CWRT flagge



Volume 37, No. 7 – July 2024

The President’s Message:

There will be a meeting on Wednesday, July 10, 2024.  However, there will be no meeting in  August or September.  I will be presenting a program in July Loudon Rangers and White’s Comanches.  They were independent cavalry units that ignored military rules and regulations.  Come to the meeting and learn more about these raiders.

Gerridine La Rovere

June 12, 2024 Program:

Gerridine La Rovere gave the presentation, The Story of the Official Records

ORIt is affectionately known as the “OR.”  The 128 volumes of the Official Records provide the most comprehensive, authoritative, and exact reference on the Wars operations.  The “OR” contains the eyewitness accounts of the veterans who fought on the battlefields.  However, they are “often flawed sources - poorly written in some cases, lacking perspective in others, frequently contradictory and occasionally even self-serving.”  Nevertheless, they were compiled before publication of other literature on the subject that, in several cases, caused some veterans to alter their memory and perception of events later in life.  After the War veterans’ recollections were so varied that it was hard to believe, “Was at the same battle.”  In spite of their limitations, most historians regard them as the only full, accessible documentation of the War.

The “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion” otherwise known as the “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” or “Official Records” or “OR” is the most extensive collection of Civil War land warfare records available to the public.  It includes selected first- hand accounts, orders, reports, maps, diagrams, and correspondence drawn from official records of the Northern and Southern armies.  The official name of the War in the book title created controversy then and today.

When finally published, the records consisted of 138,579 pages and 1006 maps and diagrams assembled in 128 books.  They were grouped as 70 volumes grouped in four series.

Series I- Military Operations, included were formal reports, both Union and Confederate, the first seizures of United States property in the southern states, and all military operations in the field, with correspondence, orders, reports, and returns Serial Nos. 1-111

Series II – Prisoners Correspondence, orders, reports, and returns, Union and confederate relating to prisoners of war and so far, as military authorities were concerned to state or political prisoners.

Series III – Union Authorities Correspondence, orders, reports and returns of the Union authorities including their correspondence with Confederate officials not relating to subjects in series I and II.  It includes the annual and special reports of the Secretary of War, of the General-in-Chief and the chiefs of several staff corps and departments; the calls for troops and the correspondence between the National and several state authorities Serial Nos.122-126

Series IV- Confederate Authorities correspondence, orders, reports, and returns of the Confederate authorities, similar to the Union material in series III but excluding correspondence between Union and Confederate authorities given in that series. Serial Nos. 127-129

A final comprehensive index, Serial No. 130, was published in 1901 with remaining additions and corrections.  A companion volume, The Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, was published in 1895.  It included maps of the military operations (175 plates), a topographic map of the area of operations (26 plates), and some drawings of weapons, uniforms, insignia, and flags.

Documents printed in the “Official Records, Armies” were copied directly into type from the originals by the printers of the War Department printing bureau.  These printers had their trade’s long tradition of competence in putting a manuscript together and correcting errors.  They may not have been academics who knew the scholarly requirements for the reproduction of historical documents in print but, they were aware of the problems involved and dealt with them accordingly.  They relied on accepted shop practices, their rich experience, and commonsense.  A large part of the content had already been printed as “preliminary prints” before the project received any proper editorial direction.  The sheer bulk of the material involved prevented any complete review of the copying process.  There were errors made that did not get noticed in the lists of errata.  Of course, printers’ errors occurred.  Many resulted from carelessness, difficulty in reading handwriting, ignorance in spelling proper names, and lack of familiarity with geographical names.

The documents were printed a second time from the preliminary prints that were at the Government Printing Office.  It is amazing that there are not more mistakes in the transcription.

Given the enormous volume of material, the lengthy time period of collection and publication, and the continuing correction by veterans on both sides, the records are said to be the most peer-reviewed documents.  Historians have argued that some of the modifications made years after the events decreased their accuracy and were made to enhance or denigrate reputations.

An additional 100 volumes of previously unpublished reports and correspondence were printed by the Broadfoot Publishing company of Wilmington, North Carolina from 1995 to 1999.  These volumes are entitled “Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.”  The company is still in business and publishes and sells books about history.

