War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
What is it? Form and Contents:
The War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies is essentially all of the official military reports and correspondence of both the Union and Confederate Armies. In the preface to each section, the Act of Congress which appropriated funding for this project is quoted as stating that all "reports, letters, telegrams, and general orders" of the armies would be included. The records begin with the first seizures of federal property in the South, and the related correspondence and reports to those events. The material spans the entire duration of the war, and also the correspondence and reports which followed the Confederate surrender dealing with the waning military activity.
The source exists in seventy volumes. The specific Bowdoin copies are generally in very usable shape for their age, but some of the binding is falling apart. The seventy volumes are available in 128 separate bound sections. There is also a separate atlas that accompanies the set.
When was it made, why, and by whom?
Following the Civil War, the United States War Department began gathering official war records of both armies. Eventually, according to the preface, "By an Act approved June 23, 1874, Congress made an appropriation ‘to enable the secretary of War to begin the publication of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion....'" The War department then began gathering more material and organizing the material they already had in order to be published. This was done to preserve and organize all of the records for historical research purposes. The volumes were published in order from 1880 to 1901, as the gathering of material, organizing, editing, and publishing took place simultaneously. The work was completed under the oversight of several different Secretaries of War. Robert N. Scott is cited as editor of the first 36 volumes, followed by Henry M. Lazelle, and then a board of publication for the remaining volumes.
Who appears in it?
The volumes contain the correspondence and reports written by thousands of different members of the military chain of command in both armies. For instance, there is correspondence between President Lincoln and Gen. Grant, or from Gen. Robert E. Lee to President Davis. There are also battle reports, or reports on regimental movement, written by thousands of generals, colonels, and captains.
How is it organized?
There are four series of records. The first contains "Formal Reports, both Union and Confederate, of the first seizures of United States property in the Southern States, and of all military operations in the field, with the correspondence, orders, and returns relating specially thereto." The second series contains "Correspondence, orders, reports, and returns, Union or Confederate, relating to prisoners of war...." Series III contains Union government and military documents that do not fit in the first two series, such as "the annual and special reports of the Secretary of War, of the General-in-chief and of the chiefs of the several staff corps and departments." The fourth series contains those same types of documents, but for the Confederacy.
Within each series, the material is organized geographically and chronologically. For instance, Volume XXV, Part I states on the binding, "Operations in - Northern Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Jan. 26 - June 3 1863." Written in large letters on the binding are some of the major battles that are addressed in that material, so on Volume XXV it says "Chancellorsville". Each volume is broken down into reports, and then correspondence. The material is presented chronologically. For instance, following the dates of Chancellorsville campaign, there are first the union reports related to that event, then the Confederate reports. Each volume also contains a "summary of the Principal Events" in the beginning, which aids in directing you to the correct dates within the volume.
How to use it
There is an index in the back of each book which contains an index for that specific book. You are able to look up units, states, generals, officers, and locations (such as Chancellorsville - reports of). There is also general index for all of the records which was published in 1901. It has explanations of how the records are organized, synopsis of the contents of each volume, a "special index for principal armies, crops, divisions", and a general index. I believe that it would be helpful to also use these records in conjunction with battle maps, and other secondary summaries of the events of battles to find how reports from these records fit in the larger picture.
How do you get access to it?
War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies is located on the second floor of Hawthorne Longfellow Library in the United States History section. It is shelved with the regular, circulation books. The call number is E464 U61. There are no stipulations or requirements to look at or check out the materials.
What kinds of Questions can it answer?
This rich resource can be used to answer a variety of military questions relating to the Civil War. The battle reports would be very useful to study specific military campaigns. They could be used in an analysis of a specific leader's actions, a study of whether or not mistakes were made in a certain part of a battle, or an investigation into the turning points of certain engagements.
The source is also valuable as an extensive collection of facts. The data on casualties, supplies, and prisoners of was would be very useful in a statistical, quantitative analysis of campaigns. There is also specific information in the military reports about specific unit locations and movements both during battles and in between large campaigns which is useful in tracing the history of one specific regiment or brigade.
The language of the reports and correspondence in the records also provides insight into the personalities of the writers. Even though almost all of the writing is formal, official military correspondence, they are not without personality. For instance, I read General J.E.B. Stuart's battle report of the battle of Chancellorsville. In some of his vivid descriptions of the gallantry of his men, I gained some insight into his famous, dashing personality.
The types of questions that probably can not be answered with these documents are those related to the officers' personal feelings on the overall events of the war and about their own actions. These official correspondence and reports do not really give us the ability to write some sort of intellectual biography of a specific figure like a diary or memoir would. However, as discussed above, this is still an incredibly valuable resource.