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Phenomenal Research Resources on CD/DVD from the National Archives, Part 1: Ordnance Returns

Microfilm Rolls Available for Purchase Online from the National Archives

As my Siege of Petersburg site Beyond the Crater continues to expand, my research has often led me to exciting and useful new resources online.  One such recent example was my recent discovery that the National Archives now offers many microfilm rolls via online ordering.  You must create an account to login at the site linked to, but there is a ton of interesting items for serious students of the Civil War to possibly order.

I want to note several things prior to going further:

  1. These aren’t cheap. A roll of microfilm costs $85 dollars while that same roll reproduced on CD/DVD is $125.  In many cases, if you live near enough to Washington, D.C., it’s probably cheaper to just schedule a trip to the National Archives.  On the other hand, once you purchase something it is yours and you’ll have ample opportunity to digest the contents.
  2. As with all Government sites, the user experience can be less than friendly. Exactly what you’re getting on a given roll isn’t entirely clear if you’re unfamiliar with the type of records you are ordering.  In fact, even finding what you want is not a particularly simple process.  Knowing which Microfilm Publication Number the records you are interested in are contained under is the first step.  Proceed with caution and send an email or letter to the NARA if you are at all uncertain of what you’ll be getting.  Failure to do so when $85/$125 is on the line might be a prohibitively expensive mistake.
  3. Orders take a LONG time to be filled. The site stated I should expect to wait 30-60 days from the time I  place an order to the time it reaches me.

Quarterly Ordnance Rolls: Microfilm Publication Number M1281

With those notes of caution out of the way, I’d like to focus on the first purchase I recently made.  I have long been looking for a way to get the Quarterly Ordnance Returns for various Union Army units either cheaply and/or easily.  This hasn’t happened, and an attempt several years back to obtain any kind of help from the NARA while looking to order via snail mail failed miserably.  I didn’t have a big enough scissors to cut through all the red tape, and I was too proud to do what I should have, which is ask TOCWOC’s readers for help!  Luckily, as I again looked over the NARA site, I found that the Quarterly Ordnance Returns were available for purchase under Microfilm Publication Number M1281.  Here’s the full title along with a decent explanation of what is on these rolls of microfilm:


On the 8 rolls of this microfilm publication are reproduced 37 volumes of summary statements of quarterly returns of ordnance and ordnance stores on hand in Regular and Volunteer Army artillery, cavalry, and infantry regiments and in miscellaneous units, 1862-67 and 1870-76. The summary statements provide a unique source for statistical data on both the types and numbers of weapons and related equipment issued to individual military units during the Civil War and the Indian wars of that period.  Information is most complete for the period from late 1862 to early 1864. Thereafter, some volumes are incomplete, and no records exist for 1868 or 1869. The statements are part of Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, Record Group (RG) 15

Obviously the rolls in M1281 are a treasure trove for those of us who are into military history and/or wargaming, as well as those of us who run “battle blogs” and would like to fill out detailed orders of battle for those sites.  They give the number and types of weapons for Union volunteer and regular infantry, cavalry, and artillery units down to regimental, battery, and company level.  I was also excited to learn of my ability to purchase these rolls for my own collection.  Since Beyond the Crater is a Siege of Petersburg site and the price of each roll in microfilm or CD/DVD form is somewhat costly, I decided to purchase just one roll of the eight, number 7, which consisted of Volumes 13-16 of the Quarterly Ordnance Returns from April-September 1864, covering the first portion of the Siege of Petersburg for infantry units.  The following image is taken from a PDF file giving quite a bit of information on this particular set of rolls.

I chose to purchase this roll first in CD/DVD form to see what the quality is, but if all goes well I expect to be able to fill out my Orders of Battle with the weapons each unit was using at the time of the Siege of Petersburg.  A few words about what these rolls are, and are not, is in order here.  First, these returns occurred at the end of each three-month period, so the fact that a unit was carrying a given number and type of weapons on that date does not necessarily mean they used that weapon two months earlier at a famous battle.  With that said, if you look at the same unit for two consecutive quarterly returns and see the same weapon type(s) on both, you can be reasonably sure the unit was carrying that weapon(s) over the three months prior to the date of the second roll.  Obviously exceptions may be out there, but they are few and far between.

My thoughts when purchasing this particular roll were that I could match up the weapons each unit was equipped with from April-June 1864 to the weapons for July-September 1864.  (Note: That “Mar” in the image above seems to be a typo, as the quarter would have run from April-June 1864, then the next quarter from July-September 1864.)  In this way, I should be able to figure out the weapon types many Union infantry regiments were using during the first five of Grant’s offensives against Petersburg as well as the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Information for the last four offensives and the Appomattox Campaign for infantry units are available in roll 8, which I will purchase if this first trial balloon goes well.  I’ll also want to pick up Roll 1 (all artillery returns throughout the war) and Roll 3 (cavalry returns from October 1863 to the end of the war).

Perfect for Wargamers/Military Historians/Battle Bloggers

So why am I writing about this?  Aside from my own interest, I’d like to point out that this set of rolls is perfect for wargame designers, writers of campaign and battle studies, and those of us in the Civil War blogosphere with battle blogs.  Depending on your area of interest, you could purchase as little as three rolls and have a complete set for your given battle or campaign (along with many others) for $375.  In fact, I recommended these rolls to NSD, the group which recently completed Scourge of War: Gettysburg, a tactical simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Have YOU Ordered Online from the NARA?

As I wait the expected 1-2 months for my first set of ordnance returns to arrive, I’m a little anxious about what I’m getting for $125.  Has anyone else out there ordered from the NARA?  What did you order?  Did you go with microfilm or did you choose the more expensive DVD route?  I’m sure some of you reading this have some experience in this area and I’d love to hear from you on the subject.

In any case, look for a detailed “review” of this product in the future both at TOCWOC and Beyond the Crater.  If all goes well, I’ll be making more purchases from this set and others in the future.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Ron Bremner August 10, 2013, 8:30 am

    The writer mentioned above that he would comment on the quality of the microfilm. Anyone have any comments on this? I’d like to know if they are worth purchasing, especially whether the CD has enough quality to read the material clearly.


  • bschulte August 25, 2013, 11:40 am


    To me (I wrote the article above) these items are definitely worth purchasing, especially for the ordnance rolls. The Confederate inspection reports are a lot more difficult to read, but I’m trying to transcribe those as well. You can clearly read at least the parts of the form which are types rather than hand-written. The parts written in, like the names of the companies and where those companies were located are a bit more difficult in some cases to read, but I’m pretty confident I got most of them while transcribing. The last item to discuss is the numbers written in for number of guns in a company. These are almost always easy to read. I guess the question becomes, what are you trying to use these for and can you get to the National Archives easily? If the answer to that last question is “no” then you should feel confident purchasing these. It allows you to spend time with the material in an environment which isn’t rushed. I’ve spent dozens of hours going through the ordnance rolls I’ve purchased, and they’ve been worth the cost to me.


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