Prologue Magazine

The Little Regiment, Part 2

Civil War Units and Commands

Summer 1995, Vol. 27, No. 2

By Michael P. Musick


The bound and unbound records are notable for the great extent to which they cover the numerous regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, most of which have no published unit history.  Both bound and unbound records are listed by regiment and category in National Archives Special List No. 33, Tabular Analysis of the Records of the U.S. Colored Troops and Their Predecessor Units in the National Archives of the United States. For example, records in these two categories (but not compiled military service and pension records), plus muster rolls, are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1659, Records of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (Colored), 1863 - 1865.

Further sources for documentation on Union volunteer units are plentiful.  The researcher who declares an intention (as some have) to locate "every scrap of paper on the unit" faces an impossibility.  The volume of potential sources in the National Archives alone is overwhelming.  Simply absorbing the Compiled Military Service Records and pension records is daunting for many.  At least a few further possibilities should be mentioned.  Court-martial and court of inquiry records, which can be key to understanding an organization's experience, are in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General's Office. Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809 - 1890 (M1105), contains an index organized by the name of the soldier being tried (or under "I" for Inquiry in a few cases), with unit affiliation shown after the soldier's name.  The court of inquiry on the capture of Charles Town, West Virginia, on October 18, 1863 (file MM 1256), to give one instance, is a virtual history of the Ninth Maryland Infantry, which was overwhelmed there.  Medal of honor case documentation, though not arranged or indexed by unit, can provide vivid details of combat, particularly for applications made years after the event.  The microfilmed Index to General Correspondence of the Record and Pension Office (M686), 1889 - 1904 (not to be confused with an index to pensions), which is indexed by outfit, is liable to lead to a variety of files on any aspect of an organization's history or status.  And despite the various printed sources, nothing gives a sense of the sad and inglorious career of the 145th New York Infantry, from its raising to its dissolution by consolidation with other units, like the Volunteer Service Division files (S 2112 V.S. 1863, P 11 12 V. S. 1862, W 468 V. S. 1863, and V 128 V. S. 1863) of RG 94, entry 496, found through index references to field officers.  This review suggests only the most likely of the many avenues for research on Federal volunteer regiments.

Unlike the volunteers, the regulars published few regimental histories of the war.  This difference makes their manuscript records all the more significant.  The records created and maintained by regular units were under different administrative control than those of the volunteers.  Today the bound and unbound unit records of the regulars for 1861 - 1865 are part of Record Group 391, Records of U.S. Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821 - 1942 (formerly in Record Group 98, and so described in Munden and Beers, The Union: Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War [1962; reprinted 1961).  They are described for each unit in National Archives inventory NM-93, issued in 1970.  Of course, since many of these units existed before, during, and after the Civil War, many series such as "regimental letters sent" do not begin in 1861 and end in 1865.

The original, quite fragile muster rolls of the regular army, most still folded, are in Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office.  They are arranged by time period (1821 - 1860; 1860 - 1912), then by arm, regiment (beginning with field, staff, and band rolls), and by company, with detachment rolls and some unbound records for more than one company at the end.  These rolls have never been transcribed onto Compiled Military Service Records, nor have they been reproduced on National Archives microfilm publications.  This status is true also for the valuable "Record of Events" section on the rolls, which were generally better filled in than those by volunteers.  The result is that regular units are not represented on National Archives Microfilm Publication M594. One category of regular army unit records that has been microfilmed are the monthly regimental returns.

These returns are primarily a statistical accounting of numbers of troops present and absent, but they also provide much other data useful to regimental historians such as the stations of companies and the names and status of all officers.  They are available as National Archives Microfilm Publications: M665, Returns From Regular Army Infantry Regiments, June 1821 - Dec. 1916; M744, Returns From Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833 - 1916; M727, Returns From Regular Army Artillery Regiments, June 1821 - Jan. 1901; M690, Returns From Regular Army Engineer Battalions, Sept. 1846 - June 1916; M851, Returns of the Corps of Engineers, April 1832 - Dec. 1916; and M852, Returns of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Nov. 1831 - Feb. 1863. The volunteer returns, when they exist, are filed with unit muster rolls in RG 94, entry 57.

Published Confederate unit histories are more numerous than those for the U.S. Regular Army but are fewer than for Union volunteers.  Manuscript records, therefore, often become indispensable.  Even these, for a few units, are lacking, and gaps in records of other organizations, where some unit histories do exist, are by no means rare.  The most important source for information on which a Confederate unit history can be based is the Compiled Military Service Records, which for Confederate units are all reproduced on microfilm.  This microfilm can be examined at the National Archives in Washington.  State archives and some other institutions will occasionally have copies of this film available, usually only for the state in which the institution is located.  Now and then an anomaly will occur.  For example, the Virginia and Maryland Compiled Military Service Records will also be found in the National Archives- Mid Atlantic Region in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  But other National Archives regional archives have unexpected records.  The Southeast Region in East Point, Georgia, has some microfilm rolls for Kentucky; the Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas, has microfilm rolls on Arkansas; and the Rocky Mountain Region in Denver, Colorado, has some rolls for Tennessee.  Each roll of the microfilm can be separately purchased.

