Three cigars changed the course of American history at Antietam, the site of the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. On September 17, 1862 some 24,000 soldiers perished at Antietam Creek, where the decisive victory on the Union side was achieved by Union General McClellan’s ability to predict the Confederate Army’s movements. McClellan was able to do so with the help of three lost cigars being discovered in a field. A Union solider discovered Confederate Special Order 191–which noted Lee’s army’s movements–wrapped around three cigars and passed on to their commander.
Antietam became the first battle in which Lee’s army had been denied its main objective. Yet, McClellan waited long enough to lose the opportunity to crush Lee decisively; in the days immediately after the battle, Lincoln became distressed at McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s retreating army. In early October, Lincoln visited McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam to urge him personally to attack, when the above picture by Alexander Gardner was taken. From left to right, Lincoln’s intelligence service chief Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln, and General McClellan.
Lincoln was deeply disappointed in McClellan, on whom he rested his high hopes at the beginning of the Civil war. McClellan was removed from command immediately after; he ran against Lincoln in 1864 election. Lincoln won the election handily, with 212-12 Electoral College votes, and he won 70% of troops’ votes.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln decided to release the Emancipation Proclamation because of the Union victory at Antietam. A string of disastrous Union defeats before had prevented Lincoln from issuing the proclamation for fear of appearing desperate. In the proclamation’s wake, the war not only gained a higher moral purpose, but also record numbers of now-emancipated slaves joined the Union Army, thereby increasing its military strength. Indeed, the outcome of the American Civil War was decided on the fields on Antietam, not by the marching armies but by a carelessly lost parcel of three cigars.
Lincoln with military officers at Antietam.
Lincoln and McClellan in the latter’s tents at Antietam.