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The OR/ORN and Shiloh
Official they are, records they are, comprehensive they are not
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For over a century, the books entitled War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, known as Official Records, the OR in Civil War circles, and the companion series, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, or ORN compiled by the Navy Department, have been the bedrock of Civil War scholarship. No serious Civil War scholar can ignore the contents of the two compendia that admittedly take up one entire wall of my living room.
And Ev says she doesn’t mind…
The War Department compiled the million-plus word OR (with a one volume Index) from order books, official archives and personal papers of the 150 volumes of over the course of fifty years. Impetus for gathering and publishing the Official Records came from Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. Overwhelmed by writing his 1863 annual report to Congress, Halleck recommended to the Committee on Military Affairs the collection and publication of official documents and reports on all Civil War operations. Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, introduced a Joint Resolution "to provide for the printing of the official reports of the armies of the United States." Both the House and the Senate adopted Wilson’s resolution on May 19, 1864. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law the next day.
A most unusual move for Washington to want to preserve records so readily.
It used to be said the OR provided the most comprehensive, authoritative, and voluminous reference to Civil War operations. They should have included the communications from the principal leaders who fought the battles. However, their actual production was uneven, for the contributors wrote their assessments days, weeks, and sometimes months or even years later. Further, pulling many of the records together was casual and no archivist would trust the method today: the War Department published ads in newspapers calling for the records.
As primary source material, the OR is an exhaustive compilation, but it is hardly comprehensive.
George Pickett’s report of Gettysburg, among other items, is conspicuously missing. A 100-volume supplement to the OR, published in 1996 by an outside firm, contains other contemporary papers that somehow never made it into the first 148 volumes or into the supplementary two volumes first published in 1911. Most scholars that I have asked suggest that the OR has, at most, 15% of all the correspondence, reports and records.
They are flawed sources, often poorly written, lacking perspective, and frequently contradictory and self-serving.
There was plenty of room for embellishment, redaction and editing in preparing this record. Compiled before the publication of other literature on the subject, in several cases, their publication caused some veterans to alter their memory and perception of events later in life. The contents were not edited or fact-checked for accuracy, and due to space considerations, only excerpts of many reports were included. Some contributors recreated some “reports” from memory and other sources. The US Printing Office published the OR serially, one volume at a time, starting in 1866. The first series—a bulk of the books—was completed in 1890.
The ORN followed the OR
The 28,329 page Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN) is a 31-volume collection (27 volumes in the first series, three volumes in a second series, plus a general index) published between 1894 and 1922. U.S. naval historians, archivists, and veterans compiled the ORN, and it includes everything from daily official correspondence, diagrams and illustrations of warships, engineering documents, ship logs, newspaper clippings, rosters, battle reports, and messages between government leaders in the Navy Departments of both the United States and Confederacy to their squadrons and ships. Each volume covers a different element of the war.
The ORN was very much an afterthought.
The popular success of the OR among researchers encouraged the Navy to think about pulling their records together. While slightly more scholarly in their acquisition of records, the ORN suffers from the same maladies: no editing, no fact-checking, and obvious biases.
Shiloh in the OR and ORN
There are 229 official reports in the OR’s Shiloh “Reports” volume alone (another volume contains the “Correspondence” or message traffic), another score of reports are in a supplementary volume, and three more reports appear in the ORN. Some reports, including Joseph Hardee’s and Benjamin Prentiss’ on Shiloh, were written long after the events they describe. At least one message, the one from John Rawlins to Lew Wallace on Sunday 8 April, was recreated from memory a year and a half after the battle.
These reports make it apparent that the senior officers at Shiloh had differing versions of Sunday’s events.
While valuable, the OR and the ONR have to be read with care and something of a jaundiced eye. By habit—because there were no medals to be had in early 1862—these documents were lavish with praise for officers who had little to do with the battle, since “mentioned in dispatches” was the only award most of them were going to get.
Sure, I use the OR and ORN…
Mostly as a guide to other research, as an outline pointing in other directions. I also have an electronic version that includes some other indispensable Civil War works, like Fredrick Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, and William Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Like the OR and ORN, they have to be used carefully, and never relied on as a sole resource.
Curtis Durand is a man on a mission: a mission to make a name for himself in the field of history. In the archives at his school, he finds some material he doesn’t understand…yet. The Past Not Taken is a study in what sources mean, what they don’t, and what we can make them mean. From your favorite bookseller or from me if you want an autograph.
Knowledge of the Past is Our Hope for the Future
On 18 November:
1477: William Caxton publishes "Dictes & Sayengis of the Phylosophers" in Westminster, England. The first dated book printed in England, there are three known copies of this incunabulum, or an early printed book, which is a translation of an Arabic book by the same name.
1916: The first Somme River campaign ends in France and Flanders after 140 days and a million British, French and German casualties. A simultaneous campaign in Poland and the Balkans cost another million Russian and Austro-Hungarian casualties. The last of a multi-theater campaign that was meant to bring WWI to an end, instead it practically brought France to her knees and destroyed the last vestiges of Russian morale.
And today is NATIONAL PRINCESS DAY, marking the 1994 release of Sony’s animated film The Swan Princess that, despite your derision that I can hear now, was the number one VHS release when it came out on this day in 1995. Marketing, marketing, all is marketing…