The Confederate Compiled Service Records (CSRs) for each organization are arranged alphabetically by the name of the soldier.  Since the organization is primarily by regiment, members of individual companies are interspersed in the files.  The individual service records for each organization are preceded by the "Record of Events" or "Caption Cards" for that outfit.  These same records, without the individual soldiers' records, are separately reproduced on National Archives microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations, mentioned above.

The Confederate CSRs are generally superior as a source to the original muster rolls, with which they are frequently confused.  This superiority is due to the fact that, in addition to the information on individuals found on the rolls and on the "Record of Events," the CSRs include original documents, especially for officers, some of which are priceless as historical sources and not found anywhere else.  These CSRs also include transcriptions from Union prisoner-of-war and hospital records as well as transcriptions from Confederate medical registers and other sources.  The fragile original rolls are generally useful only in certain statistical compilations and for the brief inspection comments for the categories of discipline, instruction, military appearance, arms, accoutrements, and clothing.  When filled in at all, inspectors customarily wrote a single word for each heading, such as "good," "poor," or "excellent."

A second basic source for a Confederate unit history is the inspection reports reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M935, Inspection Reports and Related Records Received by the Inspection Branch in the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General's Office. The advantage of these records is that they generally provide a myriad of details on subjects of interest, such as the type of arms carried, statistics of men present and absent, military bearing and appearance, religious instruction, etc.  Of special note is the concluding "Remarks" space, often filled by trenchant, unbiased analysis of the units' strengths and weaknesses.  The drawbacks to these inspection reports are that they cover only the period 1864 - 1865 and that their method of indexing can be difficult to grasp.

Bound Confederate regimental records are drastically fewer in number than those for their opponents.  They number only 109 volumes.  Moreover, they are often records of accounts for clothing or arms and equipment rather than the letter books, order books, and descriptive books so plentiful for Northern troops.  Unlike the Union records, in which most descriptive books were "carded," almost none of the bound Confederate unit books were "carded."  Therefore little of the information appears in the CSRs.  There is a certain appeal in these volumes as artifacts as well.  They bear evidence of having been carried on many a weary march and penned over many a smokey campfire.  Marginalia often appears in them.  One scribe of Co. C, Fourth Kentucky Infantry, of the Orphan Brigade, noted his thoughts in the back of his clothing account book each Christmas:

Dec. 25th 1861.  The birth day of Christ our redeemer finds our country struggling in the holy cause of liberty with the vile horde of robbers & assassins sent to burn and destroy by their master Abraham Lincoln who occupies the chair at Washington, D.C.

December 25th 1862.  Another Christmas has come and still we are engaged in the Bloody struggle to be free for more than two years we have been combatting with the vandal horde.  To Day our army is stronger and more thoroughly Equipped Than Ever before.

Dec. 25th 1863.  Yes, old Brick, and another Christmas has come and gone, and we are still combatting with the vandal horde; Are likely to be doing that same this time next Christmas.  What a pity.

This account largely exhausts series of Confederate records in the National Archives arranged or indexed by unit.  Beyond these, however, much can be painstakingly extracted by name searches of large series covering all of the Confederacy.  The most significant names, such as those of colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors, are likely keys to useful material in the letters received by the Confederate secretary of war and adjutant and inspector general, but any member of a unit may turn up in these series.  The Unfiled Slips and Papers are a series in which all manner of fascinating material may appear, and frequently does, but it will be found only by the intrepid and the patient.

State archives often have records useful for both Confederate and Union unit histories.  Brief overviews of their holdings are in A Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the United States (1961), edited by Philip M. Hamer, and partially updated in Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States (1988), issued by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.  Although state archives are not the focus of the present work, the following entry from a draft "Inventory to Civil War Records in the New York State Archives" of May 1987, still unpublished, suggests the usefulness of state resources:

Historical Notes on New York State Volunteer Regiments, 1861 - 1865. 7 volumes.

This series describes the organizational history of New York State Volunteer infantry, artillery, and cavalry regiments that participated in the Civil War.  These "historical notes" were compiled by the bureau most likely between 1863 and 1866.  Each regimental history consists of twenty pages which provides information on the unit's recruitment and organization; terms of enlistment; bounties paid; presentation and final disposition of flags; arms, uniforms, and equipment; and mustering out.  Unfortunately, the quantity and quality of the information varies widely.  Some unit histories are extremely complete and detailed while others contain no information whatsoever.  Although much of the information contained in this series can be obtained from Frederick Phisterer's New York in the War of the Rebellion (Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912), there are some topics on which Phisterer does not touch.  These include arms and equipment issued and used by regiments, bounties paid, and aid furnished by federal, state, or local authorities.  The series is arranged by branch of service (infantry, artillery, and cavalry) and therein by unit number.

