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Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion or often more simply the Official Records or ORs, constitute the most extensive collection of primary sources of the history of the American Civil War. Cornell University lists the official title as The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.[1] They include selected first-hand accounts, orders, reports, maps, diagrams, and correspondence drawn from War and Navy Department records of both Confederate and Union governments.

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Jefferson County’s fighting age male Union sympathizers, threatened with arrest for treason against the newly forming Confederacy, left the County and as the gravitational forces of solidarity brought most of the remaining white young men to enlistment points for the Confederacy – their “destiny was with Virginia” as Logan Osburn of Kabletown so famously concluded. Their wives and mothers began feverishly making havelocks and clothing for their young men. Roughly nine hundred men from Jefferson County would fight for the Confederacy in thirteen different units during the war. At least 130 Jefferson County-born, African-Americans fought in the United States Colored Troops and a smaller number of white Countians enlisted in a variety of scattered Federal units. Eight thousand enlistees would flock to Bolivar Heights by May 23rd from as far away as Mississippi, joined soon by a mercurial West Point-graduated professor from Virginia Military Institute named Thomas Jonathan Jackson who quickly put them through their paces and drilled them so relentlessly that notions of war as a grand, brief lark were dashed and some complained that the exercises were meant to kill them sooner than a fired bullet. James Allen was there, while his wife, Julia Pendleton Allen and their young son, Hugh Pendleton Allen, were at home on their County farm. George Rust Bedinger, Henry Bedinger’s son by a previous marriage, and who rode in the ring tournament a few years prior on his horse “Saladin” was there. with Alexander Boteler, Junior. The former was confident, encouraging, skillful; the latter, often angry to distraction because Bedinger mocked him mercilessly, for he suffered from a stutter. William Fitzhugh Lee, a career army officer was raised, in part, by the Shepherdstown Lees after his father died in Alexandria. By the time of the war, he had graduated from Virginia Military Institute, had married Lillie Parran of Shepherdstown, and fathered their daughter, Laura. In April, 1861, he arrived to help in the instruction of the ever-increasing numbers of hungry recruits at Bolivar Heights all thinking they would defend Harper’s Ferry against invasion. His family were at their home on the northeast corner of German and Mill Streets, with Lillie’s re-married mother, Laura Parran Towner. Edwin Grey Lee, who once dressed up as the “Knight of Alhambra” at the erstwhile tournament – the eldest son of Edmund and Henrietta Lee – likewise came “to camp” and was soon Jackson’s aide-to-camp. The Lees tried to visit him at Camp Jackson and Bolivar Heights near Harper’s Ferry while drilling was underway. Henrietta Lee wrote her eldest daughter, Ida Rust: Your Papa took Virginia (George Bedinger’s sister, also called “Diddie”and me up to see them last week. We met with our usual luck; broke down twice, and after various delays and accidents got there at half-past three, stayed half an hour, and jolted home, which we reached at ten o’clock at night, being eleven hours in the spring wagon. Lee continued to Ida about their relative in Connecticut, Susan Cornwall: I am sorry to say she has joined her voice to the baying and barking of the Northern bloodhounds, and seems crazy upon the subject of the Flag, Union and Constitution. . . Oh, at times I am so sick of noise and wrangling and contest that I long for the wings of a dove to flee away. Henry Kyd Douglas, the 23-year-old, one time president of that ring tournament from a few years before, who lived with his family at Ferry Hill overlooking the Potomac from the Maryland side – arrived at the camp, come what may. His father, Rev. Robert Douglas was part-owner of the valuable covered, wooden bridge at river’s edge. Personally I had no feeling of resentment against the people of the north because of their desire for the emancipation of the enslaved, for I believed Negro slavery was a curse to the people of the Middle States. As a boy I had determined never to own any one. When on the 17th April, 1861 the Virginia Convention passed the Ordinance of Secession, I had no doubt of my duty. In a week I was back on the Potomac. When I found