Honorable Reports: Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes
Civil War Records and Research
Fall 1995, Vol. 27, No. 3
By Michael P. Musick
From the moment the first mortar shell arched into the early morning darkness and exploded over Fort Sumter, popular attention to the sectional struggle in America has been riveted on particular military clashes. Bulletins chalked on boards at newspaper offices, newspaper headlines, instant books, wood engravings in illustrated weeklies, and personal letters from the front served to feed a popular interest in the grim spectacle of warfare.
Casualty lists from Shiloh or Spotsylvania are no longer perused for the relief or heartbreak with which they once were freighted. Yet the specific way that men were marshaled against one another, and the way they met that challenge, absorbs readers now as thoroughly as it did the ancient auditors of the exploits of Hector and Achilles. Novelists and moviemakers profit from an insight into basic human concerns that eludes many an academic. And no few historians, popular writers, and buffs continue to seek every factual clue that will enable them to recount with authority the campaigns, battles, and skirmishes of well over a century ago.
No one who has seen Harry W. Pfanz's 602-page opus on Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987) can fail to be impressed by the amount of effort and the depth of commitment exemplified in this study of a portion of one day in one three-day battle. Additional well-researched and compelling combat narratives continue to pour forth from the presses, suggesting that this genre will exert an attraction for many generations to come. Richard J. Sommers's Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg (1981), Albert Castel's Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992), and Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.'s The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South (1991), to name but a few, demonstrate the variety and resourcefulness of authors tilling this ensanguined ground. When one learns that Mr. Pfanz has gone on to publish Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill (1994), which covers in 560 pages phases of the second day not covered in his initial volume, the conviction grows that no ordinary passion is being devoted to this class of inquiry.
Where does one turn to pursue an interest in a particular military engagement? Many published sources are surveyed in Allan Nevins et al., eds., Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography (1967–). The more recent literature can be explored through computerized catalogs such as the Online Computer Library Catalog (OCLC) and use of Books in Print. If the site is prominent enough, it may be commemorated by a national or state park with a staff knowledgeable in the sources that bear on what happened there. Often a park will have its own library and collections of historical manuscripts or manuscript copies. Parks are listed in the Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, edited by Mary Bray Wheeler and published by the American Association for State and Local History.
Sooner or later, however, the conscientious researcher will find a massive presence looming up like Kennesaw Mountain in the path of Gen. William T. Sherman. The 128-volume War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901) published by the War Department—often simply referred to as the Official Records or OR for convenience—was created specifically to document campaigns, battles, and skirmishes. Although it is divided into four "series" and covers many kinds of subjects, the greater part by far is found in Series I. which is devoted to military operations.
The Official Records and its accompanying Atlas are widely available in reprint and microform and is the single most important source for documentation of the military aspects of the Civil War. The set reproduces texts of official battle reports (later called "after action reports"), official correspondence, and tables of organization (later styled "order of battle") for both sides. The originals of most of the records it includes are now in the National Archives, as are the transcriptions of borrowed documents used by the printers. If the original of an OR document is not in the National Archives, an annotated copy showing the date and source of the transcription should be.
While the Official Records should be easy to find, access to the contents of the volumes themselves is liable to pose a greater challenge. Index references in the General Index volume to the names of individuals are excellent (even Judas Iscariot rates an entry), and units (with the main entry by state for volunteers) are more or less well covered, but listings for the approximately ten thousand armed clashes, especially the minor ones, leave much to be desired.1 To remedy this situation, Dr. Dallas D. Irvine, a crusty senior staff member of the National Archives and one of its first professional employees, was assigned to create a new finding aid that would enable the researcher to pinpoint mention of virtually every military encounter in the compilation as well as pertinent references in the sister publication of the Navy Department and the Atlas.
Dr. Irvine's labors, undertaken as part of the Civil War Centennial commemoration, resulted in Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide-Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861–1865 (1966–1980). Not only does the Guide-Index enable the scholar to find documentation on specific actions and operations, it also corrects and clarifies numerous erroneous listings for minor combats, some of which never occurred. For example, a skirmish at Magruder's Ferry, Virginia, on September 16, 1861, is revealed through Dr.Irvine's sleuthing to be based on an incident in which the injuries came from a team of horses in Maryland rather than from any action of the Confederates.2 In addition, this exceedingly useful work includes a listing of principal military operations by state; tables of key reports; a checklist of recognized military operations by state, county, and date for the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia; essays on such subjects as calendars and almanacs of the war years; and the types of materials included under "Reports, etc.," and "Correspondence, etc." A discussion of clock time in the 1860s illuminates, among other things, how a telegram sent during the Battle of the Crater could appear to be answered before it was sent.
