What makes a good regimental history?

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What makes a good regimental? And, how do you define “regimental”? Some folks place letters, diaries, and reminisces in the category of a regimental history. Some include brigade and divisional histories as well. Company-level histories? For me, a regimental history is about a regiment – a whole regiment. They can be written by a veteran or a historian of more recent times. Company histories are only marginally regimental histories, and works focused on anything over a brigade fall into a different category (there are very few division-level histories). A good regimental history, for me, has three parts. First, it must be very detailed. I have books on my shelves that are called regimentals but which are nothing more than compilations of official records and hodgepodge rosters. They are not good regimentals. A good historian is going to try and look everyplace, from local libraries, big archives, online, old newspapers, anyplace to try and fish out details. Second, they must be well documented, preferably with footnotes (although some publishers prefer end notes). Those sources allow us who dig deeper to see where a regimental historian got his or her information. Third, someone writing a regimental history must be well grounded in not only the war, but how a regiment worked, from enlistment to burial details, and a score of subjects in between. I once read a regimental that stated “times were so bad, the soldiers only got paid once every two months”; um, that was regulation…

That’s my list. I ask again: what makes a good regimental history?
 

CivilWarTalk

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That's probably a can of worms! But a fun one to discuss!

So, I like to start with a profile, as with so many things I write, so let's see...

When I was running the CivilWarWiki.net I used the following fields to make a "basic" Regimental History Profile...
  • Unit Name
  • "also known as"
  • Unit Type (US / CS, Infantry/Artillery/Etc, Regular or Volunteer)
  • Recruitment from City/State
  • Mustered In Dates
  • Names of all Unit Commanders with Dates
  • Known Equipment / Armament
  • Mustered Out Dates
  • Overall Casualty Figures
  • Full Dyer's Regimental History / Service Record
  • A List of Reference Books, Links to Google or Other Online Books are Great Also
I would supplement that with any photos that I could find. From there you'd at least know what you are writing about, and how important the unit was, how much history you have to work with. Is it even work "writing" anything more.... I hope that gives you a few ideas.

Feel free to cherry pick, or do your own thing, these are just suggestions!
 
Last edited:

Championhilz

First Sergeant
Joined
Mar 18, 2011
Location
Clinton, Mississippi
What makes a good regimental? And, how do you define “regimental”? Some folks place letters, diaries, and reminisces in the category of a regimental history. Some include brigade and divisional histories as well. Company-level histories? For me, a regimental history is about a regiment – a whole regiment. They can be written by a veteran or a historian of more recent times. Company histories are only marginally regimental histories, and works focused on anything over a brigade fall into a different category (there are very few division-level histories). A good regimental history, for me, has three parts. First, it must be very detailed. I have books on my shelves that are called regimentals but which are nothing more than compilations of official records and hodgepodge rosters. They are not good regimentals. A good historian is going to try and look everyplace, from local libraries, big archives, online, old newspapers, anyplace to try and fish out details. Second, they must be well documented, preferably with footnotes (although some publishers prefer end notes). Those sources allow us who dig deeper to see where a regimental historian got his or her information. Third, someone writing a regimental history must be well grounded in not only the war, but how a regiment worked, from enlistment to burial details, and a score of subjects in between. I once read a regimental that stated “times were so bad, the soldiers only got paid once every two months”; um, that was regulation…

That’s my list. I ask again: what makes a good regimental history?
Michael, having written a history of the 38th Mississippi Infantry, I think you summed up the requirements for writing a regimental history very well. I wrote my history in the pre-internet era, so it required a great deal of travel and a huge number of letters written to institutions across the United States in search of sources. During the course of my research i traveled all over the state of Mississippi, going to every county where a company of the regiment was raised. I also made a trip to the National Archives to access records that were only available there at the time. A regimental history is a labor of love, and while the financial rewards are low (bordering on nonexistent) the satisfaction level is high on completing a good book.
 

CivilWarTalk

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Oh, one thing I think is missing in Regimentals, and I'm not sure why these aren't included more, maybe I'm just reading older histories.... I am missing reading letters written to the hometown newspaper by the soldiers of the unit. I learned a lot about the units I've been researching reading those accounts, details the regimental books seemed to leave out, also a lot of anecdotes that really made the people back then come alive in a less sterile way.

More of that please....
 
Joined
Aug 2, 2019
Not my strong point, but the good ones list every man who served by name and give some kind of biographical information. The bad ones intentionally leave out the information that the author feels does not reflect well on the regiment. A case in point: Amos Judson wrote a regimental history about the 83rd Pennsylvania, but says in it that he is going to go through the list personally and remove the name of every deserter in the regiment. Since I was reading it looking for information on one of the Andersonville Raiders who had deserted from the 83 PA, I was really quite put out by this....
 
Joined
Aug 27, 2020
Location
North Carolina
Not my strong point, but the good ones list every man who served by name and give some kind of biographical information. The bad ones intentionally leave out the information that the author feels does not reflect well on the regiment. A case in point: Amos Judson wrote a regimental history about the 83rd Pennsylvania, but says in it that he is going to go through the list personally and remove the name of every deserter in the regiment. Since I was reading it looking for information on one of the Andersonville Raiders who had deserted from the 83 PA, I was really quite put out by this....
I have heard (but not personally confirmed) that when the state of Ohio was compiling their regimental volumes, they removed any references to desertion as well.
 
