Neil Chatelain in this series has touched upon a personal favorite of mine: unit papers and war diaries. These are often underappreciated, but can reward the diligent researcher.
These resources, which include regimental papers, war diaries, and headquarters papers, are full of interesting information – often written in the soldiers’ own hands. They provide great connection and insight into the day-to-day existence of units.
Let me provide an example of how each type has helped my research.
Regimental Papers. These offer muster rolls, official correspondence, and other official actions of a regiment. Going through the papers of the 14th Brooklyn (14th New York State Militia or 84th New York) at the New York State Library was an interesting experience. The unit’s stationery was headed “14th N.Y.S.M”, which said something about how the regiment viewed itself. I also found great information on regimental strength, promotions, court-martials, and the like. I also found a request for clarification in April 1864 for the unit to go home, based on its state 3-year term expiring April 18, 1864. Despite receiving endorsements by leaders like Gouverneur Warren and George Meade, the War Department denied it, based on the 14th’s Federal enlistment date of May 21, 1861.
War Diaries. I used these extensively for my book Nations In The Balance. These daily diaries, with relevant orders attached, really provide information. The war diaries of various British divisions confirmed movement timings, orders and directives, supply situations, and even tactical dispositions. A special nugget was in 7th Indian Division’s war diary when the staff realized they had won the Admin Box battle – the diarist expressed it in a cricket analogy, saying “England first Innings score.”
Headquarters Papers. For my book Last Stand on Bataan, I went though the USAFFE/USFIP senior headquarters papers for the defense of the Philippines from December 8, 1941 to April 9, 1942. These offered details on operations, intelligence summaries, orders and correspondence, message drafts, and related. Through the files I viewed the battle through the participants’ eyes, including what they knew and when. I also saw when paper supplies started running low, handwriting scrunched due to stress, and additional written personal notes. All of these, taken together, told a story and helped me get into the heads of those I was writing about.
Next time you research a unit or campaign, don’t pass on these sources. You never know what they will provide.