The Guide-Index was issued in nine separately bound parts (sometimes designated "fascicles") comprising five volumes, with a separately published "Prospectus" describing the intent and scope of this new finding aid. Following Dr. Irvine's retirement, the project was completed by John Ferrell, Dale Floyd, Robert Gruber, Francis Heppner, Edwin R. Coffee, and Robert B. Matchette, all of whom were initiated into the intricacies, confusions, and delights of a project that required more than fifteen years of effort.
The letterpress Guide-Index publication was only part of what was originally envisioned. Additional material, such as a complete listing of the maps, sketches, and other graphic material published in the text of the OR, appears on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1036, Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, Volume 1, Conspectus, and M823, Official Battle Lists of the Civil War, 1861–1865. Both have informative descriptive pamphlets. M262 and M275 reproduce the OR Armies and Navies themselves, respectively.
Users have stated that their only complaint about the Guide-Index is its method of citing the serial number of the OR rather than the more familiar series, volume, and part designations on the spines of all the books This difficulty, and many others, is obviated by Alan C. and Barbara A. Aimone's invaluable contribution, A User's Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War (1993). Mr. Aimone is the chief of special collections at the U.S. Military Academy library. Among the many virtues of the Aimones' work is a handy appendix (VIT) listing the various War Department designations, as well as their numbers in the congressional serial set, of which the OR is a part. Their work also affords informed discussions of the background, editorial policies, and organization of the OR Armies, Navies, and Atlas; the available finding aids; and the value and limitations of what was in fact the government's greatest venture into documentary editing. Especially noteworthy are nine appendixes covering everything from reprint editions to annotated bibliographies of related publications.
Even more important than the Guide-Index and the User's Guide is a project undertaken in Wilmington, North Carolina, without government personnel or financial support. Specialty publisher Thomas W. Broadfoot currently is publishing a multi-volume supplement to the OR. Designed to put into print, in the same typeface and format used by the War Department, official battle reports from both armies that were not available to the original editors, these volumes present priceless source material primarily found in collections of personal papers across the country. Although the "Correspondence, etc.," category of records is omitted, the "Records of Events" documentation available on M861 and M594 is included and thus made more widely and conveniently accessible.
The Official Records is not an unimpeachable source. The reports it contains are almost by definition self-serving. It has frequently been observed that the light they shed generally casts defeats as, if not quite victories, then at least the unjust blows of ingrate gods. The accounts of commanders on opposing sides of many a field seem to be describing entirely different battles. Because their authors were writing for the record, reports may gloss over some things and highlight others in a way they would not have done in private. Indeed, some reports were not composed by those who signed them. Alexander R. Boteler's efforts on behalf of Stonewall Jackson are a case in point. Because battle reports were written soon after the events they relate, they frequently bear the defects that distance and hindsight would smooth away. Of course, that same immediacy represents much of what gives them value.
Bold innovations in style, while sometimes invaluable in battlefield tactics, were not encouraged in factual reports to superiors. Accordingly, the format of most combat reports is predictable and can make for difficult reading. "I have the honor to report. . ., " or some variant, is an introductory commonplace used with numbing consistency. Movements and actions are recited, casualties tallied, and praise or blame meted out as seemed appropriate. Subordinate reports provided the grist for the mills of writers higher in the chain of command. Officers on the staff of whoever is giving account of his actions customarily merit an encomium or two. Subscriptions include professions of respect, obedience, and servitude jettisoned by later generations. Only once in a very great while did a free spirit like adjutant John N. Edwards, who penned the reports of Missouri's Gen. Joseph O. Shelby, C.S.A., burst the bonds of convention.3 Shelby's report of John S. Marmaduke's expedition into Missouri dated January 31, 1863, begins:
On the last day of December, 1862, when the old year was dying in the lap of the new, and January had sent its moaning winds to wail the requiem of the past, my brigade . . . were on the march for foray on the border's side.
