What is up with the OR?


Since we launched Decoding the Civil War at the end of June a number of our volunteers have noted that some of these messages have been published elsewhere. In particular they point to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (OR), published in the 1880s and 1890s. We are aware that some of these telegrams do exist in plain text in the OR, however, we ask that our volunteers refrain from consulting the OR in their transcriptions.

Why, you may ask? Many documents in the Official Records were edited and “cleaned up” and may be different from the telegrams in Decoding the Civil War ledgers. Please remember that an important aspect of this project is recovering the original texts of the telegrams that were sent and received, so researchers can compare them to later compilations, like the OR. Additionally, we estimate that about a third, or perhaps more, of the telegrams in the ledgers never made it into the Official Records.

An example of this comparison was pointed out by the Decoding the Civil War volunteer cynlynten, who noted that the below page appeared almost the same in the OR and then added:

Interestingly, they were not transcribed entirely accurately; can’t tell if this is because the record is of a RECEIVED telegram (the fault of the telegram operator), or if it was just transcribed inaccurately from the same original we are seeing here. Wonder what effect mistakes like this have (or had)?

That is an excellent question and the whole point of the transcription, to allow researchers to find and debate those differences. The page in the ledger from the project reads:


1130 AM Baldwin Balto Martinsburg June 13 63
A scout has just received here
from Milroy left Winchester Eleven last
night reports Ewells whole corps in
and around Winchester from 15000 to
18000 strong, Jone’s and Imboden force
unknown, there also, fought yesterday with
success but quite a loss on
both sides  Milroy advises Smith to
be on guard he apprehends a raid
on Martinsburg  & Harpers ferry  Woodhull

1140 am Martinsburg June 14 63
Martinsburg June 14th 11 am to
Gen Schenck Milroy reports that he was
attacked yesterday by Gen Ewell with
from 15  to 18 thousand men
that he sustained himself notifies us
to look out for Harpers ferry
and Martinsburg  Danl Tyler Brig Genl

The same two messages also found in the OR (available through The Ohio State University, at http://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records) read:

“MARTINSBURG, June 14, 1863-10. 50 a. m.

“Major-General SCHENCK:

“A scout has just received here from Milroy ; left Winchester 11 last night ; reports Ewell’s cavalry corps in and around Winchester, from 15,000 to 18,000 strong. Jone’s and Imboden’s force unknown; also fought yesterday with success, but quite a loss on both sides. Milroy advises Smith to be on guard, he apprehends a raid on Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry.


” Assistant Adjutant-general . ”

” MARTINSBURG, June 14, 1863 -11 a. m.

“Major-General SCHENCK:

” General; Milroy reports that he was attacked yesterday by General Ewell with from 15,000 to 18,000 men ; that he sustained himself. Notifies us to look out for Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg.


” Brigadier-General . ”

These messages appeared as part of a report, possibly a court martial, and were given into evidence by General Schenck. Had they not been part of this report, there is the possibility that these messages would never have made it into the record. I leave the date discrepancy for the historians.


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3 responses to “What is up with the OR?”

  1. lmharnisch says :

    I’m sorry, I don’t have time for this. The last three telegrams I transcribed were verbatim as they appear online except for understandable use of abbreviations. Not sure anybody will learn much from the use of “Sec’y” vs. “Secretary.” I’m moving on to another project.


    • marioeinaudi says :

      I am sorry that you feel that this project has not been a valid use of your time. We have acknowledged several times, including in the above post, that many of these telegrams have been published elsewhere, but there are variations beyond the use of “Sec’y” vs. “Secretary.” Some have incorrect dates, some have portions of the message edited out, or the punctuation is different. It may seem inconsequential, but it all helps to support research. There are 15,971 telegrams in these ledgers, of which we estimate there may be a third or more that are not in the OR. Having a complete transcription, an accurate transcription, will be a very valuable tool. Once the transcription is complete people will see messages ordered in the ledgers as they came in or went out, which gives a more authentic sense to the pacing of the war. We thank you for the time that you did volunteer.


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