How did the Official Records come to be collected and printed?  The initial idea for publishing the “OR” came from General Henry Wager Halleck.  He was known before the War as “Old Brains.”  He was a competent organizer and administrator but not a good field officer.  The General preferred an indoor office not an outdoor tent.  Overwhelmed by the task of writing his 1863 report to Congress, Halleck recommended to the Committee on Military Affairs that official documents and reports relating to the War be collected and published.

Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts who was chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, introduced a Joint Resolution “to provide for the printing of the official reports of the armies of the United States,” the House and Senate adopted the resolution on May 19,1864.  The law to collect Union Army records was signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1864.

After the fall of Richmond, Halleck ordered Confederate papers to be gathered and sorted.  Many documents were destroyed as the city burned.  However, 500 boxes, hogsheads, and barrels of Confederate papers reached the War Department by August.

Historians owe a gratitude to Halleck.  During the War he prevented destruction of captured Confederate records.  After the War he spent his own money to see that these documents were properly preserved and published.

The original intent in keeping all the documents, Union and Confederate, was to allow officers to write their memoirs.  Work began immediately after the bill passed and was signed in1864.  However, there were many delays and Congress passed a law in 1866 calling for effective organization, development of long-range plans, and cost estimates.  The project came to a halt again for lack of leadership.

Lobbying by Union and Confederate veteran organizations restarted the project.  In 1874, Congress appropriated funds to pay for the publication of Army records.  By 1877, thirty-seven preliminary volumes of Union documents and ten of Confederate were generated.  All material was in chronological order not by campaigns or battles.

Seeing that the results to date were not satisfactory, the War Department appointed a full-time curator in 1877.  Colonel Robert N. Scott had been aide-de-camp to Halleck during and after the War.  He was the right person for this position.  Scott was familiar with military bureaucracy and the “records management” practices of their offices.

Scott made two important decisions.  First, he specified that records would be organized topically – by campaign or battle.  Union reports would be followed by Confederate and were to be placed together for a connected account.  In the same volume related correspondence in chronological order would follow the reports.  This was a critical decision for historical research.

Second, Scott established criteria for selecting meaningful documents.  Not only must the document be official and significant, it had to be generated during the War and no more than a month or so after the event.  He realized that human memory is unreliable after time passes.

There were disputes but they were not significant.  The most controversial policy was over the issue of wartime production.  Scott believed that unaltered documents revealed leaders’ knowledge and unclear assessment of the situation at the time of action.  Historians and veterans could better understand the basis for wartime decisions in the heat of battle.  Therefore, there were to be no after the fact corrections or alterations to the original documents.  Many veterans that were officers tried to make postwar corrections that could significantly alter their actions in the field.  Scott and later editors did permit certain annotations such as notes vindicating individuals by postwar commissions.  Corrections were allowed for misspellings and terrible grammar.

AimoneIn order to promote impartiality Scott employed Union and Confederate former officers.  The job was daunting to say the least.  The papers to be compiled were not by documents or boxes but by tons, roomfuls, and building contents.  Every document was authenticated as much as possible.  This required time-consuming research and correspondence by a staff that numbered six officers and sixty-nine clerks.  There has never been serious questioning of the authenticity of the vast majority of the material collected and published.

With Scott in charge, the government had clearly found the best man for that position.  He was qualified and dedicated to the task.  He supervised the first eighteen volumes.  The first volume was distributed in 1881.  When Scott died in 1887, a succession of editors continued the process until 128 volumes were completed.  The project took thirty-seven years and $3,000,000.00 (in today’s dollars $96,973,608.25).  That was quite a bargain price!  In 1903, after eleven thousand sets were published and distributed, the plates were destroyed by law.  All modern editions are facsimiles.

Alan and Barbara Aimones created a handy book called “A User’s Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War.”  I thought that this book was probably published in 1910 or there abouts but I was wrong.  It was first published in December of 1992.  Alan is employed by the U.S. Military Academy Library.  The Aimones state, “No research about the American Civil War can be complete without using the Official Records.”


Last changed: 07/03/24