The ORs and the Growth of Bureaucracy

Primary Sources

Dan Welch’s post yesterday about the history of the Official Records reminded me of an observation I made a few weeks ago while reshuffling my books. The ORs embody the evolution of record-keeping over the course of the war (or, some might say, the growth of bureaucracy!).


Volume 1Look at the volumes related to the first year of the war: they’re all relatively slim, single-issue volumes that cover a lot of ground. Volume 1, for instance, labeled “Secession, Fort Sumter,” covers “Operations in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and Missouri, Dec. 20, 1860-June 11, 1861.” It also includes “The Secession of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Louisiana, Jan. 3, 1861—May 30, 1861.” And it covers all that in 752 pages, index included.

The largest of the early volumes is Volume 5, “Carnifex Ferry, Ball’s Bluff,” which comes in at 1,204 pages, including index. Considering the political nightmare Ball’s Bluff turned into, I’m not surprised. Volume 2, the next longest, comes in at 1,101 pages, including index.

Not until Volume 10, “Shiloh,” do we see the first two-part volume, totaling 1,728 pages (1027 and 701, respectively).

And thus the slow growth of the OR begins to accelerate.

Next comes Volume 11, “The Peninsular Campaign,” the first three-part volume, totaling 3,018 pages (1170, 1097, and 751, respectively). Volume 12, “Second Manassas,” also clocks in at three parts, but part two also comes with an 1886 supplement that covers the court-martial of Fitz John Porter. The four books total 3,061 pages.

While a few other single-part volumes crop up, most of the ORs from there on out consist of multiple parts. Volumes 30 and 34 stretch to four parts, and Volume 38, covering the Atlanta Campaign from May 1-September 8, 1864, tops out at five parts and a total of 5,111 pages (1026, 998, 1109, 871, and 1107, respectively). Volume 46, “The Richmond Campaign, The Appomattox Campaign, Etc.,” also spans fives parts and totals a whopping 6,051 pages (741, 1495, 1493, 773, and 1549, respectively).

What strikes me most obviously about this, by just looking at the volumes on the shelf, is that record-keeping grew significantly over the course of the war. The earlier volumes are smaller because the armies were still relatively small, and they were also still developing their record-keeping protocols.

However, a pair of other underlying factors make this growth even more interesting to me. First, consider the attrition on both sides in the spring and summer 1864 in both the Eastern and Western Theaters (particularly in the East). In the relentless conflict, many officers were killed over the course of the campaigns, and so their reports went unwritten or had to be completed by replacements less familiar with earlier details. The net effect was that record-keeping was not as thorough as it could have been—and yet both armies still amassed a considerable quantity of documentation.

Second, when Richmond went up in flames at the end of the war, the Confederacy lost many of its records. John Breckinridge, the Confederate Secretary of War, made a fateful and fortunate decision to preserve as many documents as he could, but not everything made it. Couple that with the fact that Confederate record-keeping was notoriously spotty to begin with, and it’s easy to wonder what else might have been included in the ORs.

Series one of the OR, which consists of a total of 53 volumes, concludes with three volumes that include supplementary documents “found or received too late for insertion” in the earlier volumes. Well after the initial publication of the OR, the attempt at more-efficient record-keeping continued.

But even that didn’t conclude the effort. Three additional series followed the first. Series two, which includes information about POWs, consists of eight volumes. Series three, which includes information from the Union army “not relating specially to the subjects of the first and second series,” consists of five volumes; the corresponding Confederate info, included in series four, consists of four volumes. And there’s the official atlas, too.

And often forgotten are the 30 volumes of the Navies’ records, which came in two series (27 volumes and 3, respectively).

As Dan pointed out in his post yesterday, publication of the OR came in waves, so I suspect the physical growth of the volumes was also, at least in part, a result of the publishing staff overcoming their learning curve. As they worked, they got better and had a clearer idea of how to handle the material (and they had more material to work with).

As a historian, I, for one, am thankful for the army’s growing bureaucracy. It left us with a wealth of material to work with.

4 Responses to The ORs and the Growth of Bureaucracy

  1. Chris
    Excellent extension of the “Official Records as Primary Source.”
    And there appears to be a significant amount of material that “did not make the cut” and was left out of the OR (which likely found its way into National Archive warehouses, never to be seen again.)

  2. The beginning point for anyone using the ORs should be Aimone’s User’s Guide to the Official Records of the Civil War which is included in the Guild Press CD. They discuss the creation and problems which Col. Scott and the other editors had in a) collecting reports, particularly Rebel reports, and b) keeping documents printed to only those written at the time. Chamberlain’s rewriting of his Gettysburg report is one of the failures.

    But Scott was remarkably successful in limiting the included material to war time only. There is an entire file in the War Records Office of “ex-post facto” reports, those written after the war. Chamberlain, by the way, claimed the one he turned into the War Records Office was a copy of the original, not a post-war creation. Many if not all of these ex post facto reports are included in the Broadfoot _Supplement_, without any notation that they were rejected by the original editors.

    Most of the editorial correcting by the War Records’ staff was typographical in nature, cleaning up misspellings, standardizing headings and signature lines, expanding abbreviated words, and the like. A favorite editing was to correct geographic mistakes: for instance, most of the reports by those on Little Round Top refer to Big Round Top as “Wolf’s Hill,” which is several miles away – the guys there fighting did not have time to check out all the local names, and then, when they got around to doing the after action reports, often several months late, they tried their best to remember.

    The set contains most of the 1870’s available reports but limited itself to a selection of the telegrams – there were just too many!

