As Walt Whitman famously said, “The real war will never get in the books.” When I think if “unpublished sources,” I start wondering broadly about what never made it into print. As this series has demonstrated, there’s a ton of unpublished gold available to researchers who take the time to dig for it.
But as I started ruminating on this topic, I kept going back to the Civil War researcher’s “old faithful,” the Official Records. They are, quite literally, the government’s official account of the War of the Rebellion (their title!). But I invite you to consider something about the O.R.
One of the (many) things that amazes me about the O.R. is that we can literally see how the armies—and the Union army, in particular—learn to record-keep. Volume 1, Series I is a mere 752 pages long, including index, and if covers Dec. 20, 1860-June 11, 1861, including “Secession” and “Fort Sumter.”
By the Richmond and Appomattox Campaigns of the spring of 1865, Volume 46 spans three parts over 4,535 pages. Chronologically, Series I of the O.R. winds down with Volume 50 in two parts, totaling 2,663 pages, covering “Operations on the Pacific Coast” (did you realize there were more than 2,600 pages of action on the Civil War on the Pacific Coast?).
Series I then caps off with Volumes 51-53, which all contain supplementary documents “found or received too late for insertion” in earlier volumes.
And this is where I start thinking of Uncle’s Walt’s comment about the real war not getting into the books. Look how much documentary material exists from later in the war as compared to earlier in the war, as reflected by the O.R.s.
We think of the evolution and improvement of technology over the course of the war. We think of tactics, medicine, communication, transportation. Advances in all of these fields led to tremendous growth. We see, too, the way men like Lincoln and Grant evolved over the course of the war. Record-keeping was no different. And as the armies improved their record keeping, the documentary evidence they generated—and kept—grew exponentially.
And let’s not forget, in instances like the Overland Campaign, the Atlanta Campaign, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, officers had less downtime time to sit and write. Many officers got killed off before they had the chance to even write their reports, so those reports went unwritten or they were written in an abbreviated form by a replacement. Even with those sorts of limitations, the armies still generated a tremendous amount of paperwork.
On the flip side, we can also see all the source material that didn’t make it into the books for various reasons.
Let’s also not forget the vast number of records lost when Confederates burned Richmond on their way out of town in April 1865. While a number of records were saved, many weren’t. Yet despite that diminished trove of documents, we still have huge O.R. volumes toward the end of the war. Imagine if all Confederate records had been saved—imagine how much more complete, and how much more formidable, those late-war volumes would be, crammed fuller with Confederate material.
Compare those hulking late-war volumes to the sparser volumes from early in the war. What didn’t get written down because the army and its officers just hadn’t figured out yet what sorts of things needed to be written down? The processes and procedures and protocols for collecting info and generating reports hadn’t been formalized or even yet developed. In theory, those early war volumes could have been every bit as robust as late-war volumes.
What material didn’t get published because it never got written in the first place?
The creation of the ORs is, itself, a fascinating story. The project got underway during the Grant administration—a true example of “history is written by the victors” if ever there was one. The editorial process of deciding what was in and what was out and how it was all organized also impacted what made it into the record. (Joan Waugh has a fascinating essay that talks about this in her book U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.)
As our “Unpublished” series has pointed out, a number of other resources exist for catching a look at those parts of the war that didn’t get into the books, so we do have ways of fleshing out some of those lesser-written-about periods of the war. But this notion of unpublished sources that were never written in the first place—never written for all sorts of reasons—it intrigues me. Our understanding of the war itself has been shaped by the act of recordkeeping.
What parts of those records, what parts of the war, never made it into the books?