SHARPSBURG, Md. -- From as far away as Minnesota, Colorado and Ohio they came, more than 30 members of the Bloss and Mitchell families who converged on the hallowed Civil War fighting grounds of rural Maryland.
John McKnight Bloss, now 81, tried to sum up what this gathering of his clan was about. He's been researching his namesake great-grandfather, who was wounded four times during Civil War battles, including the epic fight along meandering Antietam Creek 150 years ago -- and he wanted the younger generation to "understand the sacrifices that were made."
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Robert Mitchell Menuet spoke proudly of Barton Mitchell, his ancestor who served alongside John Bloss in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and suffered a life-shortening wound at Antietam -- one of the 23,000 casualties that made the battle on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in U.S. history.
But something more particular drew the descendants to Maryland.
They cheered the opening last month of an exhibit in nearby Frederick showcasing a simple action their forebears took that helped change the course of the war -- and with it, perhaps, the course of America's history as one nation, indivisible.
The exhibit's centerpiece was a two-page document -- a copy of Gen. Robert E. Lee's secret Special Orders No. 191, detailing the Southern commander's audacious plans for an invasion of enemy territory that would propel the Confederates to victory. Carelessly dropped as Lee's army marched north, the copy was spotted in a field by the Indianans.
When Mitchell and Bloss passed their stunning find up the chain of command, Lee's counterpart, the famously cautious Union Gen. George McClellan, exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!"
Four days later came the cataclysmic clash along the Antietam near Sharpsburg -- what James McPherson, the eminent Civil War historian, has called "arguably ... THE event of the war." Over years of study, the Princeton professor and Pulitzer prize-winning author has come to rank Antietam and the finding of the lost orders among the most notable moments when America's trajectory turned and its very future was reset.
Pondering the "one-in-a-million" opportunity that the Indiana infantrymen seized, McPherson said he understood their family members' excitement.
"They can take pride in what they did," he said in an interview, "but also marvel at the accidental nature of it."
This is a story about a harrowing battle that let America become the nation it is today, and about the thread of fate on which some say it hung.
Brutal Civil War
By September 1862, Americans had endured a year and a half of brutal Civil War.
After a spring when Union soldiers and sailors had a series of successes, major reversals in the summer crushed Northern morale. An offensive by McClellan nearly reached the Confederate capital of Richmond, but stalled. Lee drove the federals back. When the rebels then thrashed a large Union army at Manassas, Va. (the second humiliating Northern loss there), despair engulfed nearby Washington, D.C.
For Lincoln, "this was the low point of the war ... Everything was going wrong," said Stephen W. Sears, author of the Antietam history, "Landscape Turned Red."
Lincoln knew that European powers were closely monitoring the war. A naval blockade had cut into trade between the South's cotton suppliers and the British textile industry, costing many jobs there. Both London and Paris were openly considering mediation to end the war and recognition of the Confederacy. After Manassas, Britain's prime minister suggested that another victory or two would prove Southern independence was "permanently established."
At home, with a midterm vote looming, Lincoln faced a restive electorate. If "Peace Democrats" could win the U.S. House, calls would grow louder to let the Confederacy go. Again, a Union army loss would only add to this chorus.
Abolitionists, meanwhile, urged Lincoln to fight on -- and demanded that the South's enslaved millions be freed.
They didn't know that Lincoln had already settled this question in his mind. In July, he had drafted a preliminary emancipation proclamation, but Secretary of State William Seward advised him not to issue it "until you can give it to the country supported by military success."
So, like European intervention and the election's outcome, the enormous question of emancipation would wait to be answered -- on a battlefield.
Lee's fateful decision
A drawn-out war, Lee knew, favored the North, and so he hoped a thrust directly into the Union would cap the South's latest victories with a demoralizing, decisive blow.
Never averse to risk, Lee made a fateful decision while camped at the Best Farm near Frederick (now part of Monocacy National Battlefield, host of the lost orders exhibit): He would divide his army into four parts. While portions would move deeper into Maryland, others would capture the federal garrison at Harper's Ferry (now West Virginia), and then all would reunite to press their advance toward Pennsylvania.
He detailed the bold plan in Special Orders 191 and had copies distributed to commanders.
But when the army moved out, something "freakish" happened, as Sears put it: One copy was somehow dropped. No one has ever conclusively determined how.
Tucked in an envelope, which also contained a few cigars, the two pages fell in a field where soon afterward the Union army moved in. The 27th Indiana was part of that army, and Sgt. John Bloss picks up the story in a letter home:
"Corporal Mitchell was very fortunate at Frederick. He found General Lee's plan of attack on Md and what each division of his army was to do. I was with him when he found it and read it first. I seen its importance and took it to the Col. He immediately took it to General Gordon, he said it was worth a Mint of Money & sent it to General McClellan."
George McClellan was a fascinating, confounding figure. His skill in organizing troops was what made Lincoln elevate him to command, even though the president had long been frustrated by another defining trait of "Little Mac" -- his paralyzing deliberateness and tendency to exaggerate the forces he faced.
