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Did battle, and US future, hang on thread of fate?

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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, had just parked his RV at a campground when he 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."

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 — "something that has his fingerprints on it," said Mitchell's great-great-grandson.

It's a handwritten 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 left behind as Lee's army marched north, the copy was spotted in a field by the Indianans, and Lee's name jumped out as Mitchell and Bloss read it.

When they 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.

Americans north and south had endured a year and a half of brutal Civil War.

By September 1862, the weariness and worry of its ups and downs showed in soldiers' troubled letters home, in newspapers' jittery overreactions to each development, in the haggard face of Abraham Lincoln.

After a promising 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 gates of 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 and panic engulfed Washington, D.C., just 20 miles away.

"The Union cause is doomed," a newspaper warned flatly, and a visitor to the anguished Lincoln reported the president "felt ready to hang himself."

"This was the low point of the war for him. ... Everything was going wrong," said Stephen W. Sears, author of the Antietam history, "Landscape Turned Red," in an interview.

Nor were battlefield setbacks and ineffective military leadership the only concerns weighing on the president's mind.

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 "firmly and 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, to abandon the failed ideal of union. Again, a Union army loss would only add to this chorus.

Straining to be heard, meanwhile, were abolitionists urging Lincoln to fight on — and demanding that the South's enslaved millions be freed.

They didn't know that Lincoln had already settled this question in his mind. Back in July, he had drafted a preliminary emancipation proclamation but kept it to himself until he met with cabinet members. Their advice? Don't issue the proclamation "until you can give it to the country supported by military success," Secretary of State William Seward said.

So, like European intervention and the election's outcome, the enormous question of emancipation would wait to be answered — along with the very future of the United States as a nation.

And the answer would only come on a battlefield.

A few colonial-style buildings surrounded by well-kept cropland mark the historic Best Farm outside Frederick. A few weeks ago, visitors ignored a misty rain to explore where Lee had set up temporary headquarters after plunging into enemy territory.

A drawn-out war, Lee knew, favored the better-supplied and more populous North, and so he hoped a thrust directly into the Union, threatening its cities, 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 farm (now part of Monocacy National Battlefield, host of the lost orders exhibit): He would divide his army into four parts. While portions of the Confederate force 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. After reading the top-secret order, one recipient sewed his copy into his coat lining, one burned his, and Gen. James Longstreet wadded his up and chewed it like plugs of tobacco.

But, almost incredibly, when the army marched from Frederick to carry out the order, 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 under a locust tree where soon afterward the Union army, slowly shadowing the invaders, 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 and preparing 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 grossly exaggerate the forces he faced. As a general, he was the temperamental opposite of Lee.

But now, receiving the Confederate commander's order electrified McClellan.

"I have all the plans of the rebels," he quickly wired Lincoln, "and will catch them in their own trap."

With his larger force, his plan was to strike the widely separated parts of the Southern army, defeating them one by one. Unsympathetic historians, of whom there are many, say McClellan failed to exploit his windfall, again through delay. "He lost his chance to divide and conquer," Sears said. (Historian Joseph Harsh, in his Antietam study "Taken at the Flood," counters that prudence dictated some of McClellan's timing.)

In any event, Union forces did pick up their pace, which surprised Lee. The federals clashed with Confederate units that Lee had sent into rugged passes on South Mountain, which leads to 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.

Dawn along Antietam Creek today only makes the unspoiled countryside more picturesque and welcoming. It's a scene photographed many times by Dave Maher, a volunteer battlefield guide drawn here for years from his home in Pennsylvania.

"I'm down here about every weekend," he said, sweating in his blue wool Union soldier's tunic and cradling his long-barreled rifle after a re-enactment event this summer.

Striding past a battlefield landmark — the little whitewashed church of the Dunkers, ironically a pacifist sect — he paused to conjure the shrieking shells and rebel yells that filled the air when combat commenced nearby at first light on Sept. 17, 1862.

Hellish fighting would persist until darkness: at the soon ravaged church and adjacent woods, at a stone bridge over Antietam Creek that became a shooting gallery, 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.

