Friday, December 03, 2010

A few thoughts on writing a regimental history.

Y’all are probably tired of me talking and writing about this, but I’m going to beat this horse for one or two more posts.

What kind of resources does a person need to write a regimental history? I would say that the answer to this question covers a broad range ofsubjects. This list is not in any order.

First, a collection and then a study of period manuals. From Hardee’s Infantry Tactics, to US or CS Army regulations. Some folks will try and tell you that you should look at other Infantry tactics manuals beside Hardees, but don’t be fooled. Unless you find someone writing saying that he was using something else, use Hardee's. It was the overwhelming choice among Southern Regiments. I also have several military handbooks, military law books, and dictionaries (all 1860 reprints) that I have acquired over the years. Some of these are online. Reading and studying these manuals will help greatly with understanding what they are talking about in the Official Records.

Second, spend time with a good reenacting group. Borrow the clothes and other gear and spend the weekend being drilled and learning what a soldier would have learned in the 1860s – how to stand, how to march, how to load and fire the weapon. Go a mile in their shoes (or maybe without) carrying what they carried. I would probably recommend a living history over a small reenactment. Now, if you can attend a national event (battle reenactment), do that. Being in line with five or six thousand other reenactor soldiers will definitely give you a different perspective.

Third, visit the battlefield. If you are writing about a regiment that fought in a lot of battles, this will be a challenge. I learned this through my work on the 37th NCT – they were involved in 35+ battles and skirmishes during the war. I went to all of these save one: Ox Hill. Not much left but modern houses. The same is true for the 58th NCT. I went to all of their fields of battle save some of the stuff when they were in the works at Atlanta. I did not visit this area for the same reasons as I skipped Ox Hill--covered by houses--and for a few events, I’m still not sure where they were. Studying maps and walking in the spots where they fought will help with your narrative. Just make sure you take lots of pictures and corresponding notes.

Fourth, books, books, books. For the eastern theater, there are so many good books on the different battles and campaigns. Reading these will help give you a good grounding on what took place. For the regimentals that I have written, I often read the secondary sources, take notes on the parts of battles they were involved in, and then compare this to the primary sources. Sometimes they match up. Other times, they do not. When they don’t match, I figure out why and then write an endnote about how why they don’t, how what the soldiers wrote disagrees with what other historians have written. I have an article, which has been accepted by one of the Civil War magazines, that largely disagrees with what Gordon Rhea wrote in his book on the battle of Spotsylvania Court House regarding the role of Lane’s brigade. The article is based upon a post-war letter written by James H. Lane that adds new details to the events. I surely wish this would appear in print. Also, do not neglect books that explore the supporting elements of the army, like books on military justice, the provost marshal’s department, and chaplains.

Fifthly, look everywhere for sources. Yes, the traditional places are a given: libraries, museums, and archives. But, do not neglect local historical societies, and especially the family history section at local libraries. So many times you can find a letter, (or ten or twenty), that great grandpap wrote home that got passed down that someone included in a family history book. In my history of the 58th NCT, I found several letters from the Bailey family in a set of Bailey family history books. The same is true with a letter from a McBride in the 58th NCT. It was Volume 1 of the Heritage of Watauga County. Yes, it is time consuming.

Sixth, use the internet. There are numerous books, newspapers, and collections that have good, documentable information on what you might be working on. Yes I know, some it might not be true. For the longest time there was a picture of flag reportedly belonging to the 58th NCT. It was a Hardee’s Corps flag (blue field with a white disk) with crossed cannons. For a variety of reasons, this is not a flag that the 58th NCT would have received. Also, try and use a resource like WorldCat to look for information. When I was working on the 37th NCT book, a search of the words “37th North Carolina” did not pull up the letters of Maj. Jackson L. Bost. However, I when I went through and typed in every single officer into a WorldCat search, it did pull up Bost's letters at Duke University. There are several war-time letters which were of importance, especially in the last year of the war. Also, do not be afraid to use family surname groups like rootsweb and genforum to solicit information. I have ten sets of letters listed as “private collections” in the bibliography of the book on the 58th NCT that largely came from internet searches.

Lastly, find a couple of readers. Get someone who has a really good understanding of the War to read the text, and then get someone who is a master of grammar to proof the text before sending it to the publisher. No book is perfect, but do not expect a publisher to catch things. One of the greatest complaints you will see in reviews today (outside of the cost of a book), is poor proofreading. And it is something that can be fixed. There are companies and individuals that do this. If funds are tight, hire grad students from a university’s English grad department. They’ll be happy to have something to put on their resumes.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Excellent pointers. I heartily concur. During my research on Ramseur's brigade, an internet "rabbit trail" led me to some letters located in a Georgia historical society. You just never know where useful items will be found.