The staff of the archives in Albany stresses that in many ways this series is inferior to Phisterer's compilation for general regimental history.  It may, however, from time to time supply some key information not found elsewhere.  The Virginia State Archives includes miscellaneous records by unit among the records of its Adjutant General's Office and additionally has unit rosters compiled many years after the war.  Pension records for Confederate soldiers, as noted earlier, are in the archives of the states in which the individual pensioners resided.  Such pensions are not generally arranged or indexed by unit.

Commands higher than the regiment can be the means of tapping a rich vein of regimental documentation.  Brigades composed of several regiments were sometimes the subject of their own histories.  The story of the Fourth Georgia Infantry, for example, is interwoven with the History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia . . . (1903; reprinted 1981), by Henry W. Thomas, and the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry plays a significant role in The Iron Brigade, A Military History (1961), by Alan T. Nolan.  Division histories are few, and corps histories are on a level so elevated as to relegate regiments to insignificance, though the corps histories should convey a sense of the corps's fundamental place in a soldier's self-image.

Confederate brigade, division, corps, and army records can be located through pages 259 - 301 of Henry P. Beers's The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America (1968; reprinted 1986) but you must first learn from other sources, such as the tables of organization in the Official Records, which regiments were part of these commands.  Two brigades are particularly well documented at the National Archives: Gen. John C. Breckinridge's First Kentucky (or Orphan) Brigade (Beers, pp. 287 - 288), and Henry A. Wise's Virginia Brigade (Beers, p. 336).  At the department level, records created and maintained by the Department of Richmond (Beers, pp. 281 - 282) and East Tennessee and West Virginia (Beers, pp. 265 - 267) merit mention as notably rich, although finding regimental references in them would be exceedingly time-consuming.

In the U.S. Army, higher command records are in Record Group 393, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands (formerly part of RG 98, and so identified in Munden and Beers's Guide to Federal Archives).  Dyer's Compendium is a good and handy guide to which such commands each Federal regiment belonged as well as a convenient source for command composition and names of commanders.  Record Group 393 is distinctive among Civil War record groups in having a five-volume inventory, and it is important to know which inventory volume number you are referring to.  Volume 2 in the inventory has records of corps, divisions, and brigades and is the one to use for seeking elusive regimental documents.  The relevant records can be traced by looking at the index in the back of the inventory and proceeding from higher to lower command levels.  The other inventory volumes for Record Group 393 are much less likely to prove useful for regimental history but are worth at least a cursory examination.

A survey of records of commands above the regimental level would be incomplete without mention of returns for those commands.  Although much of the primarily statistical data found on those oversized sheets appears in the Official Records, not all of it does, and from time to time they will furnish answers to questions not found elsewhere.  The returns are of prime interest, of course, to those studying numbers of men present and absent on particular occasions.  For the Confederates, they will be found in RG 109, entry 65, under "Post, Department, and Army Returns, Rosters, and Lists. 1861 - 1865," and for the Federals, in Record Group 94, entry 66, "Returns of Military Organizations. Early 1800's - Dec. 1916."  The "Record of Events" section on Union returns for army corps, departments, and posts was "carded," and is now entry 65 of Record Group 94.  The "carding" in this case was especially beneficial, since the returns themselves are even more fragile than muster rolls and have also often been repaired by opaque War Department tape.

Another source to remember in collecting regimental sources in the National Archives and elsewhere is documentation both public and private on individuals who eventually rose to brigade command and beyond.  Confederate general officers have a separate series in which their service records appear as well as CSRs in their original regiments.  This separate series is reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M331, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Generals and Staff Officers and Nonregimental Enlisted Men.  The historian of the Twenty-first Illinois Infantry who fails to pay attention to the numerous sources on that outfit's first colonel does so at his peril.  The colonel's name was Ulysses S. Grant.

Two enlisted men in the title story of Crane's collection expressed well the importance a unit— and by extension its records— held for their generation:

They could prove that their division was the best in the corps, and that their brigade was the best in the division.  And their regiment— it was plain that no fortune of life was equal to the chance which caused a man to be born, so to speak, into this command, the keystone of the defending arch.


A Curse Before Parting

Because the records in the National Archives have not been edited or amended, they may contain documents that are harsh, irritating, or blatantly offensive.  Perhaps because of this, they possess an immediacy lacking in more polished and palatable sources.

Scrawled boldly in pencil on the last page of the wallpaper-bound clothing account book of Company K of the Consolidated Confederate Second and Sixth Missouri Infantry is the following final shot before the regiment was paroled at the end of the war:


Compliments to the Yanks.  May they suffer as these Patriots have for clothing & provisions.  May their houses be burned as ours have been.  May their mothers mourn for fallen children as the Confederate mothers have.  May their sisters be treated by the victorious French as ours have been by the victorious Negro & Yankee, and may they finally be happy in seeing their wives ravished by the beloved Negro as some of ours have been by the soldiers of the "best government the sun ever shown upon."

Missouri Rebel

Meridian [MS]
May 11 1865
(RG 109, Chapter VIII, Vol. 91, part 1)


The Little Regiment, Part 1

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 and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., 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 Maryellen Trautman, National Archives Library, and Dr. Richard J. Sommers, U.S. Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, for supplying valuable information and invaluable criticism for this piece.


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