Prologue Magazine

Civil War Records: An Introduction and Invitation

Summer 1995, Vol. 27, No. 2

By Michael P. Musick


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The gateway to the Forty-fourth New York Infantry camp near Alexandria, Virginia, April 1864.

The voices of the National Archives, and of archival holdings everywhere, reach out across the years, speaking directly and, at their most memorable, from the depths of human experience. One of those voices belonged to Mary Pierce.

Mrs. Pierce, of Clyde, Illinois, wanted Abraham Lincoln to know how she felt. On August 1, 1864, she addressed the President "in sorrow and deep affliction": "I was once a happy Mother," she lamented, "but alas this cruel war has taken my sons from me."

My youngest dearest fell in a charge before Kenesaw Mountain[.] he enlisted in Havana, Mason Co. Ill. he was in the morning of life. My hope and comfort in my old age he cast his first vote for you in 60 went into the army left Mother and home to endure the hardships of war has the reputation of being a good soldier always present and efficient in his duty and now I appeal to you for a Pass to send for his remains[.] Oh Sir if you could but know [the] depths of sorrow that weights my withered heart to the ground the sadness and darkness that surrounds my path way to the tomb I know that your humanity would promp you to grant that small favor to you small but a great one to me[.] I ask no more now on earth but to have his body to inter in the family burying ground where I can plant flowers and care for them until I shall pass away.(1)

At an earlier stage in the war, Col. Lewis A. Armistead of the Fifty-seventh Virginia Infantry penned an equally heartfelt, though less tragic, request to the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper on behalf of an appointment for his son. From Camp Belcher, near Richmond, Virginia, on December 2, 1861, Colonel Armistead reflected, "I have been a soldier all my life."

I was an officer in the Army of the U.S., which service I left to fight for my own country, and for and with, my own people and because they were right and oppressed. . . . I never was a man of any wealth, and the little I had was all sacrificed when I left the U.S. Army I wish it had been more. . . . Altho' my services were rendered under a different flag from that which I now acknowledge, I can recall them with pleasure and pride.(2)

The former United States officer was to seal his devotion to his "own people" with his life at the Battle of Gettysburg, fighting troops commanded by his dearest friend in better days.

Even so prosaic a document as a list of privates present for duty can be freighted with significance, as when that lowly soul went on to become President or was the ancestor of the reader of that document. Part of the mystery of the records is how to find them. The goal of "Civil War Records" is to simplify the task of leading the researcher to the sources. In this issue of Prologue appears the first of three articles on research in Civil War records: "The Little Regiment." In the Fall 1995 issue there will be an article on battles, campaigns, and skirmishes, and in the Winter 1995 issue, an article on arms and equipment.

Who is the intended audience? Virtually anyone who wishes to pursue research on the American Civil War (as it is being called here; see more about the official title of the Civil War). The National Archives is an intimidating place. Many are the books that could have benefitted from use of its holding but did not, either from ignorance or fear. During the course of over a quarter century working with these records, and the people who come seeking them, I have encountered military historians, genealogists, gun buffs, local historians, biographers, collectors of artifacts, reenactors, archaeologists, scholars of African Americans and other ethnic groups, students of women and of sexuality, and even a few gold and ghost hunters. The intention is to bring to all these people, and many others, the fruits of that experience so that they will find in one place an explanation of how to conduct research, what they are likely to find, and most important, an appreciation of the hurdles to be cleared in the course of such a pursuit.

It is for you, the reader, to best judge how successful this guide is. Inevitably, some will be disappointed. They will not find the equivalent of an overall name and subject index such as was done by the National Archives as a bicentennial project for The Papers of the Continental Congress (5 volumes, Washington, DC, 1978). The volume of the documentation is simply too great. Nor will everything be specifically covered and elucidated in detail. The intention is to concentrate on those series of records that have proved most consistently fruitful and to point the reader to additional possibilities not treated thoroughly here.

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Civil War guides.

The seasoned researcher will immediately note that three excellent guides to the Civil War holdings of the National Archives already exist. Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War (Washington, DC, 1962; reprinted as The Union . . . , 1986), by Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers; Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America (Washington, DC, 1968; reprinted as The Confederacy . . . , 1986), by Henry Putney Beers; and Civil War Maps in the National Archives (Washington, DC, 1964; 2d ed., A Guide to Civil War Maps in the National Archives, 1986, with some additional information) provide a splendid overview of the entire subject. These guides should still be consulted when approaching Federal and Confederate records in the institution they cover, and for Confederate records wherever found. Experience has demonstrated, however, that the Beers and Munden volumes consider so vast a quantity of documentation, and by necessity use such concise (and to the nonarchivist obscure) terminology, that the majority of readers are puzzled about just what they describe. The administrative history of an office in previous guides is intended to explain the kinds of subjects treated in its records, but that standard approach baffles the average researcher. Thus the voluminous series of Letters Received by the Secretary of War From the President, Executive Departments, and War Department Bureaus, 1862-1870 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M494, 117 rolls, a portion of RG 107) is represented in Munden and Beers (p. 246) only by the title of the series and the phrase "grouped separately for each year." Few would suspect that a letter such as Mary Pierce's about her son's body might be one of the thousands of items it contains.