Soon Shelby ordered a charge:
Gallantly it was done, and as gallantly sustained. At the command, a thousand warriors sprang to their feet, and, with one wild Missouri yell, burst upon the foe; officers mix with men in mad mêleé, and fight side by side; some storm the fort at headlong charge, others gain the houses from which the Federals had just been driven, and keep up the fight, while some push on after the flying foe. The storm increases, and the combatants get closer and closer.
I heard the cannon's shivering crash
As when the whirlwind rends the ash;
I heard the muskets deadly clang,
As if a thousand anvils rang!4
More exciting and immediate than the reports is the OR correspondence, though it has been unjustly neglected by some who should know better. Battlefield dispatches, telegraphed pleas and responses, and some amazingly frank and testy exchanges are recorded with fidelity. In a time before radios, telephones, computers, or fax machines, a surprisingly large amount of communication was put into writing. It is this category of the OR that Shelby Foote must have had in mind when he wrote of the government's volumes, "there you hear the live men speak."
But do you really? Is the text of the OR accurate, or did the editors alter, amend, or improve what they had before them? Fortunately, it is usually easy to find out. All of the Confederate documents used by the printers are in a single series, arranged to exactly parallel the published volumes (War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, entry 4). All of the Union battle reports published are likewise conveniently accessible in a single series (Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, RG 94, entry 729). It is in the area of Union correspondence that major difficulties in the search for originals are likely to lie. Some of this is accessible with relative ease (in RG 94, entries 730–732). Other documents must be sought in such places as the main series of Letters Received by the Adjutant General's Office (RG 94, entry 12, reproduced on M619), and Union army command records in Record Group 393, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920.
Despite claims to the contrary, only one instance of intentional alteration of a document to skew interpretation has been documented by careful scrutiny. This is Dr. Richard M. McMurry's discovery of the apparent sources for a Confederate "Journal" of the Atlanta Campaign by T. B. Mackall provided to the editors by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and which was evidently so copied as to enhance Johnston's reputation at the expense of Gen. John B. Hood.5 The problem in this case was the desire on the part of the OR compilers to increase the number and usefulness of Confederate documents in their publication. As noted in the introduction to the General Index volume, there were far more Union records available than there were for the other side, particularly for the later phases of the conflict. This resulted in the War Department's copying and borrowing of numerous sources still in Southern hands. Thanks to the publication files, and to the correspondence and other records of the editors in the "War Records Office" (RG 94, entries 707-728), the background of these submissions is generally traceable.
Unintentional alterations are a valid, if not a major, concern. The government printers worked directly from original documents or the copies of loaned material, and such changes or mistakes as occurred were due to the common practice of the typographical trade or to human carelessness.6 Cases of supposed "improvement" of rough-hewn and ungrammatical usage in original sources have been found attributable to discovery of early drafts, which were subsequently polished before final submission to commanding officers. As Dr. Irvine observed, "It is all too easy . . . for historians to fall into the fallacy of assuming that historical developments had more of a Machiavellian basis than they did have."7
So much for our Kennesaw Mountain. What about campaign and battle documentation that goes beyond what was published? One category of such material is indicated in the OR itself. Numerous footnotes will be found scattered through the text with statements such as "omitted," "nominal list omitted," or "embodied in revised statement." It will ordinarily be possible to find these items in the National Archives with little difficulty. Documents identified as "not found" may or may not turn up, but chances of finding them are reasonably remote.
Almost all of those curious about military operations will find their thirst for knowledge slaked by the OR and its supplement. If a yet more human, personalized view of the fighting is called for, published private letters, diaries, unit histories, and memoirs offer engrossing first-person accounts guaranteed to enlist the sympathies of the reader. A beautifully illustrated, readily available collection of mainly autobiographical narratives with heavy emphasis on the brass is the deservedly popular Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887–1888; reprinted 1991), edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. This set has transformed many a casual reader, such as Stephen Crane, into an obsessed enthusiast, so beware! The Southern Historical Society Papers are now almost as likely to be in a local, college, or university library, and hometown newspapers are preserved at the Library of Congress and elsewhere are often on microform. The only real road map to unpublished letters, diaries, and other personal papers is the Library of Congress's National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collection (NUCMC), so often adverted to in these pages.
What of that dedicated scholar, the advance seeker after possible unpublished battle documentation lying undiscovered in the National Archives? The most abundant source of finds for such a person is the Union records. There is no overall index that will neatly spell out what there may be on a Mine Run or a Murfreesboro, but patient, extended searching can yield material that will elevate a chronicle from the valuable to the invaluable. Some series are reasonably straightforward, but a working knowledge of the units, commanders, and dates involved is indispensable.
