The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, commonly called the Official Records or the OR, is the primary-source work originally published in 1880 by the United States Department of War to serve as the most complete record ever brought together of the American Civil War, and contains first-hand accounts, reports, orders, correspondence, maps, diagrams, and other material of the War and Navy Departments of both the Union and Confederacy. Subsequent additions and revisions brought the total number of pages to 138,579, bound in 128 volumes.
The idea for publishing a complete record of the Civil War came from Union General-in-Chief Henry Wager Halleck in 1863, when he suggested to the Committee on Military Affairs the collection and publication of all official documents and reports related to military operations. The chairman of the committee, Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, introduced a Joint Resolution "to provide for the printing of the official reports of the armies of the United States," which was adopted on May 19, 1864. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law the following day.
Under the editorship of Colonel Robert N. Scott, the work was systematized and the plan finally adopted which has been carried on throughout the entire set known as the Official Records. According to this plan, 4 series were issued as follows:
- Series I, 53 volumes (books 1-111):
- Formal reports, both Union and Confederate, of all military operations in the field, with the correspondence, orders, and returns relating especially to them. They are arranged chronologically - Union followed by Confederate - with the intent of portraying a history of the event in question within the same volume, i.e. the Battle of Shiloh in complete within one volume, and not split into two.
- Series II, 8 volumes (8 books):
- Correspondence, orders, reports and returns, Union and Confederate, relating to prisoners of war and, so far as the military authorities were concerned, to state or political prisoners.
- Series III, 5 volumes (5 books):
- Correspondence, orders, reports and returns of the Union authorities, embracing their correspondence with the Confederate officials, not relating especially to the subjects of the 1st and 2d series. It embraces the annual and special reports of the Secretary of War, of the General-in-Chief, and of the chiefs of the several staff corps and departments; the calls for troops and the correspondence between the national and the several State authorities.
- Series IV, 3 volumes (3 books):
- Correspondence, orders, reports and returns of the Confederate authorities, similar to that indicated for the Union officials, as of the 3d series, but excluding the correspondence between the Union and Confederate authorities given in that series.
Included within Series I by 1884 was a separate edition, the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, and edited by James R. Soley of the Navy Department. Soley's efforts included the collecting of personal narratives and recollections to replace many records with were thought lost.
- Records of all naval operations at sea, during the Blockade, and on all inland waterways. As above, they too were arranged chronologically.
- Records relating to statistics and condition of both sides during and after the conflict, including the return of captured material, records of naval prisoners of war, and other correspondence.
After the death of Colonel Scott, Col. H. M. Lazelle was placed in charge, and later a Board of Publication carried on the work under direction of the Secretary of War. The name most closely associated with the work from its inception to its completion is that of Joseph W. Kirkley, the compiler under whose personal examination each volume passed. In 1902, a revised edition of the additions and corrections, already printed with the general index (W45.5:130), was issued, a separate pamphlet for each volume, for insertion in the volumes of the set. The War Records Office (W45.) was merged into the Record and Pension Office, July 1, 1899. Previous to that time, of the total number of volumes of the Rebellion records, 116 volumes, that is, serial numbers 1 to 118, had been published by the War Records Office. The remaining 11 volumes and the general index were issued by the Record and Pension Office. It has seemed wise not to divide the few last volumes from the remainder of the set, hence, they are all entered under W45.5: The serial numbers as given below are the numbers assigned to the set by the issuing office as found in circular issued July 1, 1902, and also in preceding circulars. Most of the sets issued were bound in black cloth and, after series 1, v. 23 (serial no. 35), had the serial number stamped on the back. The series related to the Navies was bound in gray.
The third major addition to the work was a companion volume, Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, which was published in 1895. Consisting of over 200 plates, the over-size volume contains maps of military operations, topographical maps of areas of operations, and plates consisting of sketches of forts, weapons, uniforms and uniform insignia, and flags.