Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barton Mitchell: A Coincidental Hero

My good friend Erik Fox started a website called Hoosiers Doing Something. It is a really neat website that seeks out different Indiana-born folks who are doing neat things. You should totally check it out.

As I was reading through this Hoosier blog, I was reminded of a book I had read a few years ago called 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America. It was actually a History Channel program that was later adapted into a book. One of the days that changed our country was the Battle of Antietam. And they discussed a forgotten hero, Barton Mitchell--an Indiana native who more or less accidentally altered our country's history.

Private Barton Mitchell was just straight chill-laxing in a field in mid-September 1862. He was in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (Union represent!). Now, at this point in the Civil War, the Confederacy was making much bigger strides than anyone had expected. They had won at Bull Run, and Polk had poked his little head up into Kentucky and moved the Confederate line further north. The Union was getting a little nervous. And they knew that one more strategic victory for the South could have dire consequences for the States. Mitchell, stretching out and taking it easy in this field, finds a letter wrapped around some cigars. And it is from . . .DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN . . . General Lee himself!

General Robert E. Lee had written letters to his officers with his plans to invade the Union. It sounded suicidal to the rest of the country. But Lee knew the stakes. He had a couple victories under his belt. One more victory would mean that the British Empire will back them. Invading the North will prove to the northerners that the war is not worth the bloodshed. The South will not go quietly! It was a risky move. But if it worked, the North would have to compromise. Either they would give in to the South's demands in order to preserve the Union or the South would secede and create two separate nations.

Unfortunately for Lee, his Special Order 191 fell into the lap of the good ol' Hoosier boy, Private Barton Mitchell, who in turn, gave the letter to General McClellan. Lee's plans, according to Special Order 191, was to ride North into Maryland and take Harper's Ferry. McClellan cut him off, which led to the single bloodiest battle on American soil. Antietam.

I went on a field trip today to visit Barton Mitchell. He is buried in Hartsville, IN, in the Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. It was a beautiful spring day, and I didn't mind driving the hour and a half to where Mitchell lay. It took me a little while to find the cemetery, which was back behind a church down one lane dirt road, over a bubbling creek and plotted next to some farm land. I searched through the cemetery for about an hour and couldn't actually find his headstone, which looks like this. I did find some Mitchell's thrown in between the Fix's and Woodruff's and Mobley's of Bartholomew County. And next to the Mitchell graves was an empty plot with this:

Though I knew this wasn't old enough to be a Civil War Veteran's marking, I was tired of looking and it would get the job done. I knelt down and talked to Barton for a moment. I wondered how it must feel to be forgotten for doing something so monumental. And yet, he didn't really do much of anything other than pick up some garbage and give it to his superior officer. Yet, if those eagle eyes of his hadn't spotted that Special Order 191, the battle of Antietam would not have been fought and the tides would not have turned in the Union's favor. Yet, if that battle hadn't been fought, think about all the blood that would not have spilled. It got me thinking. Adjusting to life after the war must have been extremely difficult for Barton Mitchell. His haphazard actions evolved into something so huge that it was named one of the days that changed America by some History Channel producers!

All joking aside, this post is meant to honor Private Barton W. Mitchell and the work he did. Even though it may have been by accident, he was still instrumental in that awful and dare I say necessary battle that raged in a corn field in Maryland. Had General Lee gotten to Harper's Ferry, I'm not sure what would have happened. So, thanks again, Barton. It's nice to see that even in 1862, no matter where you went, there was a Hoosier doing something important.

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