Forearmed with background data, it is a relatively simple matter to examine National Archives Microfilm Publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations (often called the "Record of Events" and now available in the Broadfoot supplement to the OR) for units present at a particular engagement. The names of commanders may lead to substantive commentary on operations in which they were involved; see M1098, U.S. Army Generals' Reports of Civil War Service, 1864–1887. The armament of the troops who participated may be spelled out on M1281, Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Organizations, 1862–1867. There are gaps and disappointments in all such series, but in some cases these records will be a boon indeed.
Also available on microfilm, but perhaps a bit more difficult to use, are two huge accumulations of telegrams. National Archives Microfilm Publication M504, Telegrams Collected by the Office of the Secretary of War (Unbound) offers 454 rolls, with the documents filed by year and thereunder by the name of the sender. National Archives Microfilm Publication M473, Telegrams Collected by the Office of the Secretary of War (Bound), While somewhat smaller (a mere 282 rolls), is more complicated in arrangement. The descriptive pamphlet (DP) is vital in identifying the various categories, which are under the general headings of :
- Telegrams of the President,
- Telegrams of the Army High Command and Certain Field Commands and Installations,
- Telegrams of the War Department and Certain of Its Offices and Bureaus, and
- Telegrams From Various Government Sources.
Within these headings, in chronological order, are reproduced volumes composed of either copies or originals, such as "Telegrams Sent by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, April 5–November 15, 1862" (rolls 48 and 49), and "Telegrams Received at Fortress Monroe, VA (Press Copies), May 8–July 27,1862" (roll 59).
At this juncture, it must be noted that many of these telegrams, and some of the series about to be discussed, were examined by the editors of the OR for possible publication. The clue to this examination is found in the presence of stamps in ink reading "War Records—1861-1865—Copied," "Examined for War Records," "Printed, War Records," or variations on this theme. None of these stamps guarantees that the document in question made the final cut and was published, but they do indicate a strong possibility that such was the case. One way to find out if an item appears in the printed work is to identify the name of an obscure person in the text, one that was unusual for that period (such as Lasdislaus E. Koniuszeski), and track that person in the General Index. Many documents will not include such a name, but if there is one, it can save much searching, especially in the volumes at the end of Series I that contain additions out of chronological sequence. Another point to bear in mind is that multiple copies of a document often exist, and absence of a stamp is no guarantee that the item was not in fact printed.
Not conveniently accessible as microfilm publications, but still of a sort readily understood by most researchers, are battle-related records in four more series, all in Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office. First are the Union "generals' papers," so-called, in entry 159, records often requested because their simple arrangement scheme is similar to that of many manuscript repositories, and various listings of the officers represented have been published in the NUCMC, the inventory to RG 94, and the Munden and Beers Guide. Second are carded transcriptions of Records of Events from monthly returns for army corps, geographical departments and divisions, and posts (entry 65), which supply some data. Third, the untranscribed, uncarded Records of Events for companies and the field and staff of Regular Army outfits are often informative and detailed (entry 53). Regrettably, these are in poor condition and are easily damaged by unfolding. Last, "Ex Post Facto" reports submitted years after the events described will sometimes be found (primarily for the first half of the war) in the main series of Union Battle Reports published in the OR (entry 729). Although deemed too far removed in time from the events they describe to win the imprimatur of the OR editors, these belated contributions will now and then unlock doors to understanding that would otherwise remain closed.
An advanced scholar must grapple with the further implications of the fact that what was chosen for the OR represents a selection. The compilers sought documents that would illuminate "drum and trumpet" history as it was then understood, especially the formal study of strategy and tactics by military men. They also had to make a determination of what was significant and what was not. The modern researcher may well have different criteria and conclude that what was chaff to an earlier generation is wheat to him. Thus the poignant telegram informing an officer in the field of his wife's death at home, or the petition of several officers asking that their unit be reassigned, while necessarily ignored in the government's scheme of things, may supply today's historian with a telling detail.
