Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tabulations and Numbers: Regimental Histories

The cold facts of numbers, the anonymity of the number, the nice neat final total at the bottom of the ledger sheet, an integer in a rectangle which sanitizes the record.   The record that was paid for in blood and lost dreams.   Though I am loathed to quote him, Stalin said you kill 100 people it is murder; you kill a million people it is a statistic. Regimental histories are statistical summaries of a unit’s service record.  Valuable, to be sure, to the historian and the genealogist; however what about those men the numbers represent?
                          View in Arlington National Cemetery, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865 (source NARA)

                My sister Cheri and I were talking on Skype the other day; I told her about a possible lead to tracking down photographs of our Civil War ancestors.  She checked one of the databases from her My Favorites list and came up with a PDF file from the Internet Library Archives.  The file, “Civil War Camps At Readville… Camp Meigs Playground & Fowl Meadow Reservation Preliminary Historic Data Compilation,” was a report commissioned by the MDC to preserve the historic recorded of one of Massachusetts largest Civil War training camps.   Included in the report were abstracts of “Massachusetts in the Army and Navy During the War of 1861-65.”  On pages 161 and 162 are the statistical summaries for KIA by engagement, read on line version.

                We perused the report for 2nd Mass Cav. Vol. Regiment and the 3rd Mass Cav. Vol. regiment.  At the end of the statistical summaries for each regiment, a summary of Casualties by Engagement (KIA) was listed.  Across the top of the page from left to right listed the companies.  Running down the left hand side of page were the engagements in chronological order.  For some companies there is just a dash other companies a number 1 or 2 is listed. 

                I pointed out to my sister the date of October 19, 1864 and the column for company M.  In that small little rectangle was the number 1, I told her that number 1 is Merrill Beal our ancestor.  There was dead silence.  Cheri did not say anything for a moment or two.  On the following page was the statistical summary for the 3rd Mass Cav. Vol. Regiment.  I told Cheri to scroll down to May 15-18 Yellow Bayou engagement.  The column for company H had a 1 in the small little rectangle.  “That is George Beal,” I said.  Again silence for a moment.     Cheri final said, “That’s not right.  The names Merrill Beal and George Beal should be there not a number.”  I know what she meant. 

The number does not tell the story of the person.   That is why I want to recreate the lives of my ancestors.  Tell their stories through their eyes.  Tell what they experienced so that when someone wants to know who was that number it is no longer a statistic but a person.  A person who had hopes and dreams.  A person who interrupted his life to fight and die for a cause he believed in.   A person who left family behind.  A living breathing human being who had people that loved him and prayed for the day he would returned.   That day never came.  No it is much more than an integer in a rectangle.   

Photogaph:  National Archives and Records Administrations

Record Group 111:Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 985Series:
Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, 1921 - 1940

New York Public Library Internet Archives:




  1. Once again a great job. Your blogs help me to visualize what our boys were doing and where they were doing it. Glad to see that we feel the same way...statistics, numbers, charts and graphs have names of real people attached to them. "Lest we forget."


  2. From my Maine Beal family we have 5 who served in the Civil War. Jarvis, William, and Moses were in Co. G, 23d Maine Reg. Also from my direct ancestors; Sgt. James Schwartz and Maj. Gen. Ellis Spear of the 20th Maine.

  3. Keith I'm sorry I missed your comment. For some reason I was not notified by gmail account. Thank you for reading my blog and commenting.