Book Review: The Tale Untwisted: General George B. McClellan, the Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders


by Gene M. Thorp & Alexander B. Rossino

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xii, 171+. Illus. maps, tables, appends, notes, biblio., index. $18.95 paper. ISBN: 1611216222

The Consequences of "Lee's Lost Order"

This book grew out of an article originally published by Savas Beatie in 2019, and subsequently published in North & South magazine. This short, but outstanding book examines the consequences of the discovery by Union soldiers of a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders Number 191, wrapped around some cigars, on September 13, 1862.

The authors do an excellent job presenting new original research on the "Lost Orders," offering disagreements with earlier historians, while clarifying some obscure questions – such as the correct time of George McClellan message to Lincoln about the discovery, and, most importantly, address the speed at which he acted on the captured orders.

Thorpe and Rossino argue that McClellan pursued the Army of Northern Virginia energetically, and that he possessed “a firm grasp of Lee’s movements within hours of their occurrence”, which is contrary to the long-held consensus that despite access to the "Lost Order", the general moved quite slowly, and many historians have claimed he should have been able to do more damage to the Confederates and been able to prevent the captured of the Union troops at Harpers’ Ferry. The authors suggest that this traditional narrative was shaped by several factors.

  • · Henry Halleck’s testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on the surrender of Harpers’ Ferry
  • · War correspondent William Swinton’s hostile account of McClellan’s generalship, during his 1864 presidential campaign, and
  • · Scientist and historian John W. Draper’s claim that McClellan had moved his troops in the wrong direction, despite having the "Lost Orders."

In addition, based on research in veteran's memoirs, regimental histories, and other primary sources, the authors assert that the Army of the Potomac was not in excellent condition prior during the campaign, which hampered its actions at Antietam and during Lee’s retreat, and conclude that McClellan’s leadership saved it from destruction at a moment when the Union's fortunes were most critical, and the general should be commended and not condemned.

This conclusion is the perfect capstone to the authors' look at McClellan’s efforts during the campaign, which enabled Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Thorpe and Rossino tell the story in a clear, engaging style, with numerous primary references, supported by many splendid maps. Their analysis lends depth and texture to our understanding of the role of the " Lost Orders" in the campaign.

The Tale Untwisted, which is likely to prove contentious, is highly recommended, a "must have" for anyone interested in the Eastern Theatre, Antietam, or George McClellan.


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 most recent previous reviews here include Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , and Civil War Monuments and Memorials.



Note: The Tale Untwisted 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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