A Tale of Three Cigars at the Library

by Bill Peak

At nine o'clock in the morning, one hundred and fifty years ago this September 13, the state of affairs in America was as follows:

In the west, a Confederate Army under Braxton Bragg was on the march through Kentucky, intent upon returning that state to the Southern fold (an alternative Confederate Kentucky state government had seceded from the Union in November of 1861). On the Mississippi, Vicksburg's stubborn refusal to surrender to a round-the-clock Union bombardment had rallied the South as Leningrad's resistance to a similar siege during World War II would rally the Soviet Union eighty years later.

In the east, a second Confederate Army under the redoubtable Robert E. Lee marched uncontested through Maryland north of the nation's capital, and a portion of that army was about to take the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry. In light of Lee's apparent invincibility in the field and the Union Army's lackluster leadership, capture of Washington itself, and even President Lincoln, seemed a real possibility.

In France, Napoleon III was pressing other European powers to officially recognize the Confederate States of America, and in England, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, wrote to his foreign secretary to ask if it might be time—should Washington or Baltimore fall to the Confederacy—for England to “recommend an arrangement on the basis of separation?” His foreign secretary agreed, adding that if the North ignored this advice, “we ought ourselves to recognise the Southern States as an independent State.”

But at a little after nine on that morning of September 13, a corporal in the Union army happened upon a packet of three cigars someone had left lying in a field. Anticipating a free smoke, he opened it up and discovered something even more dear—the cigars were wrapped in a copy of Confederate special order #191 (in which Lee revealed the disposition of his troops)—and the world would never be the same.

James McPherson's Crossroads of Freedom tells the story of the battle that resulted when the Union Commander, George McClellan, presented with his enemy's battle plans, found the courage to attack Lee, and how the ensuing Union victory at Antietam made Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation possible. The effect of that declaration upon the nature of the war and world opinion was irrevocable. The South would now win or lose without foreign assistance, and she would win or lose not in defense of an obscure concept known as "states rights," but in defense of slavery.

As part of the library's ongoing commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I will host two discussions of McPherson's book, one in Easton and a second in St. Michaels. If the notion that a packet of cigars can change history intrigues you, check out one of the library's copies of Crossroads of Freedom, read it, and then sign up for one of our discussions. I look forward to hearing what you think.