I was reading Crusader's Cross from James Lee Burke when I read this :

But airliners crash because a twenty-cent lightbulb burns out on the instrument panel; a Civil War campaign is lost because a Confederate courier wraps three cigars in a secret communique; and a morally demented man takes a job in a Texas book depository and changes world history.

My knowledge in the history of the USA being not so great, I have no idea what events or historical figure he refers to but I would be interested to learn about them.

  • 4
    These sort of "little things that make history" are often more a symptom of some systemic issue: flight crews getting sloppy with a minor fault; sloppy handling of secret documents; or sloppy police work. The 20 cent light bulb didn't cause the problem, it just triggered an already unstable situation; if it wasn't that it would have been something else. The claim about Lee Harvey Oswald is particularly shallow, he was being investigated by the FBI and had left a signed threat with them just weeks before.
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:00

3 Answers 3


Google says

  • The airplane crash appears to be Eastern 401

    Loft was loosing patience with the effort to remove the jammed light. Again he ordered Repo into the avionics bay below. "To hell with this," he said, "to hell with this! Go down and see if it's lined up...that's all we care. Fuck around with that goddamned twenty-cent piece of light equipment we got on this bastard!"

  • Cigars is Special order 191 - fascinating story.

    Special Order 191 (series 1862) (the "Lost Dispatch," and the "Lost Order") was a general movement order issued by Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee on about September 9, 1862 during the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War. A lost copy of this order was recovered in Frederick County, Maryland, by Union Army troops, and the subsequent military intelligence gained by the Union played an important role in the Battle of South Mountain and Battle of Antietam.

  • School book depository is Lee Harvey Oswald.

    The Texas School Book Depository, now known as the Dallas County Administration Building, is a seven-floor building facing Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, United States. The building is most notable as the vantage point of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. An employee, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot and killed Kennedy from a sixth floor window on the building's southeastern corner.

For us Americans almost everyone would probably get the Lee Harvey Oswald reference, mostly only Civil War history fans would know the Cigar-battle plan reference, and very very few would get the airline crash reference. There was a made-for TV movie of it, back in the 70's when most TVs could get only 4 channels, but you'd have to be in your 50's or older to remember that. That's probably why the first two described details of the incident in question, while the Oswald reference did not.

  • 2
    "For us Americans almost everyone would probably get the Lee Harvey Oswald reference". Probably only those of a certain age. I'm too young to have lived through it, and although I knew the assassin's name, I didn't know the name of the building he shot from. A quick straw poll of a few people my age or younger shows they didn't know either (and some didn't know who the assassin was, although all knew that JFK was asssassinated). Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 19:19

I'll answer only for the "cigars," since that's the one I know best.

During the American Civil War, after the Confederates won the Second Battle of Bull Run, General Robert E. Lee decided to invade and try to "turn" Maryland, with his army. The Union commander, the cautious George B. McClellan followed at a distance, characteristically (and wrongly) fearing that he was outnumbered.

The three "cigars" were wrapped in a copy of Lee's orders, and when discovered by Union soldiers, led McClellan to believe that he could catch part of the Confederate army at a disadvantage. That's because the orders called for the Confederate army to disperse.

As a result, McClellan moved with uncharacteristic "speed" (relative to his usual self, not by any objective measure). The result was that he met a Confederate army at Antietam on September 17, 1862 that was, in fact, significantly weaker than his own.

The resulting battle forced the Confederates to stop their invasion of Maryland (hence the reference to the lost campaign). It was a "brawl," with the largest single day casualties in the Civil War, the kind of battle that the positionally-minded McClellan disliked the most. But it would not have been fought without the encouragement McClellan received from the lost cigars. Tactically a draw, it was a strategic victory for the Union which had defeated the Confederate battle plan.


I'm not certain about the light-bulb, although it looks like it may be referring to Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 which crashed into the Florida Everglades while the flight-crew were preoccupied with a burned-out warning light.

The cigars in question were wrapped in Special Order 191 from Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The discovery of the order was a military intelligence coup for the Union army. It enabled General McClellan to deploy his forces to counter Lee's plans which, in turn, eventually led to the Battle of Antietam.

The "morally demented man" was, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald who assassinated President John F Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963.

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