But receiving the Confederate commander's order electrified McClellan.
"I have all the plans of the rebels," he wired Lincoln, "and will catch them in their own trap."
His plan was to strike the separated parts of the Southern army, one by one. Many historians say McClellan failed to exploit his windfall, again through delay.
Still, Union forces did pick up their pace, which surprised Lee. They clashed with Confederate units that Lee had sent into rugged passes on South Mountain, leading toward what would become the Antietam battlefield; the Northern forces prevailed, but the Southerners' resistance bought Lee time -- just enough to re-unify his army.
And the two sides dug in for a showdown at Sharpsburg.
Sept. 17, 1862
Shrieking shells and rebel yells filled the air when combat commenced at dawn on Sept. 17, 1862.
Hellish fighting would persist all day: at a church and nearby woods, at a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, in a head-high cornfield where bullets and cannister shot flew so thick that one survivor said it looked afterward as if the stalks had been cut to the ground with a knife. A sunken wagon track, contested for three hours and in the end piled deep with bodies, became known forever as Bloody Lane.
The fighting raged on and on -- with McClellan ordering serial assaults and Lee shifting his smaller force to meet each thrust.
When the day ended, both sides remained on the field.
In this stalemate, everyone expected renewed assaults the next day, but they did not come. Then, during that night, Lee's army pulled back across the Potomac into Virginia.
Unionists hailed the retreat -- "GREAT VICTORY," a headline exulted -- even though critics faulted McClellan for not pursuing and finishing off the rebels. They would fight on for more than two years.
Meanwhile, around Sharpsburg, burial details took up their monumental task. Corpses became prime subject for photographers sent by Matthew Brady, who, in a first for war coverage, exhibited the images in New York.
Some worried that Brady's show might inflame antiwar sentiment, but instead the images of sacrifice seemed to stiffen resolve, said Dave Maher, a volunteer battlefield guide who himself photographs the now-peaceful terrain.
Among his photos posted online are several from a special battlefield ceremony last year: They show 23,110 luminaries, one for each casualty, a ghost city of candle lights.
Five days after the battle, Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
In doing so, he redefined the war -- "from one to restore the Union into one to destroy the old Union and build a new one purged of human bondage," as McPherson, the historian, wrote in "Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam."
In London, where Parliament had been poised to press an end to the American war that would recognize side-by-side nations across the Atlantic, the prime minister now demurred: "We must continue merely to be onlookers."
At home, when congressional elections were held just weeks later, a sweep by peace Democrats, which some had predicted, didn't materialize; Lincoln's Republicans held both houses of Congress.
It's easy to see inevitability in events as consequential as the Antietam struggle. But many who've studied it dwell on the razor's edge of chance or fate or providence on which this event teetered.
Interestingly, Lincoln told his cabinet back in July that he'd made a private vow to read the outcome of the next battle, for or against the North, as an indication of divine will on the question of emancipation. God, he concluded, had "decided this question in favor of the slaves."
Maj. Walter Taylor, an aide to Lee, also perceived a divine hand -- but in the lost order, saying, "It looks as if the good Lord had ordained that we should not succeed."
Looking back, Lee himself said, "Had the Lost Dispatch not been lost, and had McClellan continued his cautious policy for two or three days longer, I would have had all my troops concentrated on the Maryland side, stragglers up, men rested and intended then to attack McClellan ... Tho' it is impossible to say that victory would have certainly resulted, it is probable that the loss of the dispatch changed the character of the campaign."
Today, some who promote the notion of American "exceptionalism" point to times when something unexplainable drops into the nation's affairs, redirecting events away from the brink.
Two writers who produced "what if" scenarios imagining how history might have proceeded if Special Orders 191 had not been lost were asked about that notion.
Harry Turtledove wrote "How Few Remain," an alternative-history novel. In it, a rebel rather than a yank happens upon the dropped order, Lee's army proceeds through Maryland, and there is no battle of Antietam. A later fight, in Pennsylvania, brings a victory that establishes a Confederate nation.
In an author's note, Turtledove says, "Had those cigars and that order not been lost ... the world would be a different place today." And in an email interview, he adds, "Bismarck is supposed to have said something like, `God loves small children, drunkards, and the United States of America.' We are very lucky that the landmass between Canada and Mexico didn't break apart into two countries ..."
It was not a novelist but a historian, McPherson, who wrote "If the Lost Order Hadn't Been Lost," a chapter for Robert Cowley's compilation "What Ifs of American History."
In it, Lee's order isn't lost: Enhanced security prevents that. Lee brings battle at Gettysburg, leading to Confederate victory. Accepting foreign mediation, Lincoln tells his cabinet: "Gentlemen, the United States no longer exists as one nation, indivisible."
McPherson, while terming the scenario plausible, conceded there is something "spooky" about the losing and finding of those two pages.
"I've never known how to put my feelings about that," the historian said. "My own feeling is that this was a one-in-a-million chance, and there's no way to know how it fell out that it happened."