Seven broad categories of documents were excluded from the OR early on:
1. Applications for appointment, arms, contracts, discharge, special exchange, muster in, etc.
2. Charges of disloyalty, etc., preferred by private individuals or anonymously against officers, agents, etc.
3. Claims of all descriptions.
4. Tenders of troops or personal service by individuals.
5. Offers for contracts or of inventions.
6. Ordinary routine business of the bureaus and departments.
7. Unsolicited advice or suggestions from individuals.8
These seven classes are all well represented in records that have been preserved and are to a certain degree vague in what they cover, particularly in what the definition of "ordinary routine business" might be. Personnel records are a mammoth grouping and one that falls under the latter rubric. Background on logistics can easily be regarded as "routine." Yet even seemingly obvious official sources, well within the confines of what the editors wanted, still contain unpublished gems. Records of discontinued commands, now Record Group 393, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands (formerly RG 98, as shown in the Munden and Beers Guide) are the main case in point. The tens of thousands of series described in the five-part inventory to this cornucopia include items such as 'Daily summaries of the news reaching headquarters of Gen. W S. Rosecrans, 1863–64" (Part I, entry 986). This volume is vital for an understanding of Union command decisions at the Battle of Chickamauga but was not selected for publication. Some series (e.g., entry 2269, Part I, Letters Received, District of Key West and Tortugas) appear never to have been seen by any of the compilers. Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, while containing much stamped material, also contains series and parts of series evidently made available only in 1905, several years after the end of the OR project. Some particularly good examples are in entries 11 and 12, Reports of Operations; entry 13, Messages Sent and Received; entry 13A, Messages Sent by Signal During the Siege of Vicksburg; and entry 26, Papers of 1st Lt. Louis R. Fortescue, Acting Signal Officer, 29th Pennsylvania Infantry, 1862–65.
Union records that are often especially difficult or tedious to find can repay the effort many times over. Combat documentation in court-martial records in RG 153 is extensive and generally untapped but well illustrates records exceedingly troublesome to locate. Only a tiny Percentage of the court-martial files found their way into the OR. Medal of Honor files can reveal glimpses of action as described by eyewitnesses. Remarkably detailed accounts of what occurred in even small segments of a battlefield can be pieced together by patient investigators through pension files in Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15.9 One innovative individual is even reported to have plotted the position of various units on one field based on the trajectories of bullets, as recorded on the stylized anatomical outlines printed on one kind of form in such files! Perhaps most maddeningly difficult of all to locate are Union casualty lists, which some of those pursuing accurate statistics for specific engagements seek out. One series of these lists by regiment (RG 94, entry 652) is simple to use, but the many related series (entries 621, 653–657, 659–600, and 667) can be overwhelming in their complexity. A reasonably useful tool in exploring these is the carded medical records by regiment (RG 94, entries 534 for volunteers, 629 for regulars), which transcribe data on individuals and cite the original lists by file number.
In contrast to this potential bounty, unpublished Confederate battle documentation in the National Archives is meager indeed. The most obvious source has been mentioned, the "Records of Events" reproduced on microfilm on M861 and in letterpress by Broadfoot Publishing. Next are the Compiled Military Service Records by unit or in the large series for "Generals, Staff Officers, and Non-Regimental Enlisted Men." These personnel records are more fruitful than their Federal counterparts, particularly for officers. Thus two versions of a report of the skirmish on April 16, 1862, at Pichacho Pass, Arizona (called by one wit the "Gettysburg of the West"), will be found filed under the name of Capt. Sherod Hunter, Baylor's Regiment Texas Cavalry, the officer who signed them.10 No reports of this encounter are in the OR.
Some records not found elsewhere that may shed light on armed clashes are interspersed with the rather limited but valuable "collections of officers' papers" (entries 116 through 137) in RG 109. These are primarily official records rather than personal papers. The generals represented here are:
- P.G.T. Beauregard (116),
- James R. Chalmers (117),
- Jubal A. Early (118),
- John B. Floyd (119),
- Samuel G. French (120),
- Thomas C. Hindman (121),
- John Bell Hood (122),
- Bushrod R. Johnson (123),
- Sam Jones (124),
- Robert E. Lee (entries 25 and 26; see below),
- St. John R. Liddell (entry 127),
- John B.Magruder (128),
- Lafayette McLaws (129),
- William Hicks Jackson (under the name of the officer who loaned them, Capt. George Moorman, entry 130).
- John C. Pemberton (131),
- Gideon J. Pillow (132),
- Leonidas Polk (133),
- Carter L. Stevenson (134),
- E. C. Walthall (135),
- Joseph Wheeler (136), and
- W.H.C. Whiting (137).