my mother sewing on heavy shirts – with a heart doubtless heavier than I knew – I suspected for what and whom they were being made. In a few days I was at Harper’s Ferry, a private in the Shepherdstown Company, Company “B”, Second Virginia Infantry. On June 13, 1861, General Joseph Johnston, who replaced the less experienced Jackson, won the argument to not stay and defend Harper’s Ferry and ordered his force to evacuate Harper’s Ferry taking different directions. Some moved up the river, another larger force towards Charlestown. They would reunite in Berkeley County, make their way, some using rail, towards Bull Run/Manassas and fight in the first major battle of the war. Meantime the federal army under General Robert Patterson was, basically duped into remaining in the local region, not detecting the hurried movement of Johnston’s men to the Manassas battle location. Douglas wrote: When Federal General Robert Patterson began to demonstrate from Hagerstown to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, General Johnston determined to evacuate Harper’s Ferry. I was with the regiment that marched to Shepherdstown to destroy the bridge over the Potomac at that point. I was with the company that set fire to it, and when, in the glare of the burning timbers, I saw the glowing windows in my home on the hill beyond the river and knew my father was a stockholder in the property that I was helping to destroy, I realized that war had begun. I knew that I was severing all connection between me and my family and understood the sensation of one, who, sitting aloft on the limb of a tree, cuts it off between himself and the trunk, and awaits results. Not long after I saw the heavens lighted up over in Maryland one dark night and knew that the gorgeous bonfire was made from the material and contents of my father’s barn, I saw that I was advancing rapidly in a knowledge of the meaning of war. As the armies inched closer to clashing, more men in Jefferson County enlisted – or at least tried to: At Westwood near Summit Point, Hugh Nelson Pendleton’s son, Dudley Digges Pendleton, a half-brother to Col. Allen’s wife, Julia, was a graduate of Washington College. He had not yet realized his future wife “Tippie” Boteler. He enlisted June 19th into the First Rockbridge Artillery at Winchester, as war began to unfold. At the Bower farm, sixteen-year-old Adam Stephen Dandridge wanted to enlist but was prevented by his concerned parents. On July 2nd, 1861, as the first area battle erupted in Berkeley County at Falling Waters, the cannon could be heard across the Valley with a different, strange effect on each individual who met the blasts. Wrote Dandridge’s daughter, Serena Dandridge, much later: It was a piping hot July day, the first day of harvest in the long bottom, along the creek. The wheat was standing tall and fine that year, a heavy crop. Father was swinging the first cradle, and the colored cradlers were strung out in a long line beside him. He was only sixteen, but over six feet tall and wiry and tough. As the cradling went on, the sun’s heat beat down more and more fiercely. Suddenly the booming of cannon was heard from over the hills in the direction of Martinsburg. Like an electric shock, the words – “The war has begun!” – ran through the field. Father said he saw one of the cradlers, a big strong colored man, give a yell and jump straight up in the air and fall down dead with sunstroke (It may be assumed that it was a heart condition. In the field, all was in confusion. Father flung his cradle down, and he and some of the boys got on horses and went off to join the battle. The dead man was carried home. The boys and horses were eventually corralled and brought back, the easier because the battle, which was only a skirmish, was over before they arrived. This was only the FIRST time Steve ran off to join the army.When father was a young boy, The Bower was a busy and peaceful spot. He had learned to swim by being tossed into the flooded creek from the foot bridge by one of the older cousins, Phillip Pendleton Cooke, with orders to “swim you little devil.” The manly art of self defense was not neglected, and papa was a match for the best, black or white, but he says their bouts were always friendly. As the time of the Civil War drew near, excitement was in the air, and the boys made themselves bows and arrows and staged sham battles. One well-remembered day Steve dared the others to shoot at him, and one of the neighbor boys stepped up drew a bead on him quoting: “For Phillip’s right eye!” The arrow landed in father’s right eye. Of course the pain was terrible. Finally a cataract formed over the eye, and he was often in severe pain during the war.


