In the age before electronic communications, the Civil War generals wrote their battle plans and gave them to a clerk to copy and give to couriers who took the orders to the commanders in the field. Lee’s Special Order 191, issued just before the Battle of Antietam, ordered his army to be split with half in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and half in Hagerstown, Maryland. One of Lee’s generals read the order then used the paper to wrap a few cigars. Somehow these three cigars and their wrapping were misplaced and lost.
When the Union army passed over the same land a few days later, two men of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, First Sergeant John M. Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell, found the cigars and their precious wrapping.
Had McClellan moved quickly, he might have been able to use his force to defeat one of Lee’s forces then the other, thus crushing the Army of Northern Virginia and any chance the Confederacy had of winning the war. However, McClellan had a “case of the slows,” as Lincoln put it and missed the opportunity.
That doesn’t mean that having Lee’s plans didn’t change the course of the war. With the plans, McClellan was able to adjust his own battle plans and win the day.
But what if a Johnny Reb found the cigars instead of a couple of Billy Yanks? McClellan would have lost that battle. With support in the north dwindling and enthusiasm in the south growing, Lee might have moved deeper into the North and won another battle then another and another.It’s not difficult to see that the future most powerful nation on the planet nearly ceased to exist due to a simple misplacement of a single piece of paper.