High-Water Mark, part four

Conventional accounts of the Maryland Campaign present a stereotyped cast of characters acting out a tightly scripted drama in which exaggerated personal traits produce highly predictable results amidst the topy-turvy of lost orders, missed timetables, meeting engagements, and incredible chances. In other words, in the popular literature, the drama of the campaign consists of placing certain stock figures (the "Lee" character, the "McClellan" character) within a maelstrom of incredible developments.

I'm not speaking here of much that has to do with history as such, but rather with the strict conventions of a literary genre we call "Civil War nonfiction."

One of the literary gimmicks used to generate dramatic tension in these nonfiction storylines is the Lost Order, Lee's "Special Order 191." In modern Civil War writing, SO 191 provides what director Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin" - an otherwise worthless artifice advancing a plot - a Maltese Falcon, for instance, or a ring binding two characters together.

The historic importance of SO 191 is real, but is generally unknown, as it now serves strictly as a "MacGuffin."

One's treatment of the Lost Order speaks volumes. Talespinners are deeply interested in the "color" elements: who lost it (guilt, shame, mystery); who found it (spunky, earthy enlisted men); whether the "Lee" character knew it was lost (calculation, risk-taking ); whether the "McClellan" character could exploit its tempting secrets (angst, cowardice, knavery); and also what kind of precedent this loss represented (utterly unique and never-to-be-repeated, for maximum dramatic effect).

If you are an historian, your interest in the Lost Order is of a different kind. You focus on how the loss shaped the events that followed; if you are ambitious you start building timelines to understand McClellan's decision cycle and command style.

This is where we rejoin author Timothy J. Reese in his new book High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective. How the loss shaped the campaign is a question we will look at that in a later post. Here, early in his book, ingenuity and scholarship address the McClellan decision-making timeline with another unique piece of the Maryland Campaign puzzle: where the Lost Order turned up.

Fed on a strict diet of standard Maryland Campaign storytelling, you may wonder, so what?

This is what -- the timelines developed to analyze McClellan's decisions have been bridges built between two points. Anchoring one end is, in the popular imagination, McClellan's evening orders to Franklin on Sept. 13, the day of the find. On the other end is that much-debated point at which McClellan vetts the orders as both 'real' and actionable. Many erroneously put this at noon on the 13th (based on sloppy dating of a telegram sent to Lincoln). In my own view, these points would be like grounding one end of the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the East River and the other end in Queens.

Reese had the exceptional idea of anchoring the timeline at the beginning. What few understand is that the beginning is both a time of find AND a location. "Where" holds no literary magic for talespinners, of course, but if the geographic starting point is fixed, and the Frederick location of McClellan's HQ is determined, we have information about distance, we can validate timelines, and we have connected the first two points in an important analysis. It's not Einstein's theory but it is rocket science to the current crop of pop historians.

Reese's placement of the field holding the three cigars debunks earlier sitings. It is very convincing and another pleasant surprise.

And if you now get the sense that this author is strewing the reader's path with discoveries, that's High-Water Mark in sum.

More on Tuesday.