We often look things up in the Official Records, but have we ever considered the enormous effort spent in compiling them? – Jonah
The Official Records
An excerpt from The Amazing Civil War by Webb Garrison
Surprisingly, within seven months of the surrender, thousands of reports, letters, dispatches, and telegrams had been sorted and arranged for publication. When this first large section of what became The war of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR) was ready for the printer, there was no money available to publish it. During an entire decade in which more and more military documents were processed by clerks, Congress dawdled. By the time an initial appropriation for publication was made, a staff under the direction of Col. E. D. Townsend had processed enough material to fill tens of thousands of printed pages.
On March 4, 1873, Wilson was sworn into office as Ulysses S. Grant's vice president. In that office he used his influence to accelerate the lagging project he had launched a dozen years earlier. With the leadership of the gigantic project turned over to Capt. Robert N. Scon, forty-seven volumes were set in type by the end of 1877.
Today that accomplishment may not sound impressive, but at the time, barely a generation after hostilities had ceased, it was almost unbelievable. Clerks had deciphered hundreds of styles of handwriting, ranging from formal reports written from luxurious headquarters in splendid copperplate to crudely scrawled battlefield memoranda. Working without the new device beginning to be offered to the business world as "the type-writer," detailed indexes were generated for the forty-seven volumes. In 1880 Congress authorized an edition of ten thousand copies of each existing volume. These began coming from the press five years before the Linotype machine was first put into commercial use in New York.
Pouring from the U.S. Government Printing Office in a steady stream, 127 immense black-bound volumes were created, containing practically all military material from 1861 to 1865 that was then known to exist. Five volumes were devoted to the Atlanta campaign while both Vicksburg and Gettysburg filled three volumes, and an October 2, 1862, skirmish near Columbia, Missouri, merited half a page. In 1901, this project-considered to be finished at the time-climaxed with a 1,248-page general index that was accompanied by an official atlas of the Civil War.
Including the atlas, the Official Records runs to just under 140,000 pages that cost taxpayers the staggering total of $2.8 million-equivalent to perhaps forty times that sum in today's dollars. Entire sets were sent free of charge to most public libraries that simply requested it. The fact that a set required twenty-one feet of shelf space meant that many libraries-some of them relatively large-had to decline the free offer.
Many users found it inconvenient that the 127 volumes were divided into four separately numbered series and that numerous numbered volumes were divided into two to five parts. This cumbersome system has been largely overcome by the current practice of citing serial numbers, such as 79, in lieu of Series 1, Vol. 39, part 3. Material originally designed for use in Series 1, Vol. 54, parts 1 and 2, went elsewhere. As a result, serial numbers 112 and 113 were never produced.
The index alone (serial 130) is a monument to years of hard work. In an era when indexes were prepared from handwritten entries on index cards, OR 130 was packed with more than 146,000 listings. Most of them are personal and geographical names and listings of military units from each of the thirty-four states that existed when the conflict began and from war-born West Virginia. Each entry in the index refers to the volume or volumes in which references are to be found. The index of a typical nine hundred-page volume runs to about one hundred pages.
Indexes of individual volumes include thousands of full names of persons whose surnames only appear in the text. By the time the general index was ready, compilers had discovered approximately eighteen hundred errors in volumes whose serial numbers ran from 1 through 129. Indexes of individual volumes refer users to such errors by the use of a plus symbol at the end of an affected entry. Clumsy as this system appears to current users, it was the product of tens of thousands of hours of diligent work.
To some who had worked full time for years on the gargantuan project, it must have seemed that the record was as complete as it could be when serial 130 came off the press in 1901. At least a decade earlier, however, U.S. Navy officials complained that naval activity had been ignored in the compilation of the massive record of the war. In response, Congress authorized publication of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (NOR) on July 31, 1894. Since masses of source material had already been sorted and made ready for printers, the first volume came off the press before the end of the year. It launched a second spree of publication that stretched for more than thirty years, during which thirty thousand printed pages and another comprehensive index were produced.
The final NOR volume came off the press in 1917. By that time, researchers had uncovered significant caches of Confederate material not known when the OR was completed. Authorization to publish a second series under NOR came while Josephus Daniels was serving as secretary of the navy.
During a period of five years, three large volumes of Confederate material were issued, two of which were almost entirely devoted to naval matters. The third volume was 1,336 pages long and filled with such things as proclamations and appointments of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate State Department correspondence with diplomatic agents. Since the OR was completed in 1901, it offers no hint that immense quantities of material dealing with Confederate actions on land are included in NOR. The index volume, last of the series and comparatively small at 458 pages, was issued in 1927.
Together, the OR and the NOR constitute by far the largest project that the U.S. Government Printing Office had undertaken up to that point. Part of the amazement that every user finds here stems from the fact that when a search is made for information about a given person or place, relevant passages are virtually guaranteed to yield gems of information that were not sought specifically.
Tom Broadfoot of Wilmington, North Carolina, issued from the publishing house that bears his name a modern reprint of the entire OR slightly more than a century after the war ended. In the process, he realized that substantial primary materials about actions on land were not known when the massive set was produced. As a result, in 1994 he launched a multivolume Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (SOR). The diaries, letters, newspaper reports, and other source material offered here add substantially to the government-published set.
Logically, the accumulation and publication of enough supplementary material to fill about 10,000 pages in addition to the existing 170,000 pages issued in Washington should end the saga of the OR. That it does not is due to the way in which we have come to consider desktop computers as indispensable as telephones. In recent years at least three publishers set out to make the OR available on compact disk. In addition to accelerating the speed with which searches can be performed, a CD-ROM is not limited to the personal, geographical, and unit names that dominate the indexes of the printed version of the OR.
During four years in which Americans fought Americans with ever-increasing fury, their experiences-almost wholly confined to battlefields-generated a publishing program like no other. Using methods and equipment that today seem primitive, hundreds of people put together an estimated one million words that keep every minor clash and major struggle alive for future generations.