Order of Battle – Why Those Lists Matter

General Edwin Sumner

Late last evening I was working on a project involving the First Battle of Fredericksburg. Jotting notes about the Army of the Potomac’s Grand Divisions, I could not find the right Mr. Sumner. My searches turned up “Charles Sumner” and I knew that wasn’t correct while I was certain the general’s last name was Sumner.

Time to pull out the official order of battle. Answer ahead: Edwin Sumner!

As I retrieved that order of battle, I remembered my early experiences with such documents. About the time I really got interested in military history (around age ten), I started making lists of commanders at the Battle of Gettysburg since that conflict was my reading focus at that time. Whenever I found a new general’s name in one of those kid’s books, I wrote it down and tried to figure out which corps, division, brigade, etc. the fellow commanded during the Gettysburg fight. The army and corps commanders were easy enough, but it wasn’t always clear after that.

Then, I found a treasure at my grandfather’s library. Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray. For weeks, I’d call Grandfather, saying, “Could you please check-out and bring me those general books again?” The books started “living” in my school desk until the day I had to return them…again…and get them checked out…again.

I didn’t have a “book-buying budget” when I was a kid, but I finally saved up enough money from recycling cans and bottles and doing yard work to buy my very own used copies of Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray. After that, my order of battle lists started developing faster.

I can still remember leaning on the kitchen counter, complaining to my mom that somebody who had more time and resources should have made a complete list of all the generals and units at Gettysburg by this time. (Yeah, I was rather dense…) But if no one had, I would definitely be the first!

At Gettysburg when I was fourteen

The joyous day of reality came. I don’t remember how old I was, but I found it in the back of a BIG Gettysburg book. An order of battle with the army, corps, division, brigade, and regimental commanders! The unit strengths and losses were even listed and cited. A true “eureka moment.” I felt so excited but also really foolish. My scribbled notes and neatly written lists didn’t matter anymore. All the answers were here.

I’ll make one more confession – this one about Fredericksburg and that order of battle. I spent weeks on the east coast when I was fourteen probably driving Park Service rangers and volunteers crazy with my question. “How did the 20th Maine get from Hancock’s command to the Fifth Corps at Fredericksburg?” I gave those rangers and volunteers the runaround all because I had the very wrong impression of chain of command, courtesy of the movie Gods and Generals.

If I’d checked an order of battle list, I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself, but I still hadn’t quite discovered that every Civil War battle has such a document (or one can be created with comparative ease). I’m sincerely sorry for causing so much trouble and wonder if I possibly troubled my future colleagues at ECW with that Fredericksburg question.

The answer, by the way, is that the 20th Maine was with the V Corps at Fredericksburg. They never served under General W.S. Hancock’s direct command.

The takeaways?

  • Find and study order of battle lists because they’re good references and help the battle maneuvers and chain of command make sense.
  • If you don’t have Generals in Blue or Generals in Gray on your resource shelf, you might want to make an investment.
  • Check available resources before creating your own order of battle sheets. Seriously, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
  • Ask lots of questions!

And now, I must wrap up this story because as fate would have it…I have to finish compiling an order of battle list for my manuscript today.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to Order of Battle – Why Those Lists Matter

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Sarah Kay Bierle
    Thank you for sharing this history of Battle of Gettysburg research, revealing the long, involved effort to amass credible data, from which to launch other investigations, and verify the work of other historians. I would be willing to bet that when you compared your self-generated Battle Order with the “official” listing, that there were inconsistencies…
    From my own experience, Orders of Battle are problematic because not all units (North or South) made the list: some units were late arrivals; some were “battalions” (not the entire regiment); some were “held in reserve.” Regiments recorded as belonging to one division often served with another; some are listed as “not brigaded.” Signal Corps units are sometimes not recorded. Artillery and cavalry suffer from incomplete and incorrect data, due the variety of names put to use by those units over time…
    And then there are Staff Officers: important contributors to the success (or failure) of a campaign, yet difficult to track down and verify their presence at specific times…
    But, isn’t it fun, getting caught up in the chase?

  2. Desmond says:

    Fellow OrBat enthusiast here…it’s always a pleasure to find others who have an interest in such a particular aspect of warfare. Any conflict, campaign or battle I study, the order of battle is the first thing I review. I will have to check out that book you suggested.

  3. Radek Havelka says:

    we started to this years ago for any soldier – we created a system, that allows us to automatically link information between units and their commanders (and their biographies), so we do not have to duplicate the effort to keep all in sync. By doing relationships between units (subordinate etc), we are able to create Order of Battle for any given date and unit. What we lack are people interested to help us fill that in. As our system is “computer-readable”, we are able to find and check numerous errors that appear in many hand-prepared publications (invalid unit and bases names due to date they changed names for example). Our system is opened to anyone, from any period of warfare. Feel free to reach me if you are interested.

  4. Radek Havelka says:

    Hi Cory,
    as I do not want to hijack this topic, and the explanation is bit complex, please mail me at havelka[at]valka.cz and we can continue over email if you want more details 🙂

    The basics are – we have a website built on ideas of “semantic web”. In short, it means we have defined many OBJECTS, like “soldier”, “unit”, “city”, “military installation” etc., and RELATIONSHIPs between those. Soldier is member of a unit. He can be a commander of a unit. And vice versa, the unit can be commanded by a soldier (with given rank, thats another object …). Because most of those relationships are bi-directional, its enough to do it on one side, and the other will be filled in automaticly (thats what I coded into the software that runs the website). And each RELATIONSHIP can have one more ATTRIBUTEs, like DATE FROM, DATE TO, and so on. The OBJECTS can have ATTRIBUTES as well, like DATE OF CREATION of a unit, DATE OF BIRTH of person etc. By comparing those attributes of relationships and objects, we can then find discrepancies and focus on research to fix them. For example:

    Unit A was subordinate of Unit B in dates DD.MM.YYYY-DD.MM.YYYY. By checking, that Unit B did or did not exists in those dates we can be sure the relationship is correct, or, maybe due to mistake in the original resource, is not correct. Unit A might be assigned to Unit B, that did not exist yet. Very common case. Or assigned to Unit B, but at that time, the “Unit B” has been renamed to “Unit B1” (we also keep relation to preceding units and succeeding units in our data).

    All this is built on wikipedia-style website (all can acceess the data freely and suggest or create new items, but only several advanced users are given the rights to modify existing data), on forum like interface, with some templates and forms to make the work as easy as possible, even for non-techies. Every record created is immediatly bound to other related records, which are updated in the same moment and so the data domain grows over time to reach unprecedented level of detail (not even wikipedia can compete with our list of soldiers born or deceased in given city for example). And with powerfull database system on the background, we can even run queries against this data domain … Interested in all soldiers of rank “general” born in Ohio? Why not, easy task. All commanding generals of given unit that died in Washington DC? and so on, and so on. The possibilities are endless, and we are seeking both hands to help us enter the data, and brains to help us create all these interpretations and data presentations.
    Best regards

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