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Back to the future from 1862

  • Published
  • By Lyle W. Cary
  • Headquarters Air Mobility Command Directorate of Information Protection
It was 1862 and the Army of the Potomac was on the march, shadowing the Army of Northern Virginia. The Union Army had suffered defeat at the hands of the Confederate Army, yet again, on the battlefield at Bull Run. These were already hard, lean, battle-tested men.

The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, had launched an invasion of Maryland in hopes of finding provisions, cutting Union supply lines and drawing the Union Army away from Virginia. He was confident of victory -- after all, his Army had not yet suffered defeat. The war appeared to be going in favor of the Confederacy.

Then it happened. Union Commander, Gen. George B. McClellan, often accused of being slow to act, was trailing General Lee as he moved northward. As the Union Army advanced over an abandoned Confederate camp, an army corporal had the great fortune of finding three cigars wrapped by a Confederate staff officer.

The corporal must have been overjoyed with his great fortune to find cigars made from fine Southern tobacco in this God-awful hell. Although politically incorrect, I have enjoyed an occasional fine cigar on a more recent battlefield; so I understand the simple pleasure, satisfaction, and fortune that corporal must have felt!

What was discovered when he hurriedly removed the wrapper may have changed the course of the war and American history. On one paper wrapping, General Lee had written Special Order 191, detailing directions to his Corps Commanders, outlining his movements for the certain upcoming battle. Although circumstances are somewhat ambiguous, apparently two copies of the order were mistakenly sent to one of Lee's Commanders, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, or perhaps Jackson made a copy for one of his subordinate division commanders, Gen. A.P. Hill.

The staff officer thinking the "spare" was ordinary paper used it to wrap his cigars. With this vital information in hand, General McClellan was said to declare, "Here is the paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."

The two armies clashed at Antietam Creek, Md. Many historians hold the Army of the Potomac could have decisively defeated Lee that day in September, but McClellan again overestimated the enemy strength, and was slow to move to contact. He did not fully capitalize on the intelligence windfall and this delay cost McClellan the initiative. However, he still had enough new information to effectively pick the place of battle with terrain he thought conducive to attack the flanks of Lee's forces.

In reality, both sides were able to exploit terrain advantages at different points on the battlefield. The bloody battle that ensued resulted in over 12,000 Union casualties, and exceeded 10,000 for the Confederates. In the end, because the Union held the field in a major battle for the first time, there was a legitimate claim to Union victory -- however rationalized.

Arguably a tactical stalemate, the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew safely to fight for another brutal three long years at places like Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. From Lincoln's perspective, Antietam (or Sharpsburg) was the closest thing to a strategic victory the Union had achieved, and provided the opportunity for the President to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

From the Confederate perspective, this tiny information blunder cost Lee operational and strategic victory in Maryland. Furthermore, France and England had been on the threshold of recognizing the Confederacy; however, with this Union "victory" neither would side with the South. The cigar discovery changed the course of the battle, campaign, Civil War and American history.

Fast forward to 2011, the year marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. The United States Armed Forces are engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and are providing humanitarian relief to Japan. What seemingly insignificant piece of information are you entrusted to protect, that if compromised, could mean military defeat or yield disastrous strategic consequences for our nation?

Information means victory or defeat. Whether we call it communications security, operations security, information assurance, information operations, information security, cyber defense, personal identifiable information, commander's critical information requirements, or a very long list of other monikers, it all boils down to protecting information vital to our national security. We must become an information-minded force. This is not an option. It is a grave responsibility we all must take seriously.

Have you carelessly left any cigar wrappers lying around lately? The enemy is watching.