Monday, May 7, 2007

More on muster rolls

My apologies for the lack of entries over the weekend. The long-awaited muster rolls have arrived, which has proved a mixed blessing. Several hours and a good bit of eyestrain later, I at least have a good idea what’s on one of the rolls.

First of all, let it be said that microfilm is not a user-friendly medium. I’m not for a second saying that I don’t appreciate the efforts of those who went to the trouble to save countless original documents that have probably rotted away by now. But it will be a very happy day when/ if these things are digitized. I spoke with a representative at NARA before I ordered them, and this is the only medium through which they’ll be available for the foreseeable future. They’re not yet on the digitization schedule for the archives.

The biggest part of the problem is finding a microfilm reader that works. Several of the local libraries that I visited didn’t. Not entirely their fault --- library budgets are limited, and one librarian politely pointed out no one had asked about theirs in a couple of years. Two of those I did find operated too poorly to make legible prints.

Additionally, the machines, or at least those that I’ve located so far, print letter size paper. The rolls are on two pieces of 18x24” paper, and often need to be blown up to be legible. The smallest so far has been 5 copies, the largest (6th Cavalry in July 1863) is 18.

This very far from a tale of woe, however. There is great info on these rolls. Quality, primary source information that provide great snapshots of the units as well as running totals of nearly every category in a regiment.

On the first sheet are all of the following totals for each month by company and for the regiment:

Present (commissioned and enlisted, by category, for duty, extra duty, sick, in
arrest, etc)
Absent (commissioned and enlisted, detached, with leave, without leave, sick, in
arrest, etc)
* no idea why there are columns for sick and in arrest in both present and absent
Present and Absent (numbers by rank by company of who's assigned to the
Gains (enlisted categories by company include: recruits thru depot, enlisted in
regiment, re-enlisted, from missing in action, from desertion, by transfer)
Losses (expiration of service, died in action, died of disease, missing in action,
deserted, transferred, discharged by court martial)
Memoranda (columns by company for wounded in action, recruits requested,
serviceable and unserviceable horses and horses lost in action)

Then there are two large narrative entries. The first is for enlisted men on 'extra' duty, which are all the folks assigned as teamsters, blacksmiths, orderlies, hospital stewards, etc by name and company. The second is absent enlisted men, accounted for by name, rank and company. (the June and July 1863 muster rolls have continuation pages that list every trooper missing and wounded in the Gettysburg campaign, it's very sobering to look at). Below this on many months is a Remarks section where the adjutant makes comments about the regiment's service during that month. Thankfully, penmanship was still a virtue at this time, but the comments are still often difficult to make out.

On a separate page, the commissioned officers of the regiment are accounted for by name, rank and company. These get interesting. One can see, for example, that only 13 officers were present with the regiment on June 5th (four days before Brandy Station) and where the rest of them were (the majority on a general's staff, commanding a volunteer regiment, or serving as a general of volunteers). On the other half of this page are the entries for alterations since the previous return among enlisted men, which becomes one of the continuation sheets for casualties during months of heavy fighting.

All in all, lots of neat info in there, it's just hard to access (I now know where every inoperative microfilm reader is in a 20 mile radius), hard to print, and hard to read the handwriting. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

1 comment:

throwback said...

muster rolls are fundamentally bimonthly audit documents, ideally done in conjunction with a paymaster visit.

present sick and present under arrest (not too sick, not too long a sentence)individuals still reguire rations and are so accounted. present sick still gets paid.

absent sick and absent under arrest dont draw rations or get paid by the visiting paymaster.

extra duty men get additional pay, more for skilled and/or harder work.

thats why any good officer did anything he could to have an efficient orderly room (good 1st sgt and clerk).