The Pemberton and Polk papers are especially noteworthy as rich in volume and quality. The Pemberton papers include a section on operations around Vicksburg. The Robert E. Lee papers for 1861 have been removed from this series and reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M998, Records of the Virginia Forces, 1861. Many of these collections contain cards indicating that items were removed for publication in the OR. Additional items from some generals' papers (e.g., Pemberton and Polk) were taken out by the War Department and filed under the name of the writer in what is now M346, Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, but such items are not likely to concern particular battles.
Another substantial body of Confederate records, those of army commands, offers possibilities for campaign studies. These, too, were generally exploited for the OR, but they still certain some unpublished material, especially for the daily operations of extended sieges. As cases in point, in entry 138 of RG 109 are "Letters and reports, Port Hudson, 1862–63"; Chapter II, volume 8, "Letters sent from Port Hudson, 1862–63", and Chapter II, volume 198, "General and Special Orders, Port Hudson, 1862–63." The publication of the more important documents in these series is shown by "copied" stamps, but other items, including provision returns that might prove significant in a detailed study of the siege of that Louisiana stronghold, were not included in the government's documentary history. A few other examples are entries 94 and 95 for Vicksburg, Mississippi, and 74 and 139–141 for Fort Sumter and the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. The command records are described on pages 142–191 of the inventory and pages 259–301 of the Beers Guide.
The dull but potentially enlightening analysis of order of battle, casualties, and arms in the hands of troops can benefit from sources in the Confederate records of the National Archives. The monthly returns and other reports and lists of departments, armies, and their corps, divisions, and brigades will be found in entry 65 (see appendix), though as with most Confederate records, there are significant gaps. Surviving nominal lists of losses are conveniently reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M836, Confederate States Army Casualties: Lists and Narrative Reports, 1861–1865, and can be supplemented by the Compiled Service Records (CSRs), but as usual the sum of both sources is still incomplete.
Even Federal records will once in a while be the repository for battle accounts from the other side. The terse diary and memorandum book of Col. William Preston, C.S.A. (RG 94, entry 286, Special File item No. 16) presents an eyewitness description of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh as well as sketch maps of the vicinity of Corinth, Mississippi. For some reason not apparent, it was kept apart from the Confederate records in a safe in the office of the U.S. Army's Adjutant General. A court of inquiry to examine the conduct of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren at the Battle of Five Forks (March 1865) was not ordered until 1879, at which time not only Union participants but also their erstwhile opponents, from generals to boy guides, gave testimony. This voluminous documentation on one of the great controversies of the war was not published until 1883. The original proceedings (entry 15, File QQ 3215) are in RG 153, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army).
The Warren court of inquiry is only one of numerous instances in which wartime combat was detailed years after the fighting. In the best of these, partisan concerns take a backseat to a genuine effort to establish accurately what tactical movements occurred. The opportunity to learn what had been going on "on the other side of the hill" was sometimes seized with avidity. As a result we have a body of material that cannot be characterized as Union or Confederate but which encompasses both. Documentation created after the fact must in some degree be inferior to what was recorded on the spot and at the time, but it is generally far more extensive and indeed is often all that is available.
It soon becomes apparent that while all battles are fearsome things, not all battles are equal, particularly in their historiography. A handful of clashes have been the focus of extended, wide-ranging, massive investigation. Chief among these—so much so as to constitute a world of its own—is the biggest and bloodiest, Gettysburg. Only Gettysburg, for instance, has its own scholarly journal, The Gettysburg Magazine (1989– ). Writing in those pages, Roger Long offers guidance through a mountain of printed matter:
Works on Gettysburg fall into several convenient categories. These are books about Day One, Day Two, Day Three, the cavalry battles of July 3, citizen views, etc. These categories can be broken down into even smaller segments. There are books dealing only with Pickett's Charge or the struggle for Little Round Top, just to name two refinements. And the novice may be surprised to learn that the refinements have been refined even more finely by historians.11
This is not the place to expatiate on how such an enthusiasm has distorted the record.
Instead, we need to consider a richness of source material that helps to make such enthusiasm possible. In the case of Gettysburg, the key figure whose research enabled the veterans to document the placement of their many battlefield memorials was John Badger Bachelder (1825–1894). Self-selected as the chronicler of "the great battle which would naturally decide the contest," Bachelder served for many years as the most prominent member of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.12 The library of Gettysburg National Military Park contains ample evidence of the "colonel's" labors (in fact he was a civilian), including a microfilm copy of his papers at the New Hampshire Historical Society.