Union and Confederate Armies

Collection of the records began in 1864; no special attention was paid to Confederate records until just after the capture of Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, when with the help of Confederate Gen. Samuel Cooper, Union Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck began the task of collecting and preserving such archives of the Confederacy as had survived the war. In 1866 a joint resolution of Congress authorized the compilation and publication under auspices of the War Department. Eventually, seventeen Secretaries of War were involved in the process. In 1877, Army Captain Robert N. Scott was appointed by the Secretary of War as director of the Publications Office, War Records. (Scott's name appears in each volume as the preparer, listed with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel, 3rd U.S. Artillery.)[2]

The original title for the records was The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and they were later renamed The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, which has led to some lasting controversy over the official name for the war. As finally published, the records consist of 138,579 pages with 1,006 maps and diagrams assembled in 128 books,[3] organized as 70 volumes grouped in four series, published between 1881 and 1901. Each of the four series of books in the compilation is divided into "volumes" numbered from the beginning of the series with Roman numerals. In series II, III, and IV each "volume" coincides with a book. In series I, however, it was found to be usually impracticable, beginning with volume X, to confine "volumes," as units of content, within single books. Volume X and most subsequent volumes in series I were therefore issued in "parts" distinguished by subsidiary Roman numerals, each occupying a separate book. Beginning with volume XXIV, Arabic "serial numbers" were also printed on the backs of the books issued, although these numbers were not included on the title pages, and are therefore not universally used in citations.[4]

Series I — Military Operations[5]
Formal reports, both Union and Confederate, of the first seizures of United States property in the southern States, and of all military operations in the field, with the correspondence, orders, and returns relating specially thereto (Serial Nos. 1-111)
Series II — Prisoners
Correspondence, orders, reports, and returns, Union and Confederate, relating to prisoners of war and (so far as the military authorities were concerned) to State or political prisoners (Serial Nos. 114-121)
Series III — Union Authorities
Correspondence, orders, reports, and returns of the Union authorities (including their correspondence with the Confederate officials) not relating specifically to the subjects of series I and II. It includes the annual and special reports of the Secretary of War, of the General-in-Chief, and of the chiefs of the several staff corps and departments; the calls for troops and the correspondence between the National and the several State authorities (Serial Nos. 122-126)
Series IV — Confederate Authorities
Correspondence, orders, reports, and returns of the Confederate authorities, similar to the Union material in series III, but excluding the correspondence between the Union and Confederate authorities given in that series (Serial Nos. 127-129)

A final comprehensive index (Serial No. 130) was published in 1901 with remaining additions and corrections.

A companion volume, the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, was published in 1895. It included maps of military operations (175 plates), a topographic map of the area of operations (26 plates), and some drawings of weapons, uniforms, insignia, and flags.[6]

In 1966, the U.S. National Archives began publication of a five-volume set that comprised an arguably superior index to the Army ORs, Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, microfilm publication M1026. Introductory material to the guide-index offers guidance to readers of the ORs:

Documents printed in Official Records, Armies, were copied, for the most part, directly into type from the originals by printers of the War Department printing establishment. These printers had their trade's long tradition of competence in putting manuscript into and correcting errors. They may not have been sophisticated about scholarly requirements for the reproduction of historical documents in print, but they were aware of the sort of problems involved and dealt with them according to shop practice, rich experience, and commonsense. A large part of the content of the compilation had already been printed as "preliminary prints" before the publication project received any proper editorial direction. The sheer bulk of the material involved prevented any meticulous wholesale review of the copying process by the editors responsible for the eventual publication. There were, of course, errors made during the copying process that did not get corrected or noticed in lists of errata. They were generally printers' errors, however, resulting from carelessness, difficulty in reading the manuscript, ignorance of proper names, and the like. Since the documents were printed a second time from the preliminary prints, at the Government Printing Office, it is a wonder that there are not more mistakes of transcription.

Editorial tinkering with the texts of documents is a possibility that must be kept in mind, particularly if the subject matter suggests it. There cannot have been much such tinkering, however, for the editors had their hands full organizing the material to go into successive books. The numerous appendixes of material that did not get into its proper place, and the extent of the five supplemental volumes can give us some idea of how demanding and distracting this task must have been.

