It was just a piece of paper.
A 150 year old lost piece of paper, returned to near where it was found 150 years ago. Big deal. Well, to some of us, it is a big deal.
The losing and the finding may have changed history, although historians of the Civil War still debate that.
This piece of paper was written on around September 9, 1862, during Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland in what is now known as the Maryland campaign. General Lee's decision to move the war into Federal territory was a gamble. His goal was to move north, enlist the support of the people of state of Maryland (many of which had Confederate sympathies), and eventually capture Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
With Harrisburg captured, Lee planned to use the capture as a bargaining chip to end the war, with the Confederacy granted the status of a separate country.
So, around September 9, 1862, Lee formulated plans to split his army, the Army of Northern Virginia, into various parts. Each part was given a goal. Lee's adjunct, Robert Chilton, wrote the order, Lee endorsed it, and the orders were distributed to the various generals under Lee's command in this campaign. Several copies of the order, each handwritten with Lee's plans.
There was just one tiny problem.
An extra copy was made. There is some confusion concerning why, and who was responsible for losing it, but history records that on September 13, 1862, a corporal of the 27th Indiana Volunteers discovered this piece of paper, wrapped around two cigars (some accounts say three, but it is immaterial), near the Best Farm near Frederick, Maryland. At first, no doubt the soldier and his companion thought they was greatly in luck in finding some cigars.
Then they started to read the paper.
That is the piece of paper, containing what is known as Special Orders, No. 191, that was quickly moved up the chain of Federal command and finally into the hands of Major General George McClellan, the head of the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan held the dream of any commanding general - the plans of his opponent.
Oops. (and what happened after that is another story I will not get into today....but the end result was the bloodiest one day in the history of our country, the Battle of Antietam.)
But then, as a famous commentator of the 20th century liked to say, there is the Rest of the Story, the part I really like.
General McClellan kept what historians now call the Lost Order, in his own private collection. After he died, his son donated it to the Library of Congress.
And, this past September, I was privileged to see the Lost Order, on a rare public exhibit, at the Monocacy Battlefield.
You see, that Best Farm ended up in the midst of an 1864 battle, the Battle of Monocacy (named after a nearby river), a small battle that is sometimes overlooked, but although a Confederate victory, prevented a Confederate invasion of Washington, DC.
Photography of the Lost Order was not permitted but if you go to both Monocacy and to Antietam, you will see plaques with pictures of the order. The handwriting is hard to read, but it is worth the time to decipher it.
I still get goosebumps over the fact that I was able to view this piece of Civil War history.
You can see it, too, but you need to get to Monocacy before October 31. (I highly recommend a visit to Monocacy and the best part it - admission is free.)
If you can't make it to this Maryland battefield, this is a copy of the Special Order.