As Bachelder was to Gettysburg, so Ezra Ayers Carman was to Antietam and William T. Rigby to Vicksburg.13 Veterans themselves, Carman and Rigby pursued extended correspondence with other participants, accumulating abundant data on troop movements and personal experiences at their sites for the government. Some of this trove is now at the National Archives. A small but significant collection of Carman's documentation, labeled "Antietam Studies," is in an uninventoried series in RG 94. More voluminous records of Rigby are at the Vicksburg National Military Park and in the National Archives-Southeast Region in East Point, Georgia. The regionalized records are part of RG 79, Records of the National Park Service, identified as records of the Vicksburg National Military Park, Correspondence of the Resident Commissioner and Commission Chairman, 1899–1927. They also include minutes of the Vicksburg Commission.
Further records of the Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg battlefield and park commissions are in Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, RG 92, entries 705-711, and 715. The Shiloh National Military Park Commission is represented by entries 712–714. All of the National Battlefield Parks in existence by 1904 are documented to some extent in the correspondence of Gen. Fred C. Ainsworth's Record and Pension Office in RG 94. Although the letters and reports themselves are not on microfilm, a name and subject index is reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M686, Index to General Correspondence of the Record and Pension Office, 1889–1904. In the files of the "R & P Office," old disputes flair again, and matters such as the proper wording on a memorial tablet call forth surprising vehemence as old soldiers argue their proper place for future generations.
When researchers wish to consider the thousands of places not enshrined by government fiat, the value of park commission investigations becomes apparent. The quest for information can lead to series of records that were created for purposes other than historical but which frequently illuminate the operations of the armies."14 Claims files, though spurned by the OR editors, sometimes shed light when nothing else can. Some examples of claims against the Confederate government, filed by the name of the claimant (usually the local landowner) are on M346. Far more extensive, and likely to be more productive, are claims against the United States for damage by Federal troops. While claimants were supposed to have been loyal to the Union, this was not always the case. Claims records are of many kinds, but a few can be mentioned. The Southern Claims Commission records in General Records of the Department of the Treasury (RG 56) and Records of the U.S. House of Representatives (RG 233) are particularly useful because they are partially arranged and indexed by county as well as by name of claimant. Considerably more difficult to use are the quartermaster claims files in RG 92 (e.g., entries 731–932, 945-965), indexed only by name of claimant without reference to geographic location (entry 788). There are no convenient road signs to indicate that register No. 214 (volumes 1–3) of entry 816 (which lists files in entry 817) includes claims for Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania. Files for destruction by the Confederates were referred to the state of Pennsylvania and are now in the state's archives as part of its Record Group 2, Records of the Auditor General.
Cartographic records are vital to an understanding of military operations. Recognition of this fact is exemplified by the addition of the Atlas to the OR. The National Archives holds most of the original maps published in the Atlas, plus many others. These holdings are well described in A Guide to Civil War Maps in the National Archives (1986). Material supplementary to the maps is found in the original field survey notes (RG 77, entry 161, indexed in entry 159) in the Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers. Closely allied to the maps are aerial photographs made in the early twentieth century of some areas that figured in the campaigns and battles. Terrain features in these shots are often much more akin to their appearance in 1861–1865 than to today. The Cartographic Branch of the National Archives maintains these records.
The Library of Congress has published its own guide to Civil War maps in that institution's Geography and Map Division. Civil War Maps: An Annotated List of Maps and Atlases in the Library of Congress (1989), compiled by Richard W. Stephenson, should be closely studied. The celebrated maps of Stonewall Jackson's cartographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, are in the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, although many were published in the OR.
Climatological records of official origin are only occasionally pertinent to Civil War engagements and are all of Union provenance. They are part of Record Group 27, Records of the National Weather Service, and are reproduced in National Archives Microfilm Publication T908 Climatological Records in the National Archives (1942), compiled by Lewis Jefferson Darter, arranged by state and thereunder by town.
