Book Review: Calamity at Frederick: Robert E. Lee, Special Orders No. 191, and Confederate Misfortune on the Road to Antietam


by Alexander B. Rossino

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xii, 156. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $18.95. ISBN: 1611216907

The Loos of Lee’s “Special Orders No. 191”

Dr. Rossino’s new book follows up on The Tale Untwisted: General George McClellan, The Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders, done with Gene M. Thorp, further exploring the story of Lee’s famous “Lost Orders”.

The loss of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 (SO 191) is one of the Civil War’s enduring mysteries. In this book, Rossino presents a bold new interpretation of the evidence surrounding the orders’ creation, distribution, and loss outside Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. Rossino asks and answers,“why General Lee thought his army could operate north of the Potomac until winter; why Lee found it necessary to seize the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry; what Lee hoped to accomplish after capturing Harpers Ferry; where Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana found the Lost Orders; and if D. H. Hill or someone else was to blame for losing the orders”.

In writing this book Rossino drew on evidence from some primary sources that had not previously been examined by earlier writers.

He builds a careful reconstruction of available evidence, including the new material he has uncovered, to give us a fresh picture of how the orders were formulated and distributed, and how one copy came to be mislaid outside Frederick, Maryland, which challenges the accepted narrative. Rossino covers,

While explaining the background to the “Lost Orders,” Rossino gives us some insights into Lee’s thinking about the campaign, based on the assumption that his army could operate in Maryland until winter. He notes that Lee’s decision to capture Harpers Ferry was made on September 8th, when he learned McClellan was moving against him. Lee took another twenty-four hours to develop the final instructions that became SO 191.

Examining Lee’s “order book,” captured at Appomattox, Rossino found that Lee dictated an eight-paragraph draft order labeled SO 190 to his aide Charles Marshall on the morning of September 9th. These became paragraphs three through eight, when Lee dictated SO 191 to Robert H. Chilton.

Who lost the orders is complicated. Rossino notes that, postwar, former Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill solicited the views of many other former officers of the Army of Northern Virginia and members of Lee’s staff, to make the case that he had not lost the document, while general Jackson’s friend Thomas Rosser claimed that it had been lost by one of Stonewall’s staff. As for Rossino’s conclusion on the matter, no spoilers.

Rossino argues that the loss of the order ruined Lee’s plans for a decisive clash along Beaver Creek, forcing him to fight a rear guard action at the South Mountain passes, which favored the Potomac, and reducing Confederate strength for Antietam.

Rossino’s exhaustive research and attention to detail have produced a very valuable addition to historiography of the American Civil War. Highly readable, with many fresh insights and some excellent anecdotes, this is recommended for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", John Brown's Raid, Searching For Irvin McDowell, A House Built by Slaves, They Came Only To Die, General Grant and the Verdict of History, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 2, Man of Fire, To the Last Extremity, Hood's Defeat Near Fox's Gap, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", Vol. 2, Outwitting Forrest, All That Can Be Expected, Force of a Cyclone, Lincoln and Native Americans, Detour to Disaster, Lincoln in Lists, A Wilderness of Destruction, Twelve Days, The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour, and Stay and Fight it Out.



Note: Calamity at Frederick is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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