Nashville, 1864. From Library of Congress.
Chances are, the Civil War Battle of Nashville was omitted from your high school history books. Maybe you never knew that a large battle was fought here, involving two major armies and hundreds of thousands of men. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the battle and have read several general works, but crave more detail. With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville approaching on Dec. 15-16, now is a good time to explore an essential Civil War resource.
The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, more commonly known as the Official Records or even more simply, the “OR” is a treasure trove of detail. First published in 1880, this multi-volume set contains thousands of battle reports, orders, and accounts of activities of both Union and Confederate armies, from all geographic areas.
Civil War buffs can get a “boots on the ground” perspective of the action straight from the commanders’ pens. Local historians can learn more about a skirmish that took place for control of a nearby railroad bridge, or guerrilla activity in the countryside. Genealogists can learn about great-grandpa’s regiment – or on rare occasions, even find him mentioned by name!
The ORs are also available online and are keyword searchable. Although their online format makes access convenient, it can also be problematic when a search provides an enormous quantity of matches that are difficult to sort through. Using the hard copy books, with their indices, can at times be a more efficient way to find the information that you seek.
Organization of the Official Records
Let’s break it down into its main method of arrangement.
There are four “Series” to the OR’s.
Series I. Military Operations (which contains the largest quantity of material)
Series II. Prisoners of War
Series III. Miscellaneous Union correspondence
Series IV. Miscellaneous Confederate correspondence
After identifying the Series, you locate the Volume. Note that Volumes sometimes may be broken down into subsequent “Parts.” Think of a “Part” as literally being a part of a Volume that was simply too big to be bound together in one giant book.
So, with this basic orientation, let’s work through an example.
Step 1 – Consult “General Index”
Begin by consulting the “General Index” – the last book in the entire set. Say I want to learn more about Samuel J. Churchill. The reference in the index is: “I, 45.”
This is referring to Series I, Volume 45.
Step 2 – Consult back-of-the-book index in each Part of the Volume of interest
Knowing that there may be multiple Parts to a Volume, check all indices in the back of the book for all Parts.
In the case of Series I, Volume 45, there are two Parts. This means I’m going to check the index in two separate books.
In the index of Part I, I find an entry for an otherwise unidentified “Churchill.” This might be of interest, and should be pursued, but for the sake of my example, I’m only going to investigate direct mentions of Samuel J. Churchill. There is an entry for him in Part I, directing me to page 492.
I’ll also want to check the Part II index, because there may be references to him there as well. In this instance, there is not an entry for him in Part II, so that makes our job simple.
Let’s check out that reference to him in Part I.
Step 3 – Follow the reference given in the back-of-the-book index to the appropriate page.
Let’s go to page 492 in Part I.
Here, we find an account of Corpl. Samuel J. Churchill’s heroic actions at the Battle of Nashville:
Corpl. Samuel J. Churchill… commanding one gun detachment [of Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery] is highly commended for distinguished bravery displayed on the first day. At a time when two of the enemy’s batteries opened upon his guns, compelling for a short time the men of his detachment to seek the protection of the ground, this young soldier stood manfully up to his work, and for some minutes worked his gun alone.
With further research in other sources, we might soon learn that Churchill was later awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897. This report in the OR provided key evidence, and was instrumental in his receiving the award.
The ORs are an essential source for any type of detailed Civil War research. Convenient indices provide a step-by-step process to obtain detailed information on individuals, officers, regiments, battles, and even small skirmishes at tiny crossroads villages.
Two smaller works can provide assistance in using the ORs:
A User’s Guide to the Official Records… by Alan C. and Barbara A. Aimone provides a solid overview of how the published OR’s came about, how to use them, and a large bibliography.
Lawrence M. Jarratt has made it easier for all Tennesseans to know more about their particular community in the Civil War. Although compiled in 1986, long before the internet and keyword searching, his A Complete County by County Guide to Civil War Battles, Actions, Engagements, Skirmishes, Affairs, Reconaissances, Expeditions, Scouts and Camps in Tennessee makes it possible for one to easily find accounts in the Official Records about actions in particular locales.