow the copying of any page of Custis’s 300 page manuscript, written in the war years.

 

Whatever the results of the search, the advances sure to come in the field of imaging, the writer of the Lost Order will eventually be identified.

 

JOE RYAN, Palos Verdes, California

 

 

Joseph Ryan

Who wrote the Lost Order?

Position Paper

Supporting Exhibits

Lee's Ruse of War: Special Order 191


Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

@ AmericanCivilWar.com



 
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
 

American Civil War Exhibits