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Getting the Real War onto CD-ROM

My interest in the Civil War began when I was twelve and read Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox. I loved the style, but I also marveled at the depth of the history that Catton showed me, and from time to time I’d dip into the endnotes to look at his sources. Initially, the one I most deperately wanted to see for myself was Ibid. Despite the weird title, it seemed a fountain of information on the conflict. It took a while for me to discover that Ibid. was short for ibidem, meaning “in the same place.”

After Ibid, the source I next wanted most to see was The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Here I was on firm ground. The Official Records — or O.R. — remain the core archive for any serious study of the Civil War. It weighs in at a whopping 128 volumes, many of them over a thousand pages in length. But almost three years elapsed from the time I first learned of the O.R. to the time I saw a set for myself. No librarian with whom I spoke had any idea where a set might be. Even the librarians at Otterbein College didn’t know, and that’s in fact where I stumbled upon my first set: an original (the only kind that existed in 1975) with yellowed pages and uncertain binding.

I loved it. The organization confused me and the indexing was pitiful, but it pulled me into the war as only the most direct primary sources can do. Naturally I wanted a copy for myself. As a teenager, though, there was little I could do about it, even after the National Historical Society reprinted the Official Records. My opportunity finally came in 1990 when I was a PhD candidate. I was fairly confident that my initial job in academe might be at a college too small to own a set, so I made it a priority to acquire one. The copies arrived at the rate of five volumes a month and cost me about $112 each — no mean sum in those days. But by 1993 I had an entire set, in gleaming black buckram, at a total cost of roughly $2,500.

Three years later the whole thing became available on CD-ROM for $69.95.

I didn’t mind. I found the traditional and electronic versions nicely complemented one another. But as I moved from place to place, the former was a pain to pack, unpack, and reshelve, while the latter was so small that eventually it went the way of many small objects I own: I lost it. So a few weeks ago I decided to replace it.

It transpired that I could still get another copy for $69.95. But for another hundred bucks I could get a CD-ROM with all this on it:

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies
Map Atlas of the Official Records (high resolution)
National Archives Guide-Index (5 volumes)
Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion
Dyer’s Compendium
Fox’s Regimental Losses
Southern Historical Society Papers
Confederate Military History
Campaigns of the Civil War

Plus memoirs, autobiographies or biographies relating to seven Confederate generals (Jubal Early, J.E.B. Stuart, John B. Gordon, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, G. Moxley Sorrel, and “Stonewall” Jackson).

Anyway, the new CD-ROM has arrived and I’m happy to say it performs very well. I expected this to be the case for the text material, which in general is well-scanned, but I was still pleasantly surprised to see the quality of the plates in the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records and the illustrations in the Medical and Surgical History. (I haven’t gone through all the other material yet, but I presume it will be the same story.)

I guess this adds up to a recommendation, though all I really intended to do was alert people to the existence of this resource. True, you’ll find the O.R. now available on the web, but it can be slow and frustrating to use. This is much the better way to go.

Comments (6) to “Getting the Real War onto CD-ROM”

  1. Mark,

    I did exactly the same thing with the OR’s, at about the same time. It wasn’t more than six months later that it became available on CD-ROM. I thought my wife was going to blow a gasket. :-)

    To this day, I still prefer the books, just to be able to look for obscure stuff. Where the CD-ROM is most valuable is when I need to copy-paste a large chunk of text, rather than having to re-type it.

    The Guild Press CD you describe is the same one I have. I bought it in the little visitor’s center on the battlefield at Cold Harbor.


  2. Thanks for the heads up on this. I bought the Guild Press OR and ORN many years ago (I think they have Win 3.1 and Win95 version search engines). So the question would be the value of the “extras”. The real question is if the search and bookmark capabilities are any different than the original CDs?

    scott s.

  3. If you already have the OR and ORN, you may have as much as you want. For me, the Medical and Surgical History and the Southern Historical Society Papers are the most valuable extras. Some of the other resources (like the Campaigns of the Civil War series) are worthwhile in themselves but more easily used in book form. As you’ll see on the site, the Medical and Surgical History is exclusive to “The Complete Civil War.” The SHSP can be purchased separately (and indeed, I already own the CD and have actually managed not to lose it.

    So far the search and bookmark capabilities seem identical to what I recall of the original OR CD.

  4. Mark G., I stumbled upon your site by accident, but smiled when reading of your confusion over ‘Ibid!’ Your experience with the massive bound volumes reminded me of the days before video, and rain kept us locked indoors. I usually pulled down a volume, at random, of our encyclopedia and began to flip pages aimlessly. I can still tell you some of the things I learned ‘by accident’ that way. I’m sure you found the same to be true of your Civil War volumes. Ah, children today don’t know what they’re missing… ks 😉

  5. Same thing for me in the fifth grade. If we got done with our in-class assignments early, we could get a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia to browse. By the end of the school year I’d read them all. With the possible exception of history, most of what I know comes from that experience.

  6. Is anyone aware of a Macintosh compatible version of the CD-ROM OR? I think a company called H-Bar used to make one, but stopped.