Computers As Research Tools

by Fred Ray on May 6, 2006

In my last post I mentioned that many older CW books (i.e. pre-1920) have made their way to the web, which has been a great help in finding some obscure tomes without having to go through interlibrary loan. Many old newspaper articles have joined them. A digitized text has another advantage as well –- many of the those old books have incomplete indexes or none at all, so once you get it into a text file it’s a snap to find things. It’s getting so I’m starting to miss this feature on printed books!

I have a big collection of digital texts that have been indexed with a program called dtSearch, but today you can have the same capability by using something like Google or Yahoo desktop search engines, which you can download for free. It’s a great help when trying to run down some obscure reference.

Searching is also a big plus when dealing with the Official Records now, as several outfits sell digitized sets (I use the Guild Press version) with decent search engines. Even the cheapest computer will burn through the 128 volumes of the OR in seconds, which is a vast improvement over the paper indexing system, which even at best can be rather confusing. Not to mention that storing a single CD or DVD takes up a whole lot less space.

Computers have changed everything, sometimes in ways we don’t think about. They can actually find things that aren’t there. Well, sort of. Ever hear of Chaos Theory (or if you prefer, Complexity Theory)? It formed the basis of Michael Crichton’s novel and movie Jurassic Park, the point being that nature was unpredictable. Chaos Theory came into being with computers, because for the first time scientists were able to follow simple equations through millions of iterations and see where they led.

What’s all this got to do with the Civil War? With the OR digitized we are now able to search across volumes of material and find things that were there but which no one noticed. Brent Nosworthy used computers this way to research engagement ranges, which would have been nearly impossible otherwise. In my research I found some “hidden” units that way, which in turn changed the way I evaluated the tactics of the Army of the Potomac in 1864-65.

Knowing that the Confederates had formed “demi-brigades” of several sharpshooter battalions at division level in 1864, I searched for “division sharpshooters.” As expected, this turned up a number of Confederate references. To my surprise, however, it turned up a number of Union references as well. It turned out that in response to the Confederate sharpshooters, the Federals had formed sharpshooter units of their own at division level in June of 1864. Yet these units, being ad hoc, do not appear on orders of battle even though they played important roles in a number of late war battles. Each infantry division had a company of some 75 light infantrymen and 25 men armed with long-range target rifles, and that fall they were consolidated into a battalion at corps level. I found this by running a search for “battalion of sharpshooters.”

This in turn led to books like the memoir of Union sharpshooter Daniel Sawtelle, whose experiences fleshed out the bare bones of the official records. Sawtelle was in the 8th Maine, part of 18th (later 24th) Corps, and his is a rare memoir that contains both his letters home and his later reminiscences. Using both we can get a pretty good picture of how these late-war units were organized and used, and at some point I will get to the National Archives to find the unpublished orders authorizing them.

Had it not been for the computer, this would have been virtually impossible -– going through 128 volumes of the OR would have taken a team of researchers weeks, and there still would have been no guarantee that that they would have found all references. With a computer the task was trivial.

Last week I talked with another Asheville military historian, Joe Alexander. Joe is a retired Marine colonel whose specialty is the Pacific in WWII. We agreed that in many ways researching the Civil War is easier -– even though there are many more records from WWII, they are often scattered and none are yet digitized, making the sort of searches I have just described impossible. If and when they are, who knows what will turn up?

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