    In addition, there was tremendous pressure placed on the Office to censor and “correct” material which did not reflect kindly on post-war political leaders. These former and current generals were singularly unsuccessful in “cleaning up” their memories!

    While there are exceptions, on the whole the ORs are a unique recollection of a War. No other country has ever attempted anything like the ORs. And after World War II, Army Chief of Staff Dwight Eisenhower visualized what have become known as the “Green Books” as a World War II version of the ORs.

    While an historian writing on say, Chickamauga, should go to the originals, and if the ORs have been superseded by modern letter press editions of Grant or Jefferson Davis, then these should be used in preference to the OR. But for most purposes, the ORs remain as they have for century, accurate contemporary information on the battles between opposing armies and also between opposing generals fighting each other when they were not in combat with the enemy!

  3. The OR’s were published by the “War Records’ Office” in the War Department from 1881 to 1901 in 128 volumes. Unfortunately, they were printed on wood-pulp paper and disintegrate when handled. Although you can find lots of individual volumes for sale they are worthless.

    The complete set, of 128 volumes, 138,597 pages!, occupies roughly 22+ feet of shelve space!

    In the 1970s the Official Records were reprinted by several different publishers, with several different colors of covers, blue, gray or black. When I bragged about my purchase of a black-cover set on the Gettysburg Discussion Group, the late great Bob Younger of Morningside House quickly set me straight, “The gray cloth was done by Telegraph press (now Stackpole) on regular paper with acid, the second time the press run was shared by NHS, Broadfoot and Morningside, the second printing still had bugs, pages were left out and volumes were replaced, and like the tainted E-Coli beef, I am sure they didn’t get them all back. The last reprinting is on acid free paper, and
    should be the perfect set.”

    Bob said to ask the dealer to check the publication date and see if they are on acid free paper. The first page of each volume says “Reprinted 1985 by Historical Times, Inc./Distributed by Broadfoot Publishing Company/Historical Times, Inc./Morningside House” At the bottom it says “Printed on 45 lb. Glatfelter Acid-free Paper by Edwards Brothers, Ann Arbor, MI 48106”

    I purchased mine 30 or so years ago for $1500 “used” and was offered the choice of color, luckily deciding on the black, just like the originals – that was before Bob Younger told me about the differences! I Visaed the dealer, anyone remember Bob Zullo and Olde Soldier Books?, and they arrived at the office, a dozen or so heavy boxes of books, four or five days later. Talk about a panicky secretary! They were still in the original boxes, all but four or five still in the shrink wrap bindings. I suspect some Civil War nut had purchased them and then died or got divorced and the spouse sold them! Probably for $7-800.

    There are several sets available at bookfinder dot com and other online sites, including one complete of the originals and several of the early 1970s reprints, asking $1500-1800. I do not see any of the 1985 offered as a complete set. Morningside is gone but Broadfoot sells the good reprint new for $3,500. Keep in mind the postage, even ground freight, for all the boxes is expensive!

    Shortly after I spent the money on the hardbacks, it was announced that they were being done in CD – and Broadfoot, a major supplier of Civil War reprints , H-Bar, then an Alabama outfit and now located in Maryland , and Guild Press in Indiana (now: ) all decided to do it at the same time. According to rumor, H-Bar sent a set of the hardbacks to Bangladesh to be re-typed. It turned out the Bangladeshis did not speak English and there are numerous errors. In contrast, Broadfoot and Guild Press used advanced scanning technology. All three editions were initially priced at about $600-700 each.

    The law of supply and demand interfered and H-Bar and Guild Press lowered their prices to $70 each. Broadfoot held and still holds the line at the original price. Talk about obstinate! I do notice that their web site does not have a link for the CD –perhaps they gave up!

    A comprehensive review of the three appeared in the August 1997 issue of the now defunct _Civil War: The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society _ (I have it scanned if you would like to read it) and they said don’t waste money on the H-Bar version. The reviewer reported, with examples, that Guild Press and Broadfoot were roughly comparable – except for price! Anyway, Guild Press advertises sales of about 18,000. It does not appear Broadfoot’s is still available.

    Guild Press, now Civil War America, went on to publish the ORN, and the OR Atlas, as well as the Southern Historical Society papers, the old Scribner Campaigns of the Civil War, and some other titles, each DVD for $70. In addition, they combine them along with the Medical and Surgical History into a fine DVD for $170.

    Buy their DVD! Their website is

  4. It always amazes me when I see folk renaming Civil War reprints.

    H-Bar is the worse. Their website, offers “The Official Record of the War Between the States. The 128-Volume Army Official Record (also known as Official Record of the War of Rebellion)…” for sale. H-Bar’s sins went much further than this: on their faux title page for each volume of the OR they put the correct full title of the series, followed by the sub-title: “or, in truth, the War of Northern Aggression” Perhaps their original location in Alabama had something to do with it! (They are now in Maryland)

    Broadfoot is guilty of name changing, to a lesser degree. While their hardback reprints have the correct spine name, they offered the CDs titled as “Army Official Records.” And the spine and title page of their wonderful “Supplement” is labeled “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.” When they reprinted the “Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion,” they retitled it as the “Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War.”

    However, even the government did similar things. The Atlas, when published in the 1890s became the “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Civil War” and the sea going version, published from 1894 to 1927, is the “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies.”

    Historians have continued this mis-naming tradition. When footnotes started appearing in the 1880s, the set was referred to as “WR” – originally the correct title, but then, along in the 1890s, changed to mean “War Records.” In the 20th Century even “War Records” disappeared, and references were to the subtitle, as OR.

    I do not know of another book(s) which is routinely misnamed in footnotes, let alone reprints. Never underestimate the power of the Lost Cause!

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