Tracking Down the Sources for Matchless Organization

Guy Hasegawa

ECW is pleased to welcome Guy Hasegawa, author of Matchless Organization: The Confederate Army Medical Department, the latest in the Engaging the Civil War Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press in partnership with ECW. Part two of three.

The research for Matchless Organization didn’t start from scratch. I had been researching various aspects of Civil War medicine for about 20 years, so I was familiar with many relevant information sources and already had stacks of books and photocopied documents from previous projects. Although colleagues sent me important items from their files, I otherwise worked alone, without research assistants. Although I am now retired, the research and writing for this project occurred while I was employed as an editor for a biomedical journal. Confining my book-related work to evenings, weekends, and days off made it a challenge to maintain continuity of thought.

Correspondence preserved in a letterpress copybook. Such copies are often difficult or impossible to read because the ink has faded or bled. (Vol. 629, ch. VI, RG 109, National Archives)

I made extensive use of electronic forms of the Civil War’s Official Records and Medical and Surgical History, period newspapers, and records of Confederate legislation. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, was my major source of information for this project. Contrary to popular belief, a considerable mass of Confederate records survived the war—incomplete, to be sure, but enough to fuel in-depth studies of some aspects of the Confederate war effort.

Important parts of NARA’s Civil War collections are accessible online through NARA’s catalog and the subscription service fold3, which has posted large amounts of microfilm. This project, though, required multiple trips to NARA to examine microfilm or paper records not available online. I preceded such trips by listing exactly which film or paper documents I planned to examine. These determinations were made after considering the specific topics I wanted to research and consulting a printed inventory of NARA’s Record Group 109 (Confederate records). After a NARA trip, I returned to the written plan for the day’s research to summarize what I found and describe any peculiarities of the examined files. Doing so helped to avoid unnecessarily looking at the same files more than once and made reexamination of some files, when needed, more efficient. I learned quickly not to trust such details to my memory.

Novice investigators might be surprised at how long archival research takes. Confederate documents are notorious for their faded or blotched ink. It can be mind-numbing to scroll through film or leaf through papers because even if the handwriting is clear, its meaning may not be, and only a small fraction of documents may be relevant. Many Confederate documents are not self-explanatory, as an official report might be. Often, they are letters that are only fragments of larger exchanges and assume some knowledge on the part of the recipient. In other words, they lack context, and their significance to the researcher may be unclear at first glance. My practice has been to photograph documents that may be important and determine their significance after printing them at home.

Lessons that I learned, or were reinforced, during this project included (1) considering alternate spellings of names when conducting electronic searches, (2) looking where the desired information should not be, especially when it is easy to do so, (3) having a willingness to explore unfamiliar territory, and (4) following leads. For example, files for Surgeon David Camden DeLeon (or De Leon) can be found in fold3 under David Camden De Leaon and D. Chandler DeLeon. Army files for Surgeon Edward W. Johns can be found in the Confederate Citizens File, which is supposed to be limited to civilians. After making educated guesses about the meaning of mysterious notations in compiled service records, I requested files that I was previously unfamiliar with and discovered important records concerning the surgeon general’s staff. Using electronic sources to quickly follow-up on newly discovered names sometimes revealed useful information or suggested other paths of research.

Instructions for using a letterpress copybook. (Entry 435 (pt. 1), ch. VI, RG 109, National Archives)

Librarians at various institutions were helpful in retrieving documents from their manuscript collections. I communicated with them electronically to minimize the need to travel.

There is more to crafting a book, of course, than conducting research. The gathered information must be interpreted, classified, and stored, and writing must commence in some fashion. How I tackled those tasks will be described in blog post 3.

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1 Response to Tracking Down the Sources for Matchless Organization

  1. John Pryor says:

    Great detective work. Thorough, precise, detailed. Your meticulous methods remind of the doggedness of Dr Fujiwara, who developed the Tornado tracking model.

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