Civil War Research Primer


Studying the American Civil War is rewarding, frustrating, easy, and difficult, all at the same time, and for the same reason - the topics and sources are so numerous and so easily available that narrowing down a topic, and then working one's way through the possible mountains of material is a pleasure - and a challenge - all on its own.

GETTYSBURG SEMESTER students have two major research responsibilities. The first is a research paper for CWES 421. The second involves "adopting" a Civil War unit and speaking as the "voice" of that unit as we visit the major battlefields of the war's Eastern theater in CWES 425. But regardless of whether you actually join THE GETTYSBURG SEMESTER, understanding the resources for general research and for unit histories will open up the two most vital fields of Civil War history for you. So, while this is designed first with GETTYSBURG SEMESTER students in mind, it really applies to anyone who wants a primer in researching the Civil War.

1. Unit Histories
The United States government, state governments, and the veterans of the war provide us with the two richest sources for unit histories. These are:
(a) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 volumes, published 1880-1901 and known simply as "O.R."), which provides battle reports, correspondence, and as many primary documents of the war as were available to be assembled in the postwar decades. A CD-ROM version of the O.R. (And there are several available) with searchable text to allow you to track down every word, name, or phrase in the O.R. In addition, you may also want to look at a useful companion to the O.R. in Frederick H. Dyer's A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, (3 volumes, Des Moines, 1908).
(b) individual state reports. Since the bulk of the Civil War armies were technically "volunteers" raised by the individual states, many states published reports, rosters and regimental histories in wartime or post-war reports of state adjutants-general. Some examples of these are:

  • Adjutant General's Reports on Vermont (3 vols., 1862-1866)
  • Annual Report of the Adjutant General [Rhode Island] (2 vols., 1865)
  • Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (5 vols., 1869)
  • Benedict, George G. Vermont in the Civil War (2 vols., 1886-1888)
  • Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-1865 (5 vols., 1901)
  • Love, William D. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (1866)
  • Manarin, Louis H. North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865 (1966)
  • Moore, John W. Roster of North Carolina Troops (4 vols., 1882)
  • Official Register of Rhode Island Officers and Soldiers (1866)
  • Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio (11 vols., 1887)
  • Peck, Theodore S. Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers (1996)
  • Quiner, Edward B. The Military History of Wisconsin (1866)
  • Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers (2 vols., 1886)
  • Salley, Alexander S. South Carolina Troops in Confederate Service (1913)

Some useful supplements to these compilations are Clement A. Evans, editor, The Confederate Military History (12 volumes, Atlanta, 1899), Confederate Veteran (magazine, 40 volumes, published from 1893 to 1932 - available in CWES Office), Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (70 volumes, 1887-1915), and the Southern Historical Society Papers (52 volumes, from 1876 to 1929, reprinted by Broadfoot)
(c) individual regimental histories, mostly written by veterans or commissioned by veterans' associations between 1865 and 1910. They are a genre of American literature which has, by and large, gone unnoticed by literary scholars, but they are a gold mine for researchers looking to track the membership, actions, and accomplishments of Civil War regiments. The "regimental history" genre received a second wind from the Civil War centennial observances in the 1960s, and there are now an abundance of new regimental histories from modern historians available. The most comprehensive listing of regimental histories is Charles Dornbush's Military Bibliography of the Civil War (see below). Some examples of postwar regimental histories are:

  • 155th Pennsylvania Regimental Association. Under the Maltese Cross (1910)
  • Gracey, Samuel L. Annals of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (1868)
  • Judson, Amos M. History of the Eighty-Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (1865)
  • Morton, John Watson. The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry (1909)
  • Mulholland, St. Clair. The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry
  • Murphy, Thomas G. Four Years in the War: History of the First
    Regiment, Delaware Veteran Volunteers
  • Nash, Eugene Arus. A History of the 44th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry (1911)
  • Oates, William C. The War between the Union and the Confederacy...with a History of the 15th Alabama Regiment (1905)
  • Peck, Thomas H. Historical Sketch of the 118th Pennsylvania (1884)
  • Ripley, William Y.W. Vermont Riflemen (1883)
  • Rodebough, Theodore F. From Everglade to Canon [2nd U.S. Cavalry] (1875)
  • Stevens, Charles A. Berdan's United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865 (1892)
  • Stewart, Robert L. History of the 140th Pennsylvania (1912)
  • Waitt, Ernest Linden, ed. History of the Nineteenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1906)
  • Ward, Joseph R.C. History of the 106th Pennsylvania (1883)
  • Woodbury, Augustus. The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment (1875)
  • Westbrook, Robert S. History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers (1898)

Some examples of modern regimental or unit histories are:

  • Bennett, Brian A. Sons of Old Monroe: A Regimental History of Patrick O'Rorke's 140th New York Volunteer Infantry (1992)
  • Davis, William C. The Orphan Brigade: The Kentucky Confederates Who Couldn't Go Home (1980)
  • Gottfried, Bradley. Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadelphia Brigade (1999)
  • Laine, J. Gary and Morris Penny. Law's Alabama Brigade in the War between the Union and the Confederacy (1996)
  • Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade (1975)
  • Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War (1957)
  • Robertson, James I. The Stonewall Brigade (1963)
  • Wallace, Lee A. The 1st Virginia Infantry (1985)
  • Gregory C. White. "This Most Bloody & Cruel Drama": A History of the 31st Georgia Volunteer Infantry (1997)
  • Young, William & Patricia. The 56th Virginia Infantry (1990)

Also, several present-day Civil War-related magazines feature unit histories, including Civil War Times Illustrated, The Gettysburg Magazine, Civil War Regiments, North & South, and the flagship scholarly quarterly of Civil War studies, Civil War History.

