Primary Sources: The Official Records

The most important collection of primary sources arguably is the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. This massive collection of after-action reports and correspondence, both from army and naval actions and campaigns, are universally known and used in the field of Civil War studies. They are a vital primary source to understanding the military, and sometimes political aspects of the American Civil War. Scholars and students alike know exactly what someone is talking about when they use the nickname and abbreviation “OR.” One cannot get a complete picture of the war without using them. Every study or published work of merit on the war should have utilized or consulted them.

What is not known by many of those who continually reference these works are how they came to be.

Much like today, the government and military of the United States operated on a veritable ocean of paperwork during the American Civil War. One of the duties of the general-in-chief of the United States military during the war was to submit an annual report on the war effort to the president and congress. This high ranking officer would need to utilize the numerous correspondences and after action reports from the field to complete his report. During the third spring of the war, this job fell to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck.

General In Chief Henry Halleck

Halleck struggled to prepare the annual report. The collection and organization of the paperwork of the Union armies and war effort was scattered, incompete, and inaccessible. Based on his difficulty in preparing the 1863 annual report, Halleck advocated the organization and publication of official records and reports of the war. Supporting Halleck’s idea was the Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. Wilson introduced a Joint Resolution to accomplish what Halleck had suggested. The resolution was amended as it made its way through both bodies of Congress before it was signed by President Lincoln in May 1864.

In charge of this enormous task was Army Assistant Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend. The Union officer started work on the project immediately. By the summer of 1865, and the war finally over, Townsend sent his completed project to the Superintendent of Public Printing, Joseph Hutton Defrees. Despite being a substantial eight volumes in length, and containing reports from all high-ranking officers in the Union army, Defrees realized that this was simply not sufficient.

Defrees next move was to go to Senator Wilson, the original sponsor of the resolution to have this work done by the government. He asked Wilson to sponsor a second bill. This new bill would repeal and replace the previous legislation and earmark additional funds for the compilation and printing of both Union and Confederate military records. Wilson, consulting with Defrees and others, put forth a bill in the Senate earmarking $500,000 for the project which would include 50 volumes of material. Both houses of Congress objected to the bill. They argued for fiscal conservancy, that the projected cost was not only too high, but that it could very well balloon even higher. The size of the project, 50 volumes, was also a concern. This too members of Congress believed would quickly grow.

Andrew Johnson

After a spirited debate on both the House and Senate floors, the bill finally passed. President Andrew Johnson signed it into law in the summer of 1866. Unfortunately, the new bill had the opposite effect on the project. Instead of it growing, and more documents compiled and added, it came to a grinding halt. Not until 1874, and an amendment to an appropriations bill by Congressman James A. Garfield did work on these records resume. Although work had begun again in earnest, the fiscal fears of 1866 became reality. Congress appropriated an additional $15,000 in 1874, $90,000 in 1875, and another $90,000 in 1876. It was still not enough. Workers on the project were asked to work on it during off hours as funding for their pay evaporated.

By 1877, forty-seven volumes had been completed, twenty-seven Union volumes and ten Confederate volumes. A trial run of twenty copies of each volume was printed. They were organized chronologically, not topically, necessitating numerous scattered volumes to be consulted for reports on a single battle. Then Secretary of War, George W. McCrary, unhappy with the results of this latest attempt, established a new office, a curator, and staff, to better organize and publish the records pertaining to the war.

In just four years, the new effort yielded 18 volumes, with another 18 published in 1887. Between 1891 and 1895, the accompanying Atlas to the records was released in sections as it was completed. Finally, in 1901, the Official Records were done. With the publication of the revised index in 1902 all work on the records was officially over. It had taken over 40 years and three million dollars to get the job across the finish line. It was a far cry from the originally proposed $500,000 and fifty volumes. The Official Records totaled 128 volumes for army records alone, not including naval records and the atlas.

Today, serious students and scholars of the war consult these volumes on a regular basis. No military work on the war should be done without their use. It is because of the enormous efforts of those involved with the Official Records between 1864 and 1902 that historians today have a deeper understanding of what occurred during the War of the Rebellion.

2 Responses to Primary Sources: The Official Records

  1. As a sidebar, I’d add in Breckinridge’s decision at the end of the war to preserve the records they got out of Richmond and turn them over to the US government as a key part of this process. Also former Confederate General Marcus J. Wright’s essential help in putting the records together.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!