I hope, further, that having spent so many years in reference, endeavoring to initiate the public in the mysteries of Munden, Beers, other guides, preliminary inventories, record groups, and so forth, both over the telephone and in person, that it will be possible to put in permanent form the lessons that effort has taught. The emphasis will be on textual (i.e., written) military documents, rather than those of civilian agencies, but some attention will be paid to both aspects. Traditionally, archivists in the military records unit have been separated into reference and projects staff (projects entailing the description of records, among other things). The present guide hopes to bring the two together. It is a work in progress, composed of chapters written out of sequence, with the intention of eventually including chapters on the nature of archives in general and a survey of important books the reader should know about.

The notion is alarmingly widespread that one can simply go directly to the "original source" with no preparation or background and extract whatever information it contains, without benefit of any intermediary. It is as though the average citizen, intent upon studying the Bible, should hold the inscribed leather and papyrus of the Dead Sea Scrolls in his or her hand in order to absorb the insight they provide. In most cases, however, the effort to become aware of what has already been written, and what has been published in documentary editions, will be repaid many fold. In fact, even the seemingly most simple, most straightforward inquiries, those about the service of individual soldiers, will gain considerably from a knowledge of other sources, such as unit histories and published rosters, of the background of how the records came to be created, and of what they represent. Innumerable encounters with the public have highlighted the fact that most people do not know what an archives is, what the National Archives in particular is, what the relationship of the latter is to the Library of Congress, and how the world of manuscript historical documents beyond these institutions can be explored.

The National Archives holds the permanently valuable, noncurrent records of the United States government. That is, the official records of various agencies, including many records of the Confederate government, which were captured by Federal forces or given after the war to the War and Treasury Departments. The National Archives is organized by record group, each of which is composed of a significant body of files of a sizable office. The record groups have been assigned arbitrary numbers. Hence we find references such as Record Group 107, the Records of the Office of the Secretary of War; Record Group 92, the Records of the Quartermaster General's Office; and Record Group 94, the Records of the Adjutant General's Office.

Most record groups are described in an inventory. The inventories break the documentation down into series (often quite large themselves) dictated primarily by their format or filing schemes. Researchers should be aware that to cite only a record group number is still only a very broad identification, perhaps referring to a body with hundreds of thousands of items within it. To give one case in point, Record Group 94, the Records of the Adjutant General's Office (the recordkeeping office of the army) is described in an inventory of 813 entries, just one of which (entry 544, Field Records of Hospitals, 1821–1912) consists of some eleven thousand volumes.

When records have been microfilmed, as has been the case with many of the more important series in numerous record groups, the best description of them is contained in the pamphlet that the National Archives has produced to accompany the film. These microfilm publications are identified by "M" numbers (e.g., M1098, U.S. Army Generals' Reports of Civil War Service, 1864–1887). When there is a descriptive microfilm pamphlet (known as a "DP"), the inventory becomes superfluous. In some cases, records series have been microfilmed without good descriptive pamphlets. These are generally identified by a "T" number (T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934).

The National Archives is not the place to go for printed books, newspapers, private letters, or personal diaries. The Newspaper Reading Room of the Library of Congress is a prime source for newspapers. The Library of Congress's multivolume National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections is the best guide to private letters and unofficial diaries. It is to the National Archives that one turns for the files of government agencies.

Another notion widely prevalent among the research public is that in this ever-changing world, the one thing that remains unchanged is the historical record. Immutable as the Rocky Mountains, constant as the moon, the documents are presumed to repose in a dimension beyond the merely temporal. Alas, this comforting vision requires revision as well. Putting aside the remote spectres of fire, flood, theft, or other obvious disasters, the potential scholar often fails to take into account the growth in the total quantity of records to be preserved, as well as the irrepressible impulse of Homo sapiens to tinker with whatever they are given. Growth in the total quantity of records to be preserved can mean physical moves, new facilities, and fewer resources devoted to older records. The tinkering impulse can mean that box numbers in which a record will be found are likely to be changed in a generation. It also can mean, for example, that documents once safely assigned to Record Group 98 reemerge assigned to Record Group 393. In fact, institutions themselves take on new identities, and like a Vedic deity of old, the National Archives Establishment (1934) becomes part of the General Services Administration (1948), within which it becomes the National Archives and Records Service (1949), only to reappear as the independent National Archives and Records Administration (1985). Even the form of records changes; as they are microfilmed, the originals are generally taken out of circulation, as is the case with General Armistead's plea to General Cooper. Inventions such as the computer are created and improved, absorbing the attention of a populace ever in search of a technological quick fix.