Whatever the climate, a battle setting was not conducive to jotting down lengthy dispatches letters, or reports. Far more was recorded years afterward. Harrowing events that had been etched in the consciousness of many a youth did not find their way into the record until the causes of the conflict had become historical curiosities, if at all. In 1897 former captain R. P. Jennings ,once of the Twenty-third Virginia Infantry, shared his recollection of the storm of lead at Antietam (or Sharpsburg to most Southerners) with Union Maj. A. E. Hassler:
I laid down by the lieutenant and Capt M[ichaels]] on the other side [of a large old stump]. There was a corporal of some other company standing up by the stump loading and firing and we tried to get him to lie down. Soon a ball passed over my legs which I had down close to the ground and went through the lieutenant's knees and soon after a shot struck Capt. Michaels on the ankle, and then the corporal was shot dead and fell right over us, and as he dropped his hands scratched me in the face, and I said to Capt. Michaels "I am going out from here" and he said "Do not try it, Captain, you will be killed before you can reach the timber." I said I had as well be killed running as lying still, so I got up . . . and the balls flew around me like a swarm of bees, and I just let out and ran like a deer, and made it to the timber, but I was almost scared to death when I got there.15
Another scared boy, fifteen-year-old Elisha Stockwell, Jr., of Company I, Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry, had his first taste of fighting at Shiloh. At age eighty-one he began to compose, almost completely from memory, a narrative of his service. He still recalled the distended intestines protruding from a soldier propped up against a tree, the first combat fatality he had seen. Across the decades he summoned up his feelings under fire: "I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away to get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me."16 The fierce bloodlettings haunted survivors, as even now they haunt the writers and researchers who seek to interpret them to posterity.
Also see these related articles:
- The Only Medal
- Missing in Action: Battle Reports—Beyond the Official Records
- Campaigns and Courts-Martial
- Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the Papers of the Presidents
Michael P. Musick parlayed a childhood fascination with the Civil War into a rewarding career. A former student of Bell I. Wiley at Emory University, he has worked at the National Archives in Washington, DC, since 1969. Mr. Musick was an adviser to Ken Burns's PBS series The Civil War and is the author of 6th Virginia Cavalry (1990), a regimental history and annotated roster, among other publications.
The author would like to thank Robert K. Krick for his knowledgeable reading of the manuscript and for his helpful suggestions.
1. It is important to note that battle and event research cannot be done in manuscripts by simply looking for the battle or event in finding aids or card files. The key in many personal papers repositories is to search by unit, which are indexed almost without exception.
2. Dallas D. Irvine, "Rootstock of Error," Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives (Spring 1970): 11.
3. I am indebted to archivist Robert H. Gruber for calling Edwards's prose to my attention.
4. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901), Series I, Vol. 22, pt. I (serial 31), pp. 199–201.
5. Richard M. McMurry, "The Mackall Journal and its Antecedents," Civil War History 20 (December 1974).
6. Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide-Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861–1865, Section A: Introduction (1966) by Dallas D. Irvine, pp. 18–20. An example of careful, conscientious modern transcription from the original sources will be found in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (1967-1988), ed. John Y Simon et al., vols. 2–15; see especially Vol. 5, pp. 89–90.
7. Military Operations . . . Section A: Introduction, pp. 18–19.
8. War of the Rebellion, General Index, preface, p. viii.
9. For such an accomplishment focusing on one memorably photographed scene, see Earl J. Coates, "A Rendezvous at Gettysburg: Identification of a Group of Unknown Dead," The Gettysburg Magazine (July 1, 1990).
10. See Boyd Finch, "Sherod Hunter and the Confederates in Arizona," The Journal of Arizona History (Autumn 1969).
11. Roger Long, Gettysburg on Paper," The Gettysburg Magazine (January 1992): 113.
12. Richard Allen Sauers, "John B. Bachelder: Government Historian of the Battle of Gettysburg," The Gettysburg Magazine (July 1, 1990): 115–127.
13. See David A. Lilley, "The Antietam Battlefield Board and its Atlas: or The Genesis of the Carman-Copes Maps," Lincoln Herald 82 (Summer 1980): 380–387.
14. The National Archives has recently accessioned Records Relating to the Civil War Sites Study, 1991–1993, from the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission within the National Park Service. The commission was formed to study of historically significant Civil War sites in the United States, assess short-and long-term threats to their integrity, propose alternatives for preservation and historical interpretation, and research and propose innovative open-space and land-use preservation techniques. These records are in Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, RG 220.
15. Folder for "Report of Brig. Gen. John R. Jones, comdg. Jackson's Division, Artillery of Jackson's Division," "Antietam Studies," Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, DC.
16. Byron R. Abernethy, ed., Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr., Sees the Civil War (1958), p. 18.