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!).
Look 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.