Researchers rely on primary sources for invaluable material

The Maine State Archives preserves the July 6, 1863 after-action report written by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Known as a “primary source,” such wartime correspondence provides valuable information for researchers. (Maine State Archives)

What are the best information sources for researchers focused on Maine and the Civil War?

I would argue for what historians often call “primary sources,” material that is chronologically closest to the war years. Let me recommend these primary sources for serious wartime researching.

Letters and diaries: Harder to find as 21st-century descendants trash the family history, these sources are the best wartime material available to researchers, I believe.

This paragraph from a Samuel Franklyn Parcher letter describes the moment a firing squad executed a Union deserter in autumn 1861. Parcher was a musician in the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment.

Written at particular places and times, letters and diaries reveal what soldiers experienced shortly after events happened and while memories remained fresh. Often bland, often richly detailed, these sources let us into the writers’ minds and lives. Reflecting their Maine upbringings and the fact that many soldiers worked the land at home, enlisted men often wrote about the weather, for example, and such reports might be the only indicators of the daily weather in particular places.

Throughout the Civil War, many Maine newspapers published soldiers’ letters, military correspondence, political reports, and other material and provide a rich source of information for researchers.

Newspapers: Far more newspapers published in Maine circa 1861 than today. With the attack on Fort Sumter, Mainers thirsted for news, and many newspaper publishers responded accordingly by printing whatever war news they could find, such as:

The April 8, 1863 Eastport Sentinel featured a report detailing the combat death of a young Eastport sailor.

War correspondents’ reports, which frequently favored particular generals or contained inaccurate information. The “fake news” concept certainly applied to the wartime press from 155-plus years ago.

Government proclamations issued in Augusta or Washington, D.C. Printed verbatim, these items readily filled the available white space.

Toss in a transcribed speech by Hannibal Hamlin or a Maine governor, and a publisher could fill a half page.

Soldiers’ letters. Some Mainers, especially officers, wrote directly and frequently to their Friendly Neighborhood Newspaperman. Other publishers made under-the-table arrangements to receive direct reports from soldiers who remained noms de plum; a few 7th Maine Infantry lads (probably “shoulder straps”) kept Maine Farmer readers apprised of that regiment’s Peninsula performance.

And the proud parents: From the Ellsworth American to the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier and other papers, I’ve read letters that sons wrote home to Mom and Dad that unexpectedly appeared in the local paper, along with the notation that a parent (usually Dad) had offered the letter (or paragraphs thereof) to the publisher for publication.

Field reports and correspondence: From 1861 to 1865, Maine soldiers and civilians inundated three governors and Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon Jr. with letters, reports, and other correspondence. His staff saved multitudinous incoming material, less so outgoing letters from Maine elected officials.

The Maine State Archives at Augusta preserves an incredible amount of war-related paperwork, such as muster rolls, regimental correspondence, and the Soldiers’ Files, the last available on microfilm.

Maine regimental histories are excellent sources for information about particular units and individuals.

Regimental histories: Survivors of some Maine regiments and a few artillery batteries published unit histories in the decades after the Civil War. Often cross-checked and fact-checked by multiple veterans, such histories can offer behind-the-curtain details unavailable elsewhere.

The Official Records: The War Department collected Confederate and Union reports, arranged these by campaign and chronology, and gradually published the 127-volume The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the post-war decades. Historians know these thick volumes as the “Official Records” or the “OR.”

Researchers cannot assume 100-percent accuracy in the Official Records, which contain reports often written in haste or long after events occurred. Some generals occasionally embellished their accomplishments or ignored their incompetence, and it’s the researcher’s responsibility to confirm questionable information.

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.



Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at