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Abraham Lincoln faces Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and other Union officers during the president's Oct. 3, 1862, visit to Sharpsburg, Md., after the fateful Battle of Antietam.
ALEXANDER GARDNER/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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BY CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN
SHARPSBURG, Md.--From as far away as Minnesota, Colorado and Ohio they came, more than 30 members of the Bloss and Mitchell families who converged on the hallowed Civil War fighting grounds of rural Maryland.
John McKnight Bloss, now 81, tried to sum up what this gathering of his clan was about. He's been researching his namesake great-grandfather, who was wounded four times during Civil War battles, including the epic fight along meandering Antietam Creek 150 years ago--and he wanted the younger generation to "understand the sacrifices that were made."
Robert Mitchell Menuet spoke proudly of Barton Mitchell, his ancestor who served alongside John Bloss in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and suffered a life-shortening wound at Antietam--one of the 23,000 casualties that made the battle on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in U.S. history.
But something more particular drew the descendants to Maryland.
They cheered the opening last month of an exhibit in nearby Frederick showcasing a simple action their forebears took that helped change the course of the war--and with it, perhaps, the course of America's history as one nation, indivisible.
The exhibit's centerpiece was a two-page document--a copy of Gen. Robert E. Lee's secret Special Orders No. 191, detailing the Southern commander's audacious plans for an invasion of enemy territory that would propel the Confederates to victory. Carelessly dropped as Lee's army marched north, the copy was spotted in a field by the Indianans.
When Mitchell and Bloss passed their stunning find up the chain of command, Lee's counterpart, the famously cautious Union Gen. George McClellan, exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!"
Four days later came the cataclysmic clash along the Antietam near Sharpsburg--what James McPherson, the eminent Civil War historian, has called "arguably THE event of the war." Over years of study, the Princeton professor and Pulitzer prize-winning author has come to rank Antietam and the finding of the lost orders among the most notable moments when America's trajectory turned and its very future was reset.
Pondering the "one-in-a-million" opportunity that the Indiana infantrymen seized, McPherson said he understood their family members' excitement.
"They can take pride in what they did," he said in an interview, "but also marvel at the accidental nature of it."