On April 27, 1865, General Samuel Cooper was stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina. Cooper was the highest ranking Confederate officer and served as Adjutant General and Inspector General. Though not a field commander, Cooper was a central figure in the Confederacy throughout the war. A long serving officer in the pre-war U.S. Army, Cooper called the Army his home. And as events unfolded in April 1865, Cooper was becoming a man without a home. When President Jefferson F. Davis rode out of Charlotte, heading south through South Carolina, Cooper remained behind. He was not fit to make a long, cross-country journey. Furthermore, he had far too much baggage in his charge:
A telegram received from Brigadier-General [Thomas] Jordan by Colonel [John] Riely, of my staff, who had telegraphed, by my direction, to ascertain what had transpired from the military convention, states that it had terminated, resulting in a cessation of war by all embraced, private property respected, and transportation home given. I was left here within the territorial limits of your command by the President, from physical dis-qualification to follow the Government any longer, and I therefore desire to know if I and the staff officer left with me can be included in the arrangement upon the same terms, as I cannot from my situation belong to any other command. It is not practicable for me to reach Greensborough immediately.
Later Cooper elaborated on the baggage which kept him in Charlotte:
It was found impracticable to transfer the records of the War Department further than this place, and they remain here under my charge. The President and Secretary of War impressed me with the necessity of their preservation in our own hands, if possible; if not, then by the enemy, as essential to the history of the struggle. On account of your superior knowledge of the condition of affairs, I desire to have your advice as to the disposition that shall be made of them.
Johnston replied on April 28, informing, “You are entitled to accept the terms of the convention. I do not know what to advise about the records.” Later, Johnston sent word that Cooper should, if possible, travel to Greensborough. Instead, Cooper arranged to have Colonel Riely make that trip as his representative for formal surrender.
But what of the records? On May 7, Captain Morris C. Runyan led a detachment of the 9th New Jersey into Charlotte. There, among other stores and items, Runyan found,
… a number of boxes said to contain the records of the rebel War Department and all the archives of the so-called Southern Confederacy; also, boxes said to contain all the colors and battle-flags captured from the National forces since the beginning of the war….
(Runyan later wrote an account of the occupation of Charlotte and capture of the records. But, I find his official report filed at the time somewhat more precise than the post war account.)
Word of this quickly passed up the chain of command to Major-General John Schofield. On May 16, Schofield inquired to Army Chief of Staff, Major-General Henry Halleck, as to what disposition should be made in regard to the records. Halleck responded promptly:
Box up all captured Confederate papers, flags, &c., and send them to C. A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, Washington. Preserve every paper, however unimportant it may appear. We have the key to their ciphers. Important links of testimony have thus been discovered here of the Canadian plot.
And please note here, Halleck was just as concerned about the preservation of the Confederate war records as Cooper was. And we might say that Halleck’s motives were just as Cooper’s. Above all, Halleck wanted the Confederate words to speak directly to their actions.
The next day, Schofield reported that the records, archives, and flags were being sent to Washington. He included a detailed invoice for the “eighty-one boxes, weighing ten tons“:
Invoice of the archives of the late Confederate War Department, as received from General Johnston at Charlotte, N. C., on the 13th day of May, 1865: Five boxes, marked Letters received; 3 boxes, marked Certificates of disability; 13 boxes, marked Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office; 5 boxes, marked Captured flags; 1 box, marked Books and papers, General Lee’s headquarters; 1 box, marked Official reports of battles; 1 box, marked Provost-marshal; 1 box, marked Lieutenant Blackford, C. S. Engineers; 1 box, marked Col. John Withers, C. S. Army; 3 boxes, marked Dept. Office; 7 boxes, contents unknown; 11 boxes, marked War Department, C. S. A.; 21 boxes, marked Regimental rolls; 1 box, marked Signal glasses; 6 boxes, marked Miscellaneous papers.
Thus the Federals took possession of a substantial number of official Confederate documents, if not a complete set. Similar efforts by Federal commanders elsewhere in the south would bring in official correspondence, reports, and rolls from the scattered Confederate departments. Of course that net missed many records, falling well short of a complete haul. Doubtless you know well the story of records destroyed by the fires when Richmond fell. And other records were destroyed before reaching Federal hands.
But all things considered, what was preserved included a remarkable set of artifacts. Many of those artifacts were later included in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” in the same binding with Federal accounts of the same time periods. And those compiled records were published and made accessible to libraries around the country. Today, those same records are just a browser window away at all times, anywhere you chose to study them.
We might recall many other “Civil Wars” in which historians lament the loss of vital accounts due to records destroyed in the end. Such is, on whole, not the case with the American Civil War. You see, the history of the Civil War was not simply “written by the victors” as some partisans contend. Rather it was written by those who could consult the words of the participants… thanks to the efforts by both sides to preserve those words.
So, next time you chase down a footnote and see “OR” followed by volume and serial notations, pause to thank old Samuel Cooper… and Henry Halleck… and Morris Runyan… who had a hand in preserving those.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 491, 510-1, 842, 848,