Unit Histories (Regimental Histories) and Personal Narratives
The men who fought in the Civil War never forgot it. Indeed, the history of how people remembered the war is as complex as the history of the war itself. Indicative of this complexity are the staggering large numbers of histories of individual Civil War units of both sides. Writing and publishing these unit histories started almost immediately after the war, usually at the hands of veterans of the particular unit. Most of the unit histories were written at the regimental level, hence the term “regimental history”. For decades after the war, regimental histories appeared on the book market and started to shape the historiography of not only the overall course of the conflict, but of its principal battles. In modern times, both scholarly and popular historians have taken a hand at writing regimental histories. Many such modern works are based upon the Official Record.
Early regimental histories, however, indeed constitute primary sources when and if they were written by veterans of the unit or contained excerpts or quotations of their testimony. Yet, like all primary sources, they vary in trustworthiness, objectivity and detail and therefore vary in usefulness to the modern-day scholarly historian. Some regimental histories are not histories at all in the modern sense of the word, but mere collections of reprinted unit rosters, muster rolls, etc. Some merely reproduce the same unit reports of their unit that are found in the Official Record. Needless to say, these kind of regimental histories are not of much use to you in the present assignment. On the other hand, some of the early regimental histories contained a great deal of personal reminiscences not found in other primary sources. These can provide valuable supplementary primary source material that amplifies or even contradicts evidence from the OR.
Sometimes participants in the Civil War wrote not about their unit’s history but simply recorded their own reminiscences and memories. Historians must use these kinds of primary sources with care. Memories can fade. Even if a person consciously seeks to avoid distorting his or her memories of an important or harrowing event, recounting the experience years later is rarely the same as recording it at the time it happened. Historians should nevertheless NOT ignore memoirs, as they are indeed still eye-witness accounts. Rather, the research but simply scrutinize them and make a reasoned subjective judgement about how much faith to put in the evidence from this kind of primary source.
How to find and locate Regimental Histories and Personal narratives.
The USMA Library holds many histories of Union Civil War regiments in print form. In addition, a great many are also available in online form through the HathiTrust Digital Library.
An excellent starting point for identifying regimental histories and personal narratives is a published bibliographical guide to sources on Antietam:
This book is available in the 4th Floor Reserve Room in Jefferson Library
Chapter 6 covers Personal Narratives of Participants
Chapter 7 covers Union unit histories
Chapter 8 covers Confederate unit histories
Hartwig’s book is an example of what historians and bibliographers call an Annotated Bibliography; that is Hartwig does not merely identify and list sources on his subject (the Battle of Antietam); he actually offers short statements of evaluation and analysis about each source’s potential use to scholars. Yet Hartwig’s opinions are only those of one bibliographer; even if he says a source is less than useful you may wish to look at it anyway and judge for yourself.