Guest Post: McClellan’s famous telegram—Stephen Sears offers a rebuttal

I respectfully beg to differ from Maurice D’Aoust’s interpretation (guest post 3/20/14) of General McClellan’s Sept. 13, 1862 telegram to Lincoln announcing the finding of the Lost Order.

The issue: Did McClellan send his telegram at noon or at midnight on Sept. 13?

The point of it all: How and when and in what form did McClellan respond to the remarkable discovery of Lee’s campaign plan?

Here are all the facts relating to this telegram that I have been able to verify.

1.  The sending copy, important enough to be certainly in McClellan’s hand, sent from Frederick, Md. to Lincoln in Washington on Sept. 13, is not on record.

2.  The primary copy of McClellan’s telegram is therefore the copy made by the operator at the War Department telegraph office. It is dated Sept. 13 and time-marked 12M. It is in the National Archives, Record Group 107, Microcopy 473, Roll 50. It bears the stamp of the Official Records compilers. Call it the Archives Copy.
3.  The manifold, or carbon copy of the Archives Copy is in the Seward Papers, University of Rochester. It is of course identical to the Archives Copy (including the 12M time-mark) except no Official Records stamp. This carbon is important because it identifies which of the operator’s copies is the primary copy (above). Call it the Seward Copy.

4.  Having made an original and carbon, the War Department telegraph operator made a copy for Mr. Lincoln, the addressee. It is a fair copy, careful written, in a slightly different format. It is time-marked 12M in the telegrapher’s hand. In another hand, 12M is altered to 12 Midnight, i.e., 12M + idnight. (This alteration is clearly seen on the microfilm and clear enough on the digitized version.) This copy is in the Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress. Call it the Lincoln Copy.

5.  The Sept. 13 telegram was first printed a year later, in 1863, in the Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, copied from the Archive Copy supplied by the War Department and marked 12M. It was published in the Official Records (19.2:281) in 1887, from the OR- stamped Archives Copy and marked 12M. It is published in my The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan (1989) p. 453, transcribed from the Archives Copy and marked 12M.

6. The Lincoln Copy of the telegram was sequestered for 95 years, in the president’s papers until 1865, then held by Robert Todd Lincoln and donated to the Library of Congress, and opened to the public in 1947. (I came upon the Lincoln Copy—surely not the first to do so—on Lincoln Papers microfilm about 30 years ago when researching my McClellan biography and McClellan Papers. It posed a puzzle. I applied to it the same tests I’ve outlined here and concluded it was an anomaly, not historically viable.)

7.  12M is the abbreviation for 12 Meridian, or noon, standard in Civil War telegraphy. 12M is not a standard abbreviation for midnight in Civil War telegraphy or anywhere else. (I have 22 examples of McClellan 12M telegrams, nearly all in his hand; 14 by content or received time are explicitly noon. The rest are neutral as to time; none implies midnight.) When McClellan meant noon on a telegram he marked it 12M. Always. McClellan never time-marked 12 Midnight on a telegram.

8.  Who altered 12M into 12 Midnight on the Lincoln Copy?  (Somebody did!) I’ve concluded it had to be Mr. Lincoln himself. The handwriting is not inconsistent with Lincoln’s. This telegram, and others that day, were much delayed by wire-cutting Confederates in Maryland. It is marked received 2:35 a.m. Sept. 14, or 14:35 hours late. Seeing it early on Sept. 14 with that received time, unaware of the telegraphic delay, Lincoln decided it must have been sent at midnight and so marked it. There is no reason to think Lincoln was especially familiar with telegraphy protocols. We forget that generals (except McClellan) did not telegraph the president from the battlefield—they followed the rules and sent to the War Dept. or Army HQ.

9. For this telegram to have been sent at midnight on Sept. 13 requires a scenario like this:  a) McClellan time-marked the sending copy 12 Midnight, something he had never done on a telegram and knew better than to do. b) The War Department operator, instead of time-marking his copy (with carbon) 12 Midnight as he was supposed to do, instead wrote 12 M—which c) was the dead-wrong abbreviation for midnight. d) Then “somebody” else—who could it be?—“corrected” the copy for the president by adding “idnight,” but e) did not “correct” the file copy and carbon. Theater of the absurd.

10. In sum, the documentation is unassailable for a noon telegram,  non-existent for a midnight telegram. No effort to argue that somehow it was physically impossible for McClellan to write this telegram at noon meets evidentiary standards. The three documents in and of themselves trump any and all alternate theories. Mr. D’Aoust and compatriots start with this supposed midnight telegram, then bend and twist and warp trying to make it fit the documented facts. It doesn’t and can’t. They are left with an anomaly.

11.  Finally, and as important as anything else, simply read McClellan’s exuberant, almost giddy noon telegram in the context of Sept. 13’s events. See especially his 11 p.m. telegram to Halleck (OR 19.2:281-82; McClellan Papers, 456-57). No exuberance now, much worry, he is outnumbered, etc. He would never have sent his Lincoln telegram an hour later; that’s a sequence that simply makes no sense. (In this 11 o’clock telegram McClellan says he was handed the Lost Order “this evening.” What he meant by that is that cavalryman Pleasonton, who was sent a copy of the Lost Order at 3:00 p.m. [OR 51.1:829], had that evening confirmed that the find was authentic.)

Certainly, absolutely, there is room for discussion and debate as to McClellan and the Lost Order. What action did he take? When? What should/could/ought he have done? What could he not do? And so on. For General McClellan, the clock on all those matters began ticking at noon on Sept. 13. I would suggest that anyone interested in the topic start their own clock ticking at noon.

Comments, questions, puzzlements, objections? I don’t blog, and I don’t want to wear out Dimitri’s welcome. But I do answer e-mails. swsears@aol.com.

- Stephen Sears