2. Civil War Research Topics
This is actually a harder task, simply because the possibilities are so enormous. You may wish to concentrate on a military-related topic, in which case the O.R. remains a 'go-to' resource. If you are selecting a civil topic, narrow yourself down to a particular question you want to explore. But whether civil or military, there are two principal wells of information you will be able to consult, the first being printed sources, and the second being Civil War-related libraries and museums which will allow you access to primary sources.

PRINTED SOURCES: The most important printed sources of Civil War material beside the O.R. are

  • Cole, Garold L., editor. Civil War Eyewitnesses: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1955-1986. (University of South Carolina Press, 1988)
  • Coulter, Merton. Travels in the Confederate States: A Bibliography. (Broadfoot, 1981)
  • Dornbusch, Charles E. Military Bibliography of the Civil War. (4 volumes, Morningside Bookshop, 1987-2003)
  • Eicher, David J. The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (University of Illinois press, 1997)
  • Hubbell, John T. and James W. Geary, editors. Biographical Dictionary of the Union: Northern Leaders of the Civil War (Greenwood Press, 1995)
  • Johnson, Robert U. and Clarence C. Buel. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (4 volumes, New York, 1884-1888); two modern supplement volumes have been edited by Peter Cozzens and published by the University of Illinois Press.
  • Long, E.B. The Civil War Day-by-Day. (Doubleday, 1971)
  • Moore, Frank, editor. The Rebellion Record. (11 volumes, 1873)
  • Nevins, Allan, James I. Robertson and Bell I. Wiley. Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography (2 vols., 1965)
  • Woodworth, Steven E., editor. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research (Greenwood Press, 1996)

LIBRARIES AND MUSEUMS: Within travelling distance from the general southeastern Pennsylvania region, these institutions not only have specialized libraries on the Civil War, but also own collections of diaries, letters, and other papers.

  • Gettysburg National Military Park (Gettysburg): 717-334-1124
  • Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) 215-732-6200: numerous manuscript collections of Civil War figures, especially George G. Meade and Salmon P. Chase
  • Library of Congress/Manuscripts Division (Washington) 202-707-5387 - The LOC has published a separate guide to its Civil War holdings, Civil War Manuscripts: A Guide to the Collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, John R. Sellers, editor (1986)
  • Museum of the Confederacy (Richmond): 804-649-1861
  • National Archives (Washington): Military Reference Branch 202-501-5390
  • National Civil War Museum (Harrisburg) 717-260-1861
  • Temple University (Philadelphia): Charles L. Blockson African-American Collection 215-204-6632
  • United States Army Military History Institute (Carlisle): archives 717-245-3601
    Two of the most important collections of manuscripts and papers on the Confederacy are located outside our immediate travel zone, but they do respond to specific research requests for copies of materials.
  • William R. Perkins Library, Duke University (Durham): 919-660-5822. There is a published guide to the collection, by Richard C. Davis and Linda A. Miller, Guide to the Catalogued Collections in the Manuscript Department of the William R. Perkins Library at Duke University (1980).
  • Wilson Library Manuscript Department, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill): 919-962-1345. They, too, have a published guide to their collection, by Susan Blosser and Clyde N. Wilson, The Southern Historical Collection: A Guide to Manuscripts (1970).

3. Using the InterNet for Civil War Research
The InterNet is often regarded as the ultimate research tool, although people tend to think this way more because of its ease of access than for the abundance of genuinely useful material available there. In general, the great mass of stuff turned up by a search of "American Civil War" on the Net is either junk or trivia. This will probably change, as serious Civil War libraries and museums post materials on the InterNet. For the moment, however, the InterNet will be of only limited use unless you happen to hit paydirt on a particular topic. Among the InterNet resources which really are useful for your research are

  • The American Civil War Homepage
  • The Abraham Lincoln Papers (Library of Congress - go to "American Memory")
  • Archives USA
  • The Congressional Globe (Complete text of debates and proceedings in Congress - go to the Library of Congress website and click on "American Memory")
  • The Southern Newspaper Collection (Center for American History, University of Texas)
  • HarpWeek (full text of Harper's Weekly for the Civil War years)

4. Civil War Era Newspapers
There is no better way to take the pulse of the Civil War 'home front' than through its newspapers. Innovations in printing and paper-making introduced in the 1820s and 1830s made it possible for the number of daily newspapers in the United States to grow from 65 to 138 by 1850. The key newspapers of the Civil War era were (in the North) the New York Tribune, New York Herald, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia North American, Washington National Intelligencer, Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, Washington National Republican, and Washington Star, and (in the Confederacy) the Richmond Enquirer, Richmond Whig, Charleston Mercury, Atlanta Constitution, and New Orleans Bee. All of these newspapers are available as microfilm, on Inter-Library Loan, from the Library of Congress and other places.