Guest Post: A re-rebuttal from Stephen Sears on McClellan's telegram

Stephen Sears writes re: Maurice D’Aoust’s guest post of 3/26/14.

To argue that McClellan’s Sept. 13 telegram to Lincoln, announcing the finding of the Lost Order, was sent at midnight rather than noon, Mr. D’Aoust offers two supposed proofs demonstrating that the Lost Order did not reach McClellan in time for him to telegraph Lincoln at noon. A third supposed proof, by Gene Thorpe and laid out in an appendix to the post, attempts to show how a telegram sent at midnight was erroneously labeled noon in the records, and what lesson is to be drawn from that.

The heart of the matter is this: Just because no sending copy of the Sept. 13 telegram in McClellan’s handwriting has been found—and I have looked long and hard, far and wide—Messrs. D’Aoust and Thorpe and their advocates say the dispatch was tampered with or messed with in the telegraphic process. I say the telegraphic process worked just fine (except for unavoidable delay) and exactly as it was supposed to.  

To begin with, I find no factual, confirmable evidence disproving the telegram was sent at noon, so, obviously, the Lost Order reached McClellan before noon. But Mr. D’Aoust persists, and his evidence deserves a hearing.

He claims the 27th Indiana did not get to where the Order was found in time for Corp. Mitchell to do the finding before noon. But Charles B. Dew, writing in the Journal of Southern History, used the Samuel Pittman papers to show that Silas Colgrove, the 27th’s colonel, carried the Lost Order to Twelfth Corps headquarters, last stop before it went to McClellan, before noon. Pittman was General Alpheus Williams’s aide, identified the Order’s handwriting as authentic, and is a sound witness. Ezra Carman heard from the courier (urged by Pittman to ride fast) who delivered the Order, saying he left for army headquarters about 9:30 a.m. (No reliance can be placed on Jones’s regimental history of the 27th Indiana. It is riddled with errors, such as the canard that Mitchell was illiterate.)

Next, Mr. D’Aoust claims that McClellan’s telegram, saying the Catoctin range was in Union hands, could not have been sent at noon since that feat was not accomplished until 2 p.m. There is, however, cavalryman Pleasonton’s 11 a.m. dispatch to McClellan (McClellan Papers) saying he is “4 miles west of Frederick” at the Catoctins. That was good enough for McClellan to add that extra bit of good news to his noon telegram to Lincoln.

To repeat, if there is demonstrable proof—as I contend there is—that the telegram was sent at noon, all arguments that the Lost Order could not have gotten there “in time” are nulled.

Finally, Messrs. D’Aoust and Thorpe appear willing to rest their case on . . . well, quicksand. That is, McClellan’s Lincoln telegram was sent at midnight; that the belief it was sent at noon is due entirely to a Washington War Dept. telegraph operator who was a dolt, who made repeated blunders that have muddied the historical waters ever since. I, on the other hand, find the man entirely capable. He did his job exactly as he was supposed to do and expected to do.

Mr. Thorpe displays a McClellan-Halleck telegram sent Sept. 11—two days before the Lost Order telegram—that he claims is time-marked by McClellan 12 midnight. But that dolt of a War Dept. operator marked it 12 M instead of 12 Midnight as he was supposed to do and required to do. Now, that’s not just one major mistake, that’s two major mistakes, perhaps three: 1) Not writing down the time-mark as sent; 2) writing 12 M, the flat-out wrong abbreviation for midnight; or 3) somehow misreading midnight as meridian or as noon and therefore rendering it 12 M, telegraphese for noon. The Official Records compilers saw 12 M and for emphasis rendered it 12 noon in OR 19.2:252.

To stay with the Sept. 11 telegram, it’s in a dispatch book in the McClellan Papers. (The McClellan-Lincoln telegram, not an official message, is not recorded in a dispatch book.)  This telegram is not in McClellan’s handwriting; he did not break telegraphic protocol by writing 12 Midnight on it. It was dictated (it’s a routine message), and McClellan cannot have read it or he would have seen it corrected from 12 Midnight to standard 12 or 12 p.m. on the copy. (It’s in the proper chronological order in the dispatch book.) As noted in my earlier post, McClellan was careful about telegraphic protocol.

Next, Mr. Thorpe would have us believe this same dolt of an operator two days later did exactly the same stupid thing! That is, on Sept. 13 he deciphered a second 12 midnight telegram from McClellan, made the same series of blunders for whatever reasons of his own, and turned it into a 12 M telegram. Then “somebody” at the telegraph office “corrected” the operator’s 12 M copy made for Mr. Lincoln by adding “idnight” . . . but for whatever reasons of his own did not similarly correct the office file copy and carbon.

I cannot find a single confirmable fact in this scenario. It’s pure speculation, and I have to say, simply beyond bizarre.

What actually, factually happened at noon at Frederick was this: McClellan was handed the Lost Order, delivered by a courier from General Williams and Lieutenant Pittman at Twelfth Corps headquarters, confirmed as authentic by Williams’s covering note. It was a Eureka! moment for McClellan. The scales fell from his eyes. He finally knew what to do. He had before him a telegram from the president, sent at 4:10 the previous afternoon (McClellan Papers), reading “How does it look now?” He promptly replied, time-marking his telegram 12 M, for meridian or noon.  

What actually, factually happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 14 in the War Department telegraph office was this:  A perfectly competent operator routinely took down McClellan’s Sept. 13 12 M  telegram to Lincoln, labeled it received at 2:35 a.m. [14th], made one copy and carbon marked 12 M for the office, and one marked 12 M for the president. When Lincoln was handed the telegram and saw the 2:35 a.m. received time, he figured two and a half hours about right for a telegram to reach him (not knowing of the telegraphic delays), and altered 12 M into 12 Midnight, no doubt for clarity in understanding events. It’s an essentially simple story. It meets McClellan’s telegraphic protocol, meets the professionalism of the War Dept. telegraph office. And most of all, it meets the confirmable facts.

(And no, Mr. D’Aoust, I did not “suppress,” as you accusingly put it, the Lincoln Copy when I saw it some thirty years ago. I left it right where it is, in the Lincoln Papers and microfilm, for all to see and ponder.)

Here is a transcription of the McClellan-Lincoln Sept. 13 telegram. It needs to be considered in this context. On Sept. 12 McClellan writes his wife he can’t figure out where the enemy is or what he is doing. Then just before noon on the 13th (after a warm welcome by the ladies of Frederick), he is handed the Lost Order. Immediately, in obvious excitement, he telegraphs the president. For George McClellan, this is positively giddy. Then compare this with McClellan’s 11 p.m. telegram to Halleck, (OR 19.2:281-82, too long to transcribe here). It is a very sober document. He is facing 120,000 Rebels led by Lee in person, aiming for Pennsylvania. He expects a “severe general engagement tomorrow. . . . I have the mass of their troops to contend with & they outnumber me when united.”

I submit it is beyond imagining that one hour later he sent off the following Lincoln telegram.

   2.35 AM
To the President                Hd Qrs Frederick Sept 13th 12 M
            I have the whole Rebel force in front of me but am confident and no time shall be lost. I have a difficult task to perform but with Gods blessing will accomplish it. I think Lee has made a gross mistake and that he will be severely punished for it. The Army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the Rebels remain unchanged. We have possession of Cotocktane. I have all the plans of the Rebels and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency. I now feel I can count on them as of old. All forces of Pennsylvania should be placed to cooperate at Chambersburg. My respects to Mrs. Lincoln.
            Received most enthusiastically by the ladies. Will send you trophies. All well and with Gods blessing will accomplish it.
                                               Geo B. McClellan

-- Stephen Sears