Who Wrote The Lost Order? Not Lees Staff



With the assistant adjutant general, Robert H. Chilton, eliminated as the probable writer of the Lost Order,  the investigation of who did write it logical shifts first to the members of General Lee’s headquarters staff. The staff members at the time of the Sharpsburg Campaign are as follows:


  1. A.P. Mason, a captain, functioned at the time as Chilton’s clerk and is responsible for writing the two paragraph version of Special Order 191 and the ten paragraph version in Chilton’s letter book. (See documents following the position paper.)  Like Chilton’s, Mason’s handwriting is distinctive and plainly does not match the handwriting of the Lost Order..
  1. In addition to Chilton and Mason, officers representing the Adjutant General’s, Samuel Cooper’s, office in Richmond, General Lee’s staff included officers who were personally responsible to him. Reason suggests that one of these officers must have written the Lost Order, because writing Lee’s orders, correspondence, and notes, was their job. All existing examples of of these writings, maintained in depositories across the country, are written in the hand of one or the other of these officers. It would be, therefore, a strange and peculiar fact, to discover that none of them can be identified as the Lost Order’s writer.

The first of these, A.L. Long, was at the time of the Sharpsburg Campaign, Lee’s military secretary. The following example of his writing demostrates clearly that Long was not the writer of the Lost Order:

  A.L. Long Handwritting  
  1. T.M.R. Talcott was on Lee’s staff as an aide. His handwriting is plainly not a match for that of the Lost Order:
  TMR Talcott General Lees staff  
  1. Walter Taylor was with Lee from the beginning of the war, in April 1861, to the surrender, in April 1865. Taylor functioned as Lee’s Adjutant. He was responsible for supervising the drafting and distribution of general  movement orders to corps commanders. Had he been present at the time the Lost Order was prepared he would have been responsible to see that it was properly transmitted. However, he was not with the army after September 9.

  On September 9, 1862, two letters were sent by Lee to President Davis. The second one—neither is timed by the hour—acknowledges the receipt of a letter from Davis stating that he was enroute to Maryland, by way of Gordonsville and Culpeper. Lee’s second letter tells Davis not to come, and states that he is sending Walter Taylor to reach him before he crosses the Potomac. At or near the time Lee’s letter was prepared, Lee caused A.P. Mason to write out the original, first creation, of Special Order 191. Under Confederate Regulations, a “special” order is one that deals with a single issue, such as the detachment of an officer for some reason. Such an order is not distributed to any one other than the officer involved and his immediate superior, in this case, Lee himself. Lee’s order was, in fact, executed. Taylor left the army some unknown time on the 9th and returned to Virginia. Failing to encounter Davis—he had already turned back to Richmond—Taylor passed through Culpeper and  went to Winchester, returning to the army on the 18th, the day after the battle at the Antietam.

  An examination of Taylor’s handwriting plainly eliminates him as the writer of the Lost Order  
  Taylors handwritting


Comparing Taylor’s writing with that of the Lost Order does not produce a probable match.

  5,     In terms of longivity Charles Marshall was the next most senior member of Lee’s personal staff. Marshall grew up in Warrenton, Virginia, and may have been a distant relative of  Chief Justice John Marshall. After the war he settled in Baltimore, became a lawyer and raised five sons, two of which became well known New York lawyers. Marshall was the only member of Lee’s staff who was with him at Appomatox Courthouse. He may be the writer of  the document labeled “Special Order 190” which A.P. Mason copied into Chilton’s letterbook to make Special Order 191 into a ten paragraph document. Special Order 190, except for paragraph six and the reference to D.H. Hill, is an exact duplicate of the text of the Lost Order. Marshall’s handwriting shown below is plainly not a match for that of the Lost Order.  

First Example:

  Charles Marshall  
  Second Example:  

Comparing the examples of Marshall’s handwriting with the Lost Order demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that he did not write  the Lost Order..

  1. The last known member of General Lee’s personal staff is Charles Venable. Between September 1862 and 1876, when Walter Taylor published his book, Four Years With General Lee, the only basis for the Lost Order story is newspaper accounts, some coming off the presses as early as September 14, 1862,  Lee’s official report of the Sharpsburg Campaign that was published in April 1863, and McClellan’s report published in 1864.. The substance of these accounts were merely that General Lee’s movement order was found by a Union soldier, delivered to McClellan, and that it contained the statement in the lower left hand corner—“For D.H. Hill, major general commanding division.” Nothing was stated in any Confederate report or published in a personal account of a witness that implicated Lee’s staff in the loss of the order. In November 1867, in response to a letter he received from D.H. Hill, Charles Marshall asserted that the staff had no knowledge of a lost order until they read McClellan’s report in the newspapers. Marshall was unable to say the staff knew anything about the loss of the order, claiming it would be mere speculation for him to suggest how the order was lost..


In 1876, the silence of Lee’s staff  changed when Walter Taylor, the first of the staff members to publish memoirs, stated in a footnote that Charles Venable “always said” the Lost Order must have been lost by a courier on his way to deliver it to D.H. Hill. Although he lived into the 20th Century, at no time did Charles Venable adopt Taylor’s statement as his own. Venable was for many years a professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia and had many opportunities to answer questions concerning his involvement in the creating of any copies of Special Order 191, but he never disclosed to anyone, as far as the historical record is concerned, that he actually knew anything about the order’s creation, much less its loss.


If anyone who was on Lee’s staff, can be designated the prime suspect in the case of the Lost Order, it must be Charles Venable; since he is the only one who, by the hearsay statement of Taylor, was supposed to know something about it.


In examining Venable’s handwriting, for comparison with the Lost Order, the opinion of a so-called “handwriting expert” is useless. As a federal court has explained, there is a lack of empirical evidence that such an “expert” is any more proficient than a lay person to correctly match handwriting samples. Scientific studies have shown that such an expert is no more likely to match samples properly than lay persons; in other words there is no statistical edge shown by the expert in matching samples as compared to lay persons matching the same samples. The process of matching samples of handwriting constitutes no more than a subjective observation of a particular writer’s style and comparing that style to the suspect sample. (See, United States v. Saekee, 62 F.Supp.2nd 1097 (U.S. Dist. Lexis 15125 (2001)


Turning then to Charles Venable, here is his sample which can be compared to the Lost Order:

  Charles Venable Handwritting  
  The Lost Order Front and Back  
Lost Special Order 191

  Lost Order 191  

It is left to the viewer to decide, whether Venable’s writing is a probable match for the Lost Order. Comparing names, though, like “Hagerstown” and Frederick” which appear in both examples, it appears unlikely that Venable wrote the Lost Order. The flow of the writing is distinctly different and the formation of the town names appear substantially different in style.

In the comparison of the many handwriting samples so far, so of which are orders, the Lost Order’s appearance stands out as decidedly different from the others; its as if it were a first draft

Who wrote the Lost Order Venable or Stuart?



Collected by Joseph Ryan

Who wrote the Lost Order?

Supporting Exhibits

Sharpsburg Campaign: Photo Album

Lee's Ruse of War: Special Order 191

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

@ AmericanCivilWar.com

About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.

American Civil War Exhibits