The 12th Massachusetts regiment lost 67 percent killed and wounded, the 1st Texas Infantry, 82 percent.

"Where is your division?" someone asked Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood. "Dead on the field," he replied.

A sunken wagon track, contested for three hours and in the end piled deep with bodies in dark blue or butternut uniforms, became known forever as Bloody Lane.

In the midst of this, attending endless ranks of hideously wounded men, was Clara Barton, the Union nurse who would found the Red Cross. One casualty begged for a drink, and she recalled, "I stooped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding the cup to his lips with my left, when I felt a sudden twitch of the loose sleeve of my dress (and) the poor fellow sprang from my hands and fell back quivering, in the agonies of death." The twitch was a ball that pierced his chest, "shoulder to shoulder," she said, adding, "I have never mended that hole in my sleeve."

The fighting raged on and on — with McClellan ordering serial assaults and Lee shifting parts of his smaller force to meet each thrust. "The sun seemed almost to go backwards," one tormented combatant observed, "and it appeared as if night would never come."

Mercifully, the sun did set at last — and yet when it rose on Sept. 18, both sides remained on the field. In this stalemate, everyone expected renewed fighting, but neither side launched a major attack. Then, during the night of the 18th, Lee's army pulled back across the nearby 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 shaken Sharpsburg, barns and churches became hospitals for the legions of wounded, while burial details took up their monumental task. Corpses pitifully strewing the fighting ground became the prime subject for photographers sent by Matthew Brady, who, in a first for war coverage, exhibited the images at his gallery in New York.

"Before that, people had only seen those heroic portraits of men in battle," said Maher, the guide, referring to engravings that illustrated popular journals. But here, "people weren't just seeing a dead body. This was somebody's brother. And these were contemporaries — it wasn't 150 years ago then."

Some worried that Brady's show might inflame antiwar sentiment, but instead the images of sacrifice seemed to stiffen resolve. "People saw how horrific this is and said, 'We can't stop this.' And that began here at Antietam," Maher said.

Those photos were what "hooked" him on the Civil War as a kid and helped fuel his interest in shooting pictures. Among his photos that he has posted online are several from a special battlefield ceremony last year: They show 23,110 luminaries, one candle for each casualty, a ghost city of lights winking across the now peaceful terrain as dusk gathers.

Five days after the guns went silent at Antietam, on Sept. 22, 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."

The New York Tribune said the decree "marks not only an era in the progress of the nation, but an epoch in the history of the world."

The world soon received the news of the battle's outcome and its consequences.

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, Viscount Palmerston, now demurred: "We must continue merely to be onlookers."

A British newspaper termed the Emancipation Proclamation "an act only second in courage and probable results to the Declaration of Independence."

At home, when the midterm congressional elections were held just weeks later, a sweep by peace Democrats, which some had predicted before the battle, 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, from participants to scholars generations later, dwell on the razor's edge of chance or fate or providence on which this event teetered.

Interestingly, Lincoln told his cabinet during the unsettled days 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 a different place. He called the lost order a turning point and concluded, "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, hoping the best results from (the) state of my troops and those of the enemy. 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 detailed "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 a spot of Lee's choosing 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 a chapter titled, "If the Lost Order Hadn't Been Lost," for a might-have-been compilation edited by Robert Cowley called "What Ifs of American History."

In McPherson's scenario, Lee's order isn't lost at all: Enhanced security in enemy territory prevents that. Again, Lee brings battle in Pennsylvania — at Gettysburg, but with a Confederate victory this time. It ends with Lincoln accepting foreign mediation and telling his cabinet in a choked voice: "Gentlemen, the United States no longer exists as one nation, indivisible."

McPherson said in an interview that he'd written the scenario, which he considered plausible, because he'd been invited to but also because the lost order has long fascinated him.

But what about the "exceptionalism" question in this case? Is there something spooky about the almost unimaginable losing and finding of those two penciled pages?

"There is something a little spooky about that. And 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."