Although the uses of computers in archives have been the subject of careful investigation for decades, the Civil War holdings of the National Archives are not now available online, nor are they likely to be in the short term. The National Archives cannot truly be "accessed" by E-mail, and it is not interactive. The sheer volume of the holdings means that merely inputting data is liable to absorb more time than anyone can spare. One exception may be the summaries of individual service and pension records that the National Park Service and other organizations (including the National Archives) are attempting to computerize. The fragmentary and confusing nature of the nineteenth-century records is liable to present stumbling blocks in the path of this laudable endeavor. John J. Pullen's admonition of 1966 is still valid: "Roster-making has the appearance of being simple on first thought, but it is an exceedingly tricky business, as the Civil War clerks manual warned to no avail."(3) Another area in which technology is likely to contribute significantly is in the computerization of finding aids, though this has not come to pass at this writing.

Change of one kind or another continues apace. Whole new buildings arise, as in the case of the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, to which cartographic and still picture holdings have been transferred. Other records once in Washington, D.C., have been transported to regional centers around the country thought to be closer to those who would use them. This guide will try to indicate when such changes have occurred. Yet in all of this, contact with an archivist remains essential in determining what changes have taken place and in discovering that seemingly changeless dispositions have been redisposed.

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Researchers will find Civil War photographs and maps at the National Archives facility in College Park.

The human (and occasionally all too human) archivist will continue to be a necessary link, available to explain the inevitable anomaly in guides, lists, and whatever other finding aids appear, and basic terminology as well. Even so simple a phrase as "The records of . . ." requires explanation. It means different things to different people, and is fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding. Rather than referring to any records that bear on the subject, in the archival profession it ordinarily means a series of records created and maintained by a particular office or command. Someone seeking information about a particular post, for example, would generally be well advised to examine a series of records with documentation on all posts as well as those once kept at the installation itself. Someone will always need to be available to point out that reference to a record group number is only one element in citing the location of a document and to elucidate the seemingly endless arcana of archives. Because this is a personal view, someone's favorite source will certainly be slighted. So be it. To balance this lack of all-inclusiveness, considerable reliance will be placed on precise information in illustrations, tables, and appendixes. These types of reference sources have proved over time to be particularly effective in conveying an accurate picture of just what records are available and what they consist of. An example is the series of bound regimental records created and maintained by Union Army volunteer units. The National Archives has such volumes for most, but not all, regiments. There are thousands of such volumes, but this statement is much less helpful than a list of the units represented in them. Such a list appears in print here for the first time in "The Little Regiment." In the near future I anticipate that the National Archives will be able to make available for researchers the list including the number of volumes for each regiment.

Certainly, this guide aspires to smooth the path of the seeker of documents. Yet the stark truth remains that extensive research will never be an easy pursuit. Thorough combing for files on a substantial subject will require time spent in Washington and the unglamorous scanning of reels of microfilm, handwritten papers, or both.

Unglamorous, but not necessarily unrewarding. The archivist is the custodian of files that, with luck, will be reminiscent of those encountered by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the recesses of the custom house in Salem. As Hawthorne sifted, one record in particular caught his eye: "This envelope had the air of an official record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on more substantial materials than at present. There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light." And so sprouted the seed that became The Scarlet Letter.

The records-keepers are in fact in possession of a secret, but one which they hope will be revealed. The secret is that, for all the labor and time they can absorb, archives the records themselves are immensely satisfying. Not only do they inform and enlighten, they can also touch and inspire those intrepid enough to seek them out.


1. Letters Received by the Secretary of War From the President, Executive Departments, and War Department Bureaus, 1862–1870 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M494, roll 53, #637), Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, Record Group 107, National Archives, Washington, DC. President. Lincoln's private secretary, John G. Nicolay, referred the letter to the wecretary of war, and it fell to a colonel serving in the War Department to inform Mrs. Pierce that her son (Sgt. Thornton S. Pierce, Co. B, 85th Ill. Inf.) cound not be disinterred at that time due to orders that forbade removal to the North until fall and presumably cooler temperatures made removal less hazardous to health.

2. "Armistead, W. Keith," 6th Virginia Cavalry, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who Served in Organizations From the State of Virginia, M324, roll 62, RG 109, NA.

3. John J. Pullen, A Shower of Stars: The Medal of Honor and the 27th Maine (1966), p. 212.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.