Military Research

How to

Make (a) military history


Target official military records.


U.S. history includes a dozen major wars and a variety of other military actions. To make this subject manageable, History Detectives will focus on the Civil War, because of the historical significance, and because there are records for combatants on both sides. Much of this material may be applied to other U.S. conflicts.

Over 3.8 million men (and 400 to 700 women) fought in the Civil War. There are millions of documents associated with the War and the combatants. But not all resources are of value to the wary researcher.

Libraries and bookstores offer countless books and magazines about Civil War history, but the quality of content ranges from authoritative analysis to misleading speculation. Always evaluate the motives and bias of the author(s), and seek corroboration from reliable sources. Signs of a responsible author include acknowledgements, a bibliography, and footnotes referring to primary sources. If your library doesn't have the book you need, ask about an interlibrary loan. A growing number of full-text books and other publications are available via the Internet, but there is even more reason to be skeptical when you gather information online.

The Internet has made it easier to investigate a variety of military records, but you may not be able to find the specific information you need online. Obstacles to putting military records online include the sheer volume of documents and technological constraints. (Privacy laws further restrict access to modern military records.)

Many government offices and organizations are trustees of Civil War records. To obtain copies of specific records, you will need to learn which agencies hold which records. Many agencies will expect you to submit a written request for records, sometimes using special forms.

The historical military records that you are likely to want are held by the National Archives. But it is difficult to generalize about the physical location of specific documents. There are 41 National Archives facilities, located in 20 states and the District of Columbia. There are no absolute rules about where documents are located. The good news is that official published histories and scholarly reference books often contain detailed information about the location of their source documents.

As for the locations of soldiers, never depend on regimental documents to place an individual at the scene of a battle. Muster Calls and Roll Calls are not reliable because a soldier may have been absent due to special assignment, illness, desertion, or temporary duty. Always look for strong corroborating evidence such as a record of injury, mention by name in the Record of Events, or one-of-a-kind records such as the receipt for a horse killed in action.

History Detectives Tips

  • Don't mix data from reliable sources (e.g., government sites) with data from sites that need corroboration (e.g., personal Web pages).
  • Keep a legend or 'key' of abbreviations, symbols and shorthand you use during research. Months later, you'll still know what you meant!
  • When you download Internet files, immediately check the assigned file names. Rename files with obscure titles. Use common sense names.
  • When you hit a brick wall, ask for help. Librarians and archivists are research-and-resource professionals. They know tricks that may help you.

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