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Ralph's Easy Guide to
Civil War History

What Did You Do in the War, Grandpa?

Unless grandpa or his soldiering buddy wrote a diary, you're going to be reading about what his unit did. Histories have been written about many of the regiments on both sides. Periodicals may have articles about individual regiments. General histories, and histories of individual battles and campaigns, are more likely to talk about actions at a higher level of command.

Several regiments made up a brigade. This was the basic unit of general maneuver in a battle - the general would send Colonel Smith's brigade around the left, or up that hill. That general probably commanded several brigades formed into a division. Many histories will discuss battle maneuvers at the division level. Two or three divisions would make up a corps, such as commanded by General Longstreet or General Hancock.

A corps would be part of an army - the units which clashed in major battles. The federals named their armies after rivers - Army of the Potomac, Army of the Cumberland. Confederate armies were named geographically - Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee. These practices carried over into the naming of battles - federals referred to watercourses such as Bull Run and Antietam Creek, while confederates named the same battles after nearby towns - Manassas and Sharpsburg.

It will be very helpful to learn the commanders of the various levels of organization. Often the commander's name, and not the unit, will appear in the index of a history.

I know when, but I don't know where

If you have a date when your soldier was killed, or was wounded, or got a medal for bravery, you'll want to look in one of the day by day histories.

I start with "The Civil War Day by Day - An Almanac 1861 - 1865," by E. B. Long with Barbara Long (Reprint, paperback, New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, original pub. Douleday, 1971), ISBN 0-306-80255-4.

Next, I'll look in "The Civil War Years - A Day-by-Day Chronicle of the Life of a Nation," by Robert E. Denney (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1992), ISBN 0-8069-8519-4.

Who, what, where, or when was that?

Look it up in Mark M. Boatner III's "The Civil War Dictionary - Revised Edition" (Reprint, Paperback, New York: Vintage Books, 1991, orig. pub. Rev. Ed. New York: McKay, 1988), ISBN 0-679-73392-2 (pbk.)

Tell me about that battle

There's probably a book, or several, about every individual battle. If there's a regimental history, it will include stories about all of the battles the unit fought in.

Without those, I start on my bookshelf with one of the four volumes of "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" (Reprint, Seacaucus, NJ: Castle, 1993, orig. pub. 1887) ISBN 0-89009-569-8. This set contains descriptions of all of the major battles and campaigns, written by the field commanders, usually from both sides. There are tables of organization of the armies for each clash, where you can find out what brigade and division and corps your soldier's regiment was a part of. This is really a useful set to have around - recently, major book store chains have offerred it for around $50.

Tell me everything!

In the 1880s, the government published all of the field reports and correspondence in their possession, in 128 volumes, including a general index. Here you'll find the reports filed after the battles by unit commanders on both sides, as well as more mundane reports and correspondence about units on station and repositioning. This massive collection is known as "War of the Rebellion - Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies," or "The Official Records," or simply, "The O. R." Any major public or university library should have a set. Now it's available on CD-Rom, with a search engine - I've seen it advertised for under $90.

What was it like, grandpa?

Well, it wasn't all fightin' and shootin'. The army has always been an institution to hurry up and wait. You can read about what grandpa's daily life as a soldier was like. Depending on grandpa, you might start with Bell Irvin Wiley's "The Life of Johnny Reb - The Common Soldier of the Confederacy" (Reprint, paperback, LSU Press, 1992, orig. pub. 1943), ISBN 0-8071-0475-2 (paper), or the same author's "The Life of Billy Yank - The Common Soldier of the Union" (Reprint, paperback, LSU Press, 1992, orig. pub. 1952), ISBN 0-8071-0476-0 (paper).

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