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19thOhio

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The internet sure makes the research and writing or composition much easier. I can't even imagine writing one without today's technology. The Stevens bibliographies for Ohio regiments mentioned in the other thread listed many sources of letters and diaries. Travel to or communications with the sources yielded a lot of material with some travel. Travel to the battle sites adds information, pictures and a sense of what was happening. It also provides pictures to illustrate the history. It helps to have a patient spouse during these excursions.

Chronicling America provides access to hundreds of newspapers of the period to the researcher. It also has a search feature so provide the unit number or a name and material will show up. It may include published letters from home, reports to the home front from soldiers, officers and embedded reporters. I do find it a bit difficult to use. Fortunately our local county library has a period newspaper on microfilm that maintained communications with several area regiments. I simply scanned each issue looking for key words or names, printed it and took it home making a notebook with many, many articles. Often I would see adjacent columns with news from the 13th Ohio. (There's a project for someone, the 13th OVI.) Local papers can provide the pre-war and home experiences and political nature of the communities sending boys and men to the war.

Our local college has the complete Battle Reports set and I was able to bring them home. Several books and websites about the C W, especially the Western theater provided the connecting material as to who, what, when and where involving the regiment. Letters, diaries, etc. of twenty members provided what they saw, thought, experienced, and dreamed about.

Including information as to who was commanding the unit at the regimental, brigade or division level (or the Order of Battle) helps the interested reader place the unit into most any book or website describing any particular battle, action or unit. There are many pictures available from era magazines and newspapers available for little or no cost.

This is a bit wordy but adds some items I think makes a decent regimental history and how to find it.

I would add that a memoir history is not necessarily a good regimental history but can be valuable source of material for the researcher to net into a more complete story of the regiment.
 

Coonewah Creek

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Northern Alabama
I enjoy regimental histories that are both crammed full of first-hand accounts and other primary materials, and those that, probably because of necessity rather than laziness (hopefully) on the part of the author, must take a more removed "third person" approach. Many regiments, especially Confederate ones, simply had few literate members within their ranks. If you're really lucky, you're researching a regiment like the 11th Mississippi that had a company composed entirely of students from the University of Mississippi, the University Greys. If not so fortunate, you work with what you have in trying to weave together a coherent story. No, just a coherent story is still really insufficient. A good regimental history must also somehow capture the regiment's personality. Because a regiment has a character of its own, totally apart from the character of the individuals that comprise it. If the regimental history can do that, I don't really care if it is 50 pages long or 1,000 pages long. If the author can weave a coherent story that captures the regiment's personality, then I think that author has done his job. If the regimental history doesn't capture the personality of the regiment, I don't care how long it is or if it contains every diary, letter, photograph, OR report, and newspaper account that can be found, the author simply hasn't done his job. I suppose that all I'm really suggesting when it comes to the question of "what makes a good regimental;" my answer would be "it depends." Just don't ask me to provide a hard and fast definition to what I mean by "personality." Like the old saying about defining art, all I can say is that I know it when I see it.
 

lelliott19

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I agree with @Coonewah Creek and @CivilWarTalk --- a good regimental combines the bios, official records, letters home, diaries, images, and reminiscences into a tale that shows the personality of the regiment. That means that the author has to study the material and make note of themes that run through the primary sources. I haven't compiled as much numerical data as Coonewah, but I sure envy his ability to interpret data or demonstrate changes over time with those graphs of his. :thumbsup:

The regiment I am working on is the 16th GA. Their first colonel was Howell Cobb who was, you know, pretty famous as far as Confederate leaders go. And that impacted where they were assigned to camp in Richmond; what weapons they were issued; how their regimental flag was presented; their assignments; etc. And each of those things, I opine, impacted the personality of the regiment.

Almost every letter sent home mentions the positive attitude of the regiment - even when faced with difficult circumstances like rampant sickness and deaths from disease. Most every newspaper correspondence mentions 'cheering' - my regiment cheered when they received their guns; when they received orders; when they attacked; when they rested; when their commanders came back; when they got new ones. Just about any time anything happened.

They were mildly rebuked by Longstreet at Gettysburg for cheering. "Cheer less and fight more. Your work is up ahead. Give them the steel." To which they responded... with another cheer. :D How did the success like at Fredericksburg and at the Wilderness impact their personality. What about the 'agony of defeat' or being sent in to do something that is impossible? Surely a failed assault or being whipped by cavalry was not a morale booster. What about the courts martial of your division commander?

I think all of these kinds of events impact the personality of the regiment. That's the thread that runs through a regimental history that makes it interesting and engaging to read. And it's the hardest part to get your head around. Where to start? How to develop that thesis. It's what has me temporarily paralyzed.

