14 November 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 7 comments

I’m often asked about how I parse out sources for my writing projects, so I thought I would answer the question in a two-part series.

In this first part, I will address how I choose sources to use in my writing. Tomorrow, I will address what I do with those sources once they’ve been selected.

With that in mind there are a few general rules that apply to the selection of sources.

1. Primary sources are always preferable to secondary sources. I try to only use secondary sources for background material if I can help it. A good example is a biographical sketch of someone who plays a role in the story, such as those included in Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue or Generals in Gray. I do this because I don’t want to be tainted by someone else’s interpretation of these events, and prefer to figure out what happened from the words of the participants.

2. The closer in time to the events described, the more dependable the source. Human memory is an imperfect thing, and the passage of time means that people’s perceptions and memories change, perhaps influenced by what others have written about the same events. Some of my very favorite sources are soldier letters published in hometown newspapers within a few days of the events described. These correspondents, usually writing under anonyms, knew that their friends and family would be reading their reports. Consequently, they tend to be very accurate accounts of things, written within a few days of the events described, while all is still fresh. The least reliable accounts are those written sixty and seventy years after the events and drawn entirely from memory.

3. I prefer letters and diaries to post-war memoirs. Again, letters and diaries are written closer in time to the events in question and tend to be more reliable. The leading repository for this type of material, which is unquestionably the starting point for this sort of research, is the United States Army Military History Institute at the Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, PA. USAMHI has an immense collection of manuscript material, and is the best place to begin. The Library of Congress and many universities also have large collections of this type of material, and local historical societies can also be good sources.

4. The Official Records of War of the Rebellion, commonly referred to as the “OR’s”, are a compilation of 128 volumes of the official records, including correspondence, of the Union and Confederate armies. Although actually published more than twenty years after the war, these books represent a transcription of the actual records, and is THE starting place for all Civil War research. Usually written by the participants within days or weeks of the events described, these reports are crucial to understanding what happened. In addition, Broadfoot Publishing has published a 100 volume Supplement to the OR’s that contains additional material that should have been included in the OR’s but wasn’t. The problem with this set is that it is astronomically expensive, and most can’t afford it. I bought the first twelve volumes and canceled my subscription. The rest is not useful enough to me to make it worth my while. The original OR’s are available on CD-ROM. Broadfoot offers a CD-ROM version for the outrageous price of $600. I don’t recommend it. Another company publishes a version for $69.95, which is perfectly good (I use it myself).

5. Contemporary newspaper accounts can be very good, but keep in mind that the correspondents who wrote those reports often had agendas of their own, and these accounts can be unreliable.

6. Official governmental records not included in the OR’s–such as the service and pension records of soldiers who served, or the regimental books and records of those units that made up the armies–can be real treasure troves. Often, Medal of Honor files contain tremendous amounts of useful material. I spent years researching a new regimental history of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, which is nearly done. I have found any number of really useful things in the pension and service files of these soldiers that simply is not available anywhere else.

7. Veterans’ group records can be good sources, too. As an example, there was a group called the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. In order to belong, a veteran had to have been a commissioned officer for the Union. When the comrades, as they were called, died, their local chapters (called commanderies) published detailed obituaries of them that often contain useful information that’s not available elsewhere.

8. One of my very favorite sources is a veterans’ newspaper called The National Tribune, which published from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, when the name was changed to Stars and Stripes. The Tribune published tons of veterans’ accounts and is an invaluable but often underutilized source. Some of the accounts are very reliable and some are very unreliable. It all depends on what you’re looking for, or what you intend to use them for. However, the Tribune is hard to find–I only know of a couple of complete sets of it on microfilm–and it’s not indexed, so it can be cumbersome and frustrating to use. Old friend Rick Sauers is wrapping up the compilation of an index to the Trib that will make it much easier to use. The Philadelphia Weekly Times also published similar articles, as did the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Charleston Mercury. These can be treasure troves, but be careful about their reliability.

This is how I find the material that makes up my work. Tomorrow, I will address the culling out process by which I determine what’s worth using and what isn’t.

Scridb filter


  1. Mon 14th Nov 2005 at 1:05 pm


    As an amateur historian, I’ve always been interested in how authors go about this process. Thanks for taking the time to lay it out in some detail.

    Brett S.

  2. Mon 14th Nov 2005 at 2:25 pm


    You’re very welcome. More tomorrow on what I do once I gather this stuff up and how I then go through the process of deciding what to use.


  3. Paul Taylor
    Mon 14th Nov 2005 at 7:55 pm


    Solid advice, as always. For the post-war Confederate perspective, researchers should also consult the Southern Historical Society Papers. They are available on CD-Rom and are described as follows by one vendor: “Other than the Official Records, this 52-volume set is the most important printed source for the Confederacy. Containing everything from congressional minutes to personal reminiscences, it is indispensable for any study in depth of the Confederacy. The Papers were issued from 1876-1959.”

    Confederate Veteran magazine also exists and can provide some good primary source material. It had a 40-year run from 1893 – 1932 as is described by one bibliographic source as “the largest collection of personal experiences, anecdotes, battle footnotes, tall tales and biographical sketches for the Confederate side. . .”

    But as you point out, researchers should use caution with some of the accounts in these sets, especially those written in later years. By then, many of the veterans were possibly confusing the way things occurred with the way they WISHED they had occurred!!


  4. Mon 14th Nov 2005 at 11:27 pm


    I agree with your assessments of these two sources. However, the SHSP is stuff that was clearly written with an agenda, which is promoting the Lost Cause. Consequently, I tend to be extremely judicious in my use of material from the SHSP.

    As for the Confederate Veteran, it’s an excellent and wide-ranging source. However, and as you point out, many–if not most–of the articles from CV were written many, many years after the end of the Civil War and have the issues of reliability associated with them that I noted in today’s post.

    Thanks for adding these two sources, which are definitely worthy of inclusion.


  5. Tue 15th Nov 2005 at 9:03 pm

    Since you didn’t mention it in your post, I’ll add that the OR is also available electronically–and for free–at the Making of America website at Cornell:


  6. Tue 15th Nov 2005 at 9:05 pm


    Excellent point. I had forgotten about that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


  7. Thu 02nd Feb 2006 at 1:17 pm

    Personally I agree with you on most of your opinions, this time is no exception. Keep it up! 😉

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