War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Caitlin Beach '10

History 336


Source Report for The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies 

What is it?  Describe its form and contents?

This is a seventy-volume set (there are 128 books in total spanning the volumes) of, as the title indicates, the official records of the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War (1861-1865).  It was published by the Government Print Office in 1880 under the direction of the Secretary of War.  Official records included dispatches, correspondence, orders, letters, and any other official material pertaining to military actions during the Civil War.  The collection is divided into four series, each pertaining to a different category of records.  The first series, which details military campaigns, is the largest.  It begins with records of operations in Charleston Harbor from late 1860 to early 1861.  This series spans fifty-three of seventy volumes, and ends with records of operations in Confederate states from early to mid-1865.  More information on the series of the collection will be discussed later in this report. 

When was it made?  By whom?  Why?

The Official Records (hereafter “OR”) was compiled by Congress and made through the provisions of an act dated 23 June 1874.  At this time Congress sent out an order calling for the compilation of documents pertaining to the Civil War, requesting, “to have copied for the Public Printer all reports, letters, telegrams, and general orders not heretofore copied or printed, and properly arranged in chronological order” (iii).  In 1880, 10,000 copies were printed as the “first general publication of military records of the war” including documents appearing “to be of any historical value” (iii).  The majority of volumes were edited by Bvt. Lt. Col. Robert N. Scott of the 3rd United States Artillery, although other volumes were edited by Henry Lazelle, George B. Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph W. Kirkley, Frederick C. Ainsworth, John S. Moodey, and Calvin D. Cowes.

The OR was published to provide a solid record and compilation of all existing correspondence and papers from the Civil War for future reference and research.

Who appears in it?

More or less, the OR serves as a “Who’s Who of the American Civil War.”  It includes the correspondence and reports of anyone and everyone who was important in military operations of the war.  There are obviously documents written by major figures such as Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Davis, etc.  Also present are many records written by aides, staff officers, and other military government officials.  Of no less importance are the many reports and correspondences of lower-ranking officers, from colonels to lieutenants.  The OR does not include any reports of the common soldier (e.g. corporals and privates); it only covers official reported material.

How is it organized?

The OR is organized into four series.  Each series provides records of the Union armies first and the Confederate armies second.  All of the records therein are arranged chronologically.

Series I consists of “formal reports” relating to field operations of Union and Confederate armies.  This series is further divided into two or more parts: Part I contains reports, while Parts II and up contain correspondences.  Some volumes have more parts depending on the campaign operations in question; bigger and more historically significant campaigns can have up to four books of additional correspondence.

Series II contains “correspondence, orders, reports and returns, Union and Confederate, relating to prisoners of war, and to State or political prisoners.”  Of particular usefulness here might be details of prisoner exchanges or records regarding captured and fugitive slaves.

Series III includes the correspondence of Union authorities “not relating specifically to the subjects of the first or second series.”  These may include but are not limited to the following: special reports to the Secretary of War, calls for troops, and correspondence between national and state authorities.

Series IV follows the same format as Series 3, except that it is for Confederate records.  It excludes any correspondence between Union and Confederate authorities that may appear in the previous series.

How do you use it?  Does it have finding aids or supplemental material?

At the beginning of each volume there is a table of contents that is arranged chronologically.  The particular set of OR at Bowdoin is easy to use (this may or may not be the same for sets at other institutions) because the spines contain text that identify what is inside each volume.  For example, the spine of a volume in Series I might read: “Series I, Vol. XXXVI, Part II.  Operations in Southern Virginia and North Carolina, May 1 – June 2, 1864.  Drewry’s Bluff, Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg.”  The indexes at the back of each volume also contain people and organizations mentioned, so information can be found this way as well.

In regards to supplemental material, Series I has three supplements, Volumes LI-LII.  These embrace “documents found or received too late for insertion in volumes.”

Volume IV of Series IV also contains a general index, a synopsis for the contents of all volumes, addendums and corrections for the set, and indexes for “principal armies, army corps, military divisions, and departments.” 

There is also an accompanying collection of maps, Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of Union and Confederate Armies.  

How do you get access to it?  Where is it physically located, and what strictures (if any) are placed on access?

The OR (call number E464 .U61) is located on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library in the American history section (call numbers E-F).   It is a regular circulation volume, so volumes can be checked out for four weeks at a time. 

The accompanying atlas, which is restricted to in-house use, can be found in Special Collections on the third floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.  Special Collections is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. 

There is also a similar collection, The Official Records of Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, that may be a useful resource in Civil War military research.  It can be found on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow under call number E591 .U58.

The OR can also be accessed online in its entirety through Cornell University’s Making of America website (http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.monographs/waro.html).  This site has the set organized by volume and there are links to images of each page.  Because it is set up page by page, the navigation is a little harder than the hard copies in the library.  However, this site might be good for quick fact checks if you know exactly what you are looking for.

What kinds of questions can it answer?  How is this source useful?

The OR is a useful resource in regards to information on military campaigns of the Civil War.  The reports of field operations are detailed and extensive, for example, Brigadier General Emory Upton’s report of his Union brigade’s actions from Rapidan to Petersburg in mid-1864 spans seven pages.  These records can answer military-related questions by providing useful insight into the dynamics of army operations on both Union and Confederate sides.  It also could answer questions regarding details of specific campaigns, actions of certain leaders, and interactions between the upper echelons of military command.  Data on campaign casualties and other statistics similar to this could also prove to be a valuable resource for historical analysis.

However comprehensive the OR may be, it is not without shortcomings.  For the most part there are more Union than there are Confederate records.  This makes sense, as a number surviving Confederate records were probably hard to come by as the capital of Richmond was destroyed and burned through the campaigns of late 1864 and 1865.  In one particular volume (XXXVI), Union correspondence spans pages 319-939 for a total of 620 pages, while Confederate correspondence spans pages 940-1027 for a total of 87 pages.  While the OR stands as a valuable treasure trove for military information pertaining to the Civil War, keep in mind this disparity when looking for Confederate records in particular.