Saturday, August 11, 2012

Changing the Course of History

The summer of 1862 was a crucial one for the future of the United States of America. The Confederacy was in full scale rebellion and the Army of the Potomac was in retreat after failing to take the Confederate capitol in Richmond. But there was reason to hope. General John Pope had been called East to take command of a new army, and had begun to implement a policy of "total war" on the people of Northern Virginia. In response to these actions Robert E Lee sent "Stonewall" Jackson to deal with the man he referred to as that "miscreant." On August 9 Pope faced Jackson outside of Culpeper, VA at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Pope's men fought well and nearly prevailed, but were ultimately defeated by the arrival of Confederate reinforcements.

After pulling back from Culpeper to positions near the Manassas railroad junction Pope's Union forces awaited the arrival of reinforcements from George McClellan's Army of the Potomac. In the next few weeks precious few of those reinforcements actually arrived on the field and Robert E Lee was able to join Jackson and defeat Pope's army soundly at the Second Battle of Manassas. After this defeat all the Union forces in Virginia (three separate armies) retreated to Washington and Lee took advantage of the momentum to cross the Potomac River, and for the first time in the war invade northern soil. The resulting campaign and battles could have ended the war. George McClellan, now commanding a combined force of all the Union forces that had gathered in Washington, advanced toward Frederick, MD in pursuit of Lee. In a stroke of luck unmatched in world history two Union soldiers came across an envelope in a farm field outside of Frederick. Contained within this envelope were two cigars and a copy of Special Orders 191.

This order was written from Lee's headquarters and detailed his plans to split his army into four separate forces in an attempt to capture Harpers Ferry while also continuing to threaten Washington and Baltimore. McClellan now knew, not only that Lee's army was split, but the precise locations of each of the separate forces. As he put it in a telegraph to President Lincoln: "I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap." So confident was McClellan in the advantage given him by finding these orders in fact, that he declared that, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home." It was a truly remarkable opportunity.

Last Saturday I went to Monocacy National Battlefield in Maryland to photograph and document a special event. This ground is preserved as the location of a battle which was fought in 1864, but by chance also happens to contain the same farm field where Special Orders 191 was lost and subsequently found in September 1862. In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of this event a special exhibit was opened at the battlefield on Saturday. My task to was photograph the events of that grand opening.

The day began with a panel discussion at the Frederick Visitor Center of three expert historians about the lost orders and the impact it had on the Civil War, particularly in bringing about the Battle of Antietam on September 17. It was a fascinating discussion that opened my eyes to several different ways of looking at the ensuing events and the people who were involved. It would have been fascinating to simply be there as a visitor, but I also had the honor of capturing this discussion through pictures for future remembrance. Also present at this event were about 15 descendants of the two Union soldiers who found the order in the field. They had come from Indiana (where the two soldiers were from) just to be there for this event. It was very special to see them there, a tangible symbol of the lasting legacy of the actions of these men.

The day continued with the actual opening ceremony at the battlefield which included an address by the resident park expert, cake, and the opportunity for me to view the special exhibit.

This exhibit contained a number of objects loaned from the families including the sword one of the Union soldiers carried during the war and letters written home detailing the finding of the orders. The highlight of the exhibit is the actual copy of the lost orders. Knowing the significance of this piece of paper General McClellan held onto it, even after being relieved of command and it now resides with his papers at the Library of Congress. In recognition of the 150th anniversary of its finding LOC has loaned it to the Park Service for this special exhibit.

So I got to look at the actual piece of paper known as the famous "lost orders." It was an incredible opportunity to see something that helped to change the course of American History.

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