Friday, July 31, 2015

Keeping Things Orderly

In sending for the full personnel file of my father-in-law's service during World War II, our family was treated to a detailed summary of every battle in the Pacific theater in which his unit engaged.

Not so for my husband's fourth great grandfather, who served in the 4th Regiment of the U.S. Riflemen during and after the War of 1812. Though it has been a fascinating excursion through our family's own micro-history to read John Jay Jackson's pension papers—now freely accessible online, thanks to a digitization project between the National Archives and a crowdsourced collection of corporate sponsors, nonprofit organizations, generous individual donors and volunteer transcribers—the record lacks those details of military operations to which we've become accustomed.

No small wonder. Apparently, at the start of our country's independence, what military forces we had at the time were likely hampered by widespread illiteracy. Whatever military training the officers of the nascent country might have had needed to be infused throughout the ranks of those whose fervor for freedom had possibly made up for their lack of military discipline.

Sensing that need, a system of paperwork flow had to be instituted. Among other reports, one such device was implemented during the years of the Continental Army, and formalized at the time of hostilities leading up to the War of Independence, by order of General George Washington,
It is order’d, and directed, that not only every regiment, but every Company, do keep an Orderly-book, to which frequent recourse is to be had, it being expected that all standing orders be rigidly obeyed, until alter’d or countermanded.
With that practice instituted in the American military by 1776, its continuance during the War of 1812 has yielded at least a basic record of military maneuvers for our study focusing on the regiment in which John Jackson served.

Though reporting on the record-keeping trait as established during that earlier war, a helpful document composed by John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald and posted online, "A Brief Profile of Orderly Books," provides an overview of this source of military history, which the authors call
the most basic document to be kept...that recording of all orders affecting a given command.
Fast forward, for our purposes in examining the whereabouts of John Jackson during and subsequent to the War of 1812, to our study of the various captains under whom he served. In addition to what I've been able to glean from Francis Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, the orderly books of the various expeditions have helped to reconstruct the narrative of the operations involving Jackson's captains.

In addition—and probably extending from that trait of military discipline in recording all in the Orderly Books—those who led the exploratory expeditions westward, after the War of 1812, also kept journals of their daily progress. Tomorrow, as we review the biographical details of one of Jackson's superiors, Charles Pentland, we'll benefit from the keeping of such records, which provide details as minute as travel conditions and as broad as scope of mission.

Above: 1855 oil on canvas by John Frederick Kensett, "Upper Mississippi," courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Replies
    1. I can't help myself: I get lost in these journals!

  2. I sometimes find the stilted language entertaining.

    "It is order’d, and directed, that not only every regiment, but every Company..."

    George was a wordy guy... he might of enjoyed reading Stephen King.

    1. It certainly was a different world back then...yet another reason why this endeavor is so fascinating.


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