For nearly 150 years historians maintained that Lee's Special Orders No. 191 (the Lost Order) must have been in McClellan’s hands shortly before noon on September 13, 1862. To support this premise, they had relied exclusively on a telegram from McClellan to President Abraham Lincoln in which the general alludes to the Lost Order when he writes, “I have all the plans of the rebels . . . .” According to the Official Records, the telegram is dated “September 13, 1862, 12m” which in contemporary terms would have stood for 12 meridian or noon. When citing the telegram, historians have consistently referred to the OR which does, indeed, set out "12M."
On the basis that it was just before noon when McClellan became aware of the order, the popular theory had been that he then frittered away more than six hours before acting on the find, having ordered no related movements until 6:20 p.m. To myself and many others, this simply never made any sense.
In 2002, while perusing the Library of Congress's newly digitized online collection of Lincoln's papers I decided to search for Lincoln's received copy of the message. Having pulled the document up, it was with some astonishment that I read the time designation: “12 Midnight.”
Over the course of the next couple of months I wrote an article of sorts on my discovery and sent it to North & South Magazine, if only to bring the "12 Midnight" document's existence to the forefront. North & South promptly turned it down. A few months later they published Stephen W. Sears's "The Twisted Tale of the Lost Order." In that article, Sears stood by the Official Records "12M" version of the message and made absolutely no mention of Lincoln's copy. Neither has he ever made an mention of it in any of his other writings.
In truth, by itself, the "12 Midnight" document proved nothing except for the fact there were two versions of the message and I knew that I would have to come up with some very strong supporting evidence if the latter had any hope of taking precedence over the OR version. And so I set out on my search for that evidence.
Somewhere along the way, I informed my friend Dimitri Rotov of my discovery. One day, he and South Mountain historian Tim Reese were having a discussion on McClellan when Tim began bemoaning how it simply didn't make sense that McClellan would have sent that telegram to Lincoln at noon that day. Upon this, Dimitri informed Tim of my discovery. Long story short, Tim published the document in his High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective and was gracious enough to credit me with its discovery in the book.
I eventually found that much needed supporting evidence and the results of my research were published in Civil War Times's October 2012 issue. Entitled "McClellan Did Not Dawdle" the article proves conclusively that the time designation on Lincoln's copy is correct and moreover, that it couldn't possibly have been 12 noon when McClellan sent that telegram. As for the OR version, it's now clear that one of the telegraph office transcribers erred when stipulating "12M" on the War Department's copy.
Civil War Times's December, 2012 issue contains an exchange between Stephen W. Sears and I, Sears arguing against the "12 Midnight" version. According to many and much to my relief, Sears lost that debate. I should also mention that, subsequent to my article, Gene Thorp of The Washington Post came up with an additional piece of evidence which, as I like to put it, is the next best thing to finding McClellan's "sent" copy of the message. I'm anxiously waiting for Gene to publish that evidence.
Over the years, I've come across a couple of instances where Tim Reese is credited with discovering the "12 Midnight" document and this, of course, is due to its publication in his "High Water Mark" book. Apparently, few have bothered to read the footnote in which Tim points out that I, in fact, was the discoverer. In retrospect, I wish he had set this out in the body of the work rather than in a footnote.
Recently I learned that, in his To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of 1862, Scott Hartwig gives Tim credit for discovering the document in 2004. Obviously, Hartwig was referring to "High Water Mark" which was published in that year. I've informed Scott of the error and am certain he will see to it that future editions of his book will reflect the true facts of the matter.
Knowing how popular Dimitri's blog is, I thought it might be worthwhile if this could be published on his site as a means of setting the facts straight as to exactly who it was that discovered the "12 Midnight" document. Hopefully, those who read this will spread the word.