BARTON W. MITCHELL
In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move somewhere in Maryland and, much to the annoyance of Union general George B. McClellan, it was proving to be a lot harder than expected to figure out exactly where 60,000 armed men and horses were hiding in the New England countryside.
Lee was dividing and subdividing his units to flow more easily through the backwoods, setting up to capture a number of small but strategically valuable targets in order to support the next stage of his offensive, and his complicated maneuvers required a steady flow of communication between himself and his subordinates.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, with so many letters flying back and forth, one of them was bound to get mislaid, and when Corporal Barton W. Mitchell was poking around a recently vacated Confederate camp, he came across three fancy cigars wrapped in a sealed document — Special Order 191 for the dispensation and movement of Lee’s forces. Mitchell immediately realized he had an unbelievable intelligence find on his hand and hustled it up the chain of command to McClellan, who confidently declared, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
While McClellan’s subsequent actions at the Battle of Antietam didn’t constitute that much of a whipping (he didn’t take enough advantage of the intelligence, possibly because he thought it might be literally too good to be true) the debatable victory provided Lincoln with the morale boost to proclaim emancipation and keep France and Britain out of the war.
Mitchell, for his troubles, was wounded in the leg at Antietam, honorably discharged in 1864 due to chronic infection, and died four years later, his wife receiving his pension in 1890. Hopefully, he at least got to keep the cigars…