Thursday, December 12, 2013

Looking for primary sources

In 2004, Robert K. Krick reviewed my first book, The Thirty-seventh North Carolina Troops, a review that appeared in America's Civil War. In this review, Krick wrote: Michael C. Hardy's The Thirty-seventh North Carolina Troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2003, $45) mines such hidden riches in gratifying detail. The author unearthed dozens of accounts, from a wide range of locations, by the soldiers in a regiment that fought steadily at center stage throughout America's Civil War."  I have always believed that this is one of the highest honors ever paid to a piece of my work.

So how do you find these "dozens of accounts, from a wide range of locations?" You do some serious digging.

The big libraries are the easiest. If you are working on a Confederate regimental history, you need to research the collections of the Southern Historical Society at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Perkins Library at Duke, and the North Carolina Archives in Raleigh. If you are working on a regimental history from another state, you still need to look at Duke and at UNC-Chapel Hill. These are the best collections around. For the collections at Universities, go to your local library (or use NCLive) and look at a database called WorldCat. You will need to do a subject search on your regiment. That should produce a list of materials at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and other institutions. You can also use the MARS database online from the North Carolina archives. All of that being said, don't limit yourself by a subject search. Also search for persons, like the names of the field and staff of each regiment. For instance, when I was working on the 37th NCT book, I discovered they had the letters of Major Bost, but his service in the 37th NCT was not listed on the subject search. And they were good, 1864 letters. It can be difficult to find 1864 materials. It is extremely important that you have as much of this material on hand before you begin writing. You don't want to have to go back and write material because you found something new. It is also unavoidable. I was humming along on the 37th NCT project, about half-way finished, when I discovered the letters of Dr. John B. Alexander at UNC-Charlotte. Alexander wrote his wife about once a week from late 1861 through mid-1863. This was an incredible find, and I was forced to go back and re-write portions of the book I had already finished. In all of my travels, I have never really found an institution that was not helpful. That being said, keep this in mind. Most institutions will not allow photocopies of their material. You will need to take a digital camera and photograph the items. It was not always this way, but it is now.

On your check list should be:
Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill

Perkins Library, Duke University

The United States Army Military History Center

Museum of the Confederacy

University of Virginia

National Archives/Library of Congress

(and state archives)

So, those are the big institutions. You also need to visit every community ibrary and local historical society for places that had a company or large body of men in the regiment. You can try to email them and ask what they have, but library staffs are stretched thin these days. The person answering the email might not be familiar with the local history sections. Some libraries have great local history collections - the public libraries in Burke, Iredell, Wilkes, and Rowan come to mind. Sometimes you will find a local history librarian who can help you with your search, but often, you will need to jump in yourself.
County histories might have information on the enlistment of local companies, or, even better, copies of war-time letters. Occasionally, you will find a Civil War history of a particular area, but these are rare. Some libraries have files of newspaper clipping related to the war in that area. These can be (but not always) treasures that need to be mined. Probably the greatest un-mined resource, and the most daunting, are family histories. At the minimum, you need to look at the men who served as officers and see if there are hidden letters and/or reminiscences in these books and file folders. You may need to look through 30 or 40 folders to find one little piece, but it may be a good piece. A personal story - I was recently at a public library and was cruising through published family histories, very carefully putting them back on thes helves. A well-meaning librarian walked in and asked me not to re-shelve the books. I asked her if she was sure, and she said yes, that that was their policy, showed me that there were signs to that effect, and implied that I probably could not read. Ok I said, and I continued my search, not re-shelving the books. I thumbed through two entire book cases of family histories, looking for letters, and I found a few. I wonder, when she returned, she regretted that, as I left them all on three different tables.
An additional place to look are the publications of local historical societies. At times, they will publish letters from local soldiers.
A final type of place on this list are the National Battlefield Parks. If you are researching something in the western theater, check with the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Park. If your project is in the Eastern Theater, the offices at Richmond and Fredericksburg have incredible resources. I always try to take things to share - letters that I have uncovered that they might not have.
Part two of this discussion will cover online resources.


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