Lost orders and literary devices

In case my MacGuffin analogy in yesterday's post was difficult to grasp, here are a two examples centered on Special Orders 191, the Lost Dispatch.

"No other commander on either side during the Civil War enjoyed a comparable situation." - Gary Gallagher, "The Maryland Campaign in Perspective," Antietam: Essays on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Gary W. Gallagher, ed.

To declare this statement patently false or even idiotic is to miss the point; it traps you into "doing history" where there is only literature present ... literature in a genre called "Civil War nonfiction." Mr. Gallagher is building interest and tension within his nonfiction narrative and to force him to hew to facts is to unfairly revoke his literary license.

The statement "No other commander on either side during the Civil War enjoyed a comparable situation" is not beautifully written, but it serves a purely literary purpose - it advances the plot via Hitchcok's "MacGuffin" technique.

Here's another beauty from a famous prose stylist:

"Even the great Napoleon himself had never been presented with such an opportunity..." Stephen Sears, Landscape Turned Red

Again, the misguided might assume Sears is recounting history instead of dramatizing an event and converting it into a plot mechanism. Of course, Napoleon was presented with such opportunities; so, for that matter, was "the Napoleon of the West," Santa Anna; not to mention Civil War generals like John Pope, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, and many others. It's in the record. People know that. But he doesn't pay it any mind because it doesn't advance this particular tale at this time. Hence, "Even the great Napoleon himself had never been presented with such an opportunity..."

The knot of problems posed to actual, practicing historians by the finding of lost orders involves tedious analysis: decoding the staleness of the orders and their actionability; interpreting as precisely as possible how the find influenced subsequent operations; overlaying events on plans; and recreating complex fog-of-war perpectives. These chores do not a pop history tome make, not by a long shot.

The literary opportunities presented by any lost dispatches are different. Handled by a storyteller, they trigger a series of binary outcomes that channel crises into well-worn and easily understood drama: will the find be detected by those who lost the orders? Will the finder believe his luck? Will quick action/reaction follow? Will the lucky break yield fruit? How will all this tension resolve?

The optimal lost order outcome for a talespinner is the "race against time," complete with near escapes and close calls.

For a Civil War nonfiction entertainer, SO 191 is the perfect MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock himself explains:

The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.

Substitute "in the reader's mind" for "in the picture" and understand that where the SO is concerned, you've been MacGuffinned.

p.s. For the history-minded: a few years ago I tallied all the Lost Orders changing hands in the Virginia theatre in the five week period ending on Sept. 13, 1862. If you like that kind of tedium, the summary is here.