Skip to Main Content
United States Military Academy Library


Unit Histories

Unit Histories (Regimental Histories) and Personal Narratives
        Unit Histories (Regimental Histories) and Personal Narratives
        The men who fought in the Civil War never forgot it.  Indeed, the history of how people remembered the war is as complex as the history of the war itself.  Indicative of this complexity are the staggering large numbers of histories of individual Civil War units of both sides.   Writing and publishing these unit histories started almost immediately after the war, usually at the hands of veterans of the particular unit.  Most of the unit histories were written at the regimental level, hence the term “regimental history”.    For decades after the war, regimental histories appeared on the book market and started to shape the historiography of not only the overall course of the conflict, but of its principal battles.  In modern times, both scholarly and popular historians have taken a hand at writing regimental histories.  Many such modern works are based upon the Official Records.       
        Early regimental histories, however, indeed constitute primary sources when and if they were written by veterans of the unit or contained excerpts or quotations of their testimony.  Yet, like all primary sources, they vary in trustworthiness, objectivity and detail and therefore vary in usefulness to the modern-day scholarly historian.  Some regimental histories are not histories at all in the modern sense of the word, but mere collections of reprinted unit rosters, muster rolls, etc.   Some merely reproduce the same unit reports of their unit that are found in the Official Record.  Needless to say, these kind of regimental histories are not of much use to you in the present assignment.  On the other hand, some of the early regimental histories contained a great deal of personal reminiscences not found in other primary sources. These can provide valuable supplementary primary source material that amplifies or even contradicts evidence from the OR.
        Sometimes participants in the Civil War wrote not about their unit’s history but simply recorded their own reminiscences and memories.  Historians must use these kinds of primary sources with care.  Memories can fade.  Even if a person consciously seeks to avoid distorting his or her memories of an important or harrowing event, recounting the experience years later is rarely the same as recording it at the time it happened.  Historians should nevertheless NOT ignore memoirs, as they are indeed still eye-witness accounts.  Rather, the research but simply scrutinize them and make a reasoned subjective judgement about how much faith to put in the evidence from this kind of primary source.
         Historians studying the Civil War have long used these works and they are often cited in bibliographies of scholarly monographs on Civil War battles, including Shiloh. The bibliography of Timothy B. Smith's Shiloh: Conquer or Perish (Lawrence; University of Kansas Press, 2014) is an excellent source to consult to identify unit histories and personal narratives related to the battle. Once you identify some unit histories or personal narratives relevant to your specific topic, you will find that a database called WorldCat can be an effective way to locate online copies. Not all unit histories, personal narratives or memoirs will be available online but a great many are. ;Click below for a step-by-step guide for finding unit histories and personal narratives published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 


Footer Library Logo How Do I?
USMA Library Terms of Use