The point is that anyone using the army-records compilation should watch more intently for faults of editorship than for faults of transcription. Some editorial mistakes are inconsequential but others are egregious, the total of such mistakes is very large. The editorship was not rigorous in any scholarly or scientific sense; it was empirical and relatively uncritical.[7]

Because of the enormous volume of material, the lengthy time period of collection and publication, and the constant and continuing process of correction by veterans of both sides still living contemporaneously, the records are perhaps the most intensely peer-reviewed documents in historical publication. Historians have argued that some of the modifications made years after the events have decreased the accuracy of the records and were made simply to enhance personal reputations (or to denigrate the reputations of rivals).

An additional 100 volumes of previously unpublished reports and correspondence were published by the Broadfoot Publishing Company of Wilmington, North Carolina, from 1995 to 1999, entitled Supplement to the Official Records Of the Union and Confederate Armies.[6]

Union and Confederate Navies

Unfortunately, most of the Confederate Navy Department records were lost during the burning of Richmond. Union Navy Department records were preserved, but not until 1884 was work begun by Navy Department librarian, later Assistant Secretary of the Navy, James R. Soley to collect and publish. Intending to partially replace missing reports, many personal narratives were collected and included, often gaining Navy researchers incidental access to draft copies of original reports once thought lost. The official title of publication is Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

Series I
Records of all naval operations including all inland waterways
Series II
Records relating to statistics and condition of both forces at the outset of conflict, returns of captured materials, and records of naval prisoners of war. Also included as Part I in Volume 1, is a complete ships listing for both navies with basic statistics on type, dimensions, armaments and propulsion, in many cases addended with notes and some contemporary illustrations. Information on Confederate vessels were for the most part sparse (in many instances having to rely on eyewitness accounts), due to missing records as well as vessels being lost over the course of the war, but were more detailed for those records and vessels that had fallen into the hands of the Union Army and Navy. Several captured vessels pressed into either service have actually received listings in both navies, either under their original name or renamed.

A proposed third series was deemed unnecessary; the final volume of series two was published in 1922. The Navy Department did not publish a comprehensive index to these volumes.

Other historical sources

While the Official Records are probably the most-used of all primary sources for historical research on the Civil War, there are other contemporary published works that provide well-sourced insights not constrained by the types of sources compiled by government:

Southern Historical Society Papers
Published in 52 volumes from 1869 to the 1950s by the Southern Historical Society, includes reminiscences and analyses of war experiences by Confederate veterans.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
A series of articles published between 1884 and 1887 in The Century Magazine and then assembled into a four-volume set of books, includes battle studies by Union and Confederate commanders of all ranks, from Ulysses S. Grant down to company officers. (In the 1990s, additional related material was compiled into two more volumes.) Accounts are usually first-hand and often written by an officer actually in command in a subject engagement or campaign.


  1. ^ [1] -Cornell University official name- Accessed 2010-11-27
  2. ^ Sauers, p. 2060.
  3. ^ Sauers, p. 2061. Although the volumes are numbered as high as 130, volume numbers 112 and 113 were reserved for a more extensive index of Series I that was never published.
  4. ^ National Archives M1026, p. 9.
  5. ^ Content descriptions from National Archives M1026, p. 7.
  6. ^ a b Sauers, p. 2061.
  7. ^ National Archives M1026, p. 4.


  • Aimone, Alan C., and Aimone, Barbara A., A User's Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War, White Mane Publishing Company, 1992, ISBN 0-942597-38-9.
  • Hewett, Janet B., "Updating the Documentary History of the U.S. Civil War", Journal of Government Information, Vol, 26, No.1, 1999.
  • Sauers, Richard A., "The War of the Rebellion (Official Records)", Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Heidler, David S., and Heidler, Jeanne T., eds., W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 0-393-04758-X.
  • U.S. National Archives, Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, National Archives microfilm publication M1026, 1966-1980.

External links

This page was last edited on 3 March 2019, at 15:30
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