I’ll get to the reason of today’s column in a bit, but indulge me some wonderful nostalgia in the process of organizing my thoughts to bang it out.
The story goes like this. Many years ago, not in a kingdom by the sea, but when I was very happily stationed as the public affairs officer in the largest mechanized unit in Germany, had learned enough German to get around in the German community and was enjoying life, my reputation as an avowed history buff had an unusual turn.
The division commander was going to give a speech, and although the circumstances escape me due to the passage of years, he needed information about a certain Civil War battle he couldn’t remember the name of. And he needed some details about the battle. Ergo, I got a call from his aide.
“Sir, the boss needs to know the name of the battle during the Civil War when one side found some lost cigars that were wrapped in hand-written orders about the other side’s plans for an upcoming operation,” the aide said.
Way back in my dim memory when I was an instructor of U.S. military history in an ROTC assignment, the story of the lost cigars made a “ding,” but I couldn’t remember the name of the battle. Ah, but the newly arrived JAG, the division’s chief lawyer, was a Civil War history buff and would know.
I went to his office and posed the question. Without blinking he said, “That was the lost orders prior to the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.”
I so reported to the aide, who thanked me for my prompt reply, then said the general needed details about the battle.
I called another buddy, the division flight surgeon, a doctor and fellow major. He lived several miles away in another little town and had a book about the Battle of Antietam. The fly in the ointment here was that both his and my car were in the shop and my wife was off using hers all day.
I reported to the aide, saying the required information was about 20 miles away but we had no way to get it to him. Not a problem, the aide replied. The general was gone for the day and we’d go in his sedan with his driver.
He summoned the blissfully underemployed driver, who brought the sedan around and off we went to the medical clinic several miles away in another building. We picked up the major and off we went, sitting and talking in the back seat of the two-star’s sedan.
The major ran in and found his book. We looked through it on the ride back. The gist of the event was that a Confederate courier had six or so cigars wrapped in a hand-written order from Gen. Robert E. Lee to another general about the impending Antietam Campaign near Frederick, Maryland.
The captured order gave Union Gen. George B. McClellan valuable advance information about Lee’s plans, but alas, the uber cautious McClellan failed to take advantage of the information as he erroneously thought Lee’s forces had far more men than they had. By the time the Union forces acted, it was too late to take advantage of the purloined information. And the date of the capture of the information was Sept. 13, 1862, 155 years ago today. And there you go.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.