Question of the Week: 9/11-9/17/17

We’re enjoying Kevin Pawlak’s collection of primary sources related to the 1862 Maryland Campaign. So…we had to ask:

What’s your all-time favorite primary source from the Civil War? Why?

14 Responses to Question of the Week: 9/11-9/17/17

  1. I think that the best kind of primary sources are the after-action reports turned in by officers on both sides. Research can often discover when the reports were penned and submitted, so closer to the event the better. Further from the event, the more time the ‘author’ has to think about the agenda or theme that they must maintain.

    My favorite works penned by participants are of another sort, the better memoirs of the period, especially those of Grant and E. Porter Alexander. Taking into account that each had time to think their way through the events, and put the best construction n their own actions, they stand up to comparison and come out as generally balanced and accurate accounts. Alexander’s “Military Memoirs of a Confederate” is remarkably even-handed when the author evaluates the successes and failures of the Confederate generals with whom he served.

  2. In research, the only source worth consideration are the OR’s. They are in the language used by the officer corps, and give what I consider reliable views through there own eyes. I think they are the foundation for any sort of research.

    1. The OR actually contain a ton of “information” which needs to be read critically. In particular, after action reports can be unreliable. Many of the authors had an incentive to downplay bad performances on the battlefield, had poor vantage points for knowing what was going on around the, wrote from erroneous memory well after the fighting, or relied on unsubstantiated hearsay from subordinates. Personal correspondence or journals can actually be more useful.

    2. I find the ORs useful, but there are pitfalls to them. They were collected and curated in a highly political environment beginning in the Grant administration, so the selection of documents–as even-handed as it seems–was anthologized in that context. Then there’s the fact that record-keeping over the course of the war evolved, so the end of the war is better documented than the early part of the war, particularly on the Union side. That’s compounded by the fact that so many Confederate records were lost at the end of the war. There are also things that just never got written (Joe Hooker’s Chancellorsville report, anyone?).

      As someone who’s written a lot about the Overland Campaign, I’ve seen the unrelenting nature of the fighting and the attrition among the Confederate officer corps over the campaign readily evident in the OR. Many of the reports for various actions in the campaign weren’t written by the original commanders of units because they were killed. Many reports were also written months and months after the actions themselves because no one had time to write.

      1. Good points. There are any number of examples. George McCall’s report for his division during the Seven Days is a good one. So far as one can tell (partly from the tense used), the portion covering Gaines’s Mill was contemporaneous (he had opportunity on both June 28 and June 29) but that relating to Mechanicsville/BD Creek (oddly) was not. Instead it appears to have been written when the portion relating to Glendale was – and we know the latter almost certainly had to have been written between August 13, 1862 (the day after he was released from Libby Prison) and August 16-18 (when he went on sick leave. Since he was a POW between June 30 and August 12, who knows what he was relying on by that point to prepare the report.

  3. E. P. Alexander’s accounts are excellent. Although offered from a Confederate perspective, he’s even-handed and fair and he pulls few punches, even with the Army of Northern Virginia. He’s also insightful. It’s one of the best primary accounts from a key participant/observant of the highest levels of command AND action on the field.

    1. I finally got around to reading Alexander’s accounts recently. What a great read! Currently, I am reading St. John Liddell’s 1866 account and it is not of the same quality, but interesting nonetheless.

      Aggregating letters and diary entries, with certain post-war accounts and the OR, must be the best primary sources.

    2. I assume you’re referring to “Fighting for the Confederacy”, which (probably because he didn’t intend it for publication) contains a number of excellent insights, including frank assessments of Lee and Saint Stonewall. The Memoirs is good but he intended it to be published and we therefore don;t get his genuine views about these things.

  4. I am a huge fan of letters from soldiers to the folks back home. I agree with everyone above about officer reports and the OR, but those letters are just the best. Yes–the common soldier only saw what was in front of him in a battle, so no big-picture stuff, but their observations of their officers, each other, and the election of 1864 are so personal and to-the-point. In contrast to Richard Rosenfeldt’s comment–“in the language used by the officer corps”–they are NOT in that language. Instead they are in a vernacular we can appreciate as kin to our own.

  5. Favorite source? Probably soldier -correspondent letters to hometown newspapers. Not the paid correspondents, but the letters shared by relatives or written from the regiment to the editor.

  6. I vote for the maps the commanders used – gives you a sense of what they saw and what they envisioned.

  7. The letters of Maryland’s episcopal clergymen and bishops! You’d be surprised how rich they are and how much politicking and perspectives get discussed. Some of my favorite highlights include a pastor equating secession with “diabolical possession” and another calling the Rev. Gen. William N. Pendleton “a blackguard.”

  8. Another interesting source would be the actual orders cut and issued before, during, and after a battle/campaign.. Think “Benteen Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring Packs. W.W. Cooke P.S. Bring pacs” of Little Big Horn fame (I know, it isn’t the Civil War, but it serves the purpose!), or Lee’s Special Order 191.

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