On a side note, I see that you have not yet written the history of the 12th North Carolina. When you do, this story has to be in there. I wonder what it says about the personality of the 12th NC?
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/12...hing-rod-for-a-flagstaff.167596/#post-2182285
 

Championhilz

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Location
Clinton, Mississippi
I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the "personality" of a regiment. I have written one regimental history on the 38th Mississippi Infantry, and am working on another about the 21st Mississippi Infantry. The two regiments couldn't be more different - the 21st Mississippi was raised in 1861, made up of volunteers, and mostly came from the more urban areas of the state - four of the companies were from Vicksburg/Warren County, and two more were from Woodville. They were also a very cosmopolitan group of soldiers, with a number of the members being European immigrants, and they also had very diverse occupations - of course there were farmers, but they also had mechanics, clerks, lawyers, doctors, and politicians in their ranks. They were a very learned bunch, and they tended to write often, which has made documenting the regiment fairly easy.

The 38th Mississippi on the other hand was raised in the spring of 1862, just before the Confederate draft law kicked into effect. Thus the regiment tended to be older than the 21st, as it had many married men that couldn't leave home at the drop of a hat. It also had a number of men who were reluctant to serve at all, and only joined up to avoid being drafted. The companies of the 38th also tended to come from smaller communities in the state, and the large majority of the men in the regiment were small farmers. It was much harder finding documentation on these men, but I was able to find it - many of the letters written by them that I used in my history were in the hands of their descendants, it was just a matter of putting the word out in the communities were these men came from, as often their relatives still lived nearby.
 

Biscoitos

Corporal
Joined
May 14, 2020
That's probably a can of worms! But a fun one to discuss!

So, I like to start with a profile, as with so many things I write, so let's see...

When I was running the CivilWarWiki.net I used the following fields to make a "basic" Regimental History Profile...
  • Unit Name
  • "also known as"
  • Unit Type (US / CS, Infantry/Artillery/Etc, Regular or Volunteer)
  • Recruitment from City/State
  • Mustered In Dates
  • Names of all Unit Commanders with Dates
  • Known Equipment / Armament
  • Mustered Out Dates
  • Overall Casualty Figures
  • Full Dyer's Regimental History / Service Record
  • A List of Reference Books, Links to Google or Other Online Books are Great Also
I would supplement that with any photos that I could find. From there you'd at least know what you are writing about, and how important the unit was, how much history you have to work with. Is it even work "writing" anything more.... I hope that gives you a few ideas.

Feel free to cherry pick, or do your own thing, these are just suggestions!
Reports from/about the regiment from the ORs.
Information from diaries, letters, post war reminiscences, etc.
 

A. Roy

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That means that the author has to study the material and make note of themes that run through the primary sources.

A great post -- thanks for sharing these thoughts! This seems like a key insight into how to produce a great story. What I've seen (not with regimentals, but with many other kinds of projects) is that you spend a lot of time tracking down the details and sifting through them. Over time, patterns and themes begin to emerge, sometimes suddenly. I try to be sure to keep a notebook handy, because I never know when one of those brainstorms is going to hit me!
I think all of these kinds of events impact the personality of the regiment. That's the thread that runs through a regimental history that makes it interesting and engaging to read. And it's the hardest part to get your head around. Where to start? How to develop that thesis. It's what has me temporarily paralyzed.

Writer's block, maybe? (I'm actually not really sure I believe in that.) I would encourage you to push ahead even if you are feeling temporarily stuck. Make yourself do it. (And keep a notebook handy.)

Roy B.
 

A. Roy

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many of the letters written by them that I used in my history were in the hands of their descendants, it was just a matter of putting the word out in the communities were these men came from, as often their relatives still lived nearby.

I'm curious: How did you go about getting the word out? (Relates to a project I'm working on.)

Roy B.
 

Championhilz

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Location
Clinton, Mississippi
I'm curious: How did you go about getting the word out? (Relates to a project I'm working on.)

Roy B.
This was the pre-internet era, so I wrote to the local newspapers in the counties where the companies of the regiment were raised asking for anyone with information about the 38th Mississippi to contact me. I had an amazing response to my queries - letters, memoirs, photographs, etc., most of which came from descendants of the men who served in the regiment. I was very relieved when the material started rolling in, because when I started the project I was very worried I would not be able to find enough sources to write a credible regimental history, as published sources on the 38th were few and far between. I still have two big boxes of correspondence out in my garage from all of the letters I received during my research.
 

A. Roy

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Raleigh, North Carolina
I was very relieved when the material started rolling in, because when I started the project I was very worried I would not be able to find enough sources to write a credible regimental history, as published sources on the 38th were few and far between.

That's a great result! I'm working on a project that isn't a regimental history but that does involve certain members of certain NC regiments. I'll be wanting to search out just these kinds of sources -- letters, diaries, photos -- and had wondered how to find out what kinds of materials are still in the hands of family members.

I guess the newspaper angle might still work, although I think circulations for local publications are down. Social media can reach people locally, so it might be possible to experiment with that kind of approach. I sometimes post history-related articles on local Facebook groups here (Raleigh NC) and can get quite a variety of response -- some very useful and some along the lines of 'I used to live in that neighborhood. I love my cat!'

Roy B.
 
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