© by Don Troiani
Sergeant, Light Infantry, New York-New Jersey Line, 1782

Website Overview

© 1999 -- 2021
John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald

© by Don Troiani
Private, Virginia Militia, 1780

The long-term goal of this website is to provide an online cross-referenced index of all surviving orderly books of the Continental Army in order to assist students and researchers in accessing these primary resources. Except for limited exemplary excerpts, the site does not provide orderly book transcriptions. Its goal, alternatively, is to present a database for researchers of the “micro-history” of the Continental Army that can be found in no other single source and that provides cross-referencing options to assist in research focus on particular units, on particular campaign theaters and time periods, and on institutions holding within their collections specific manuscript books.

Although it is certain that the site's present content falls short of providing a census of all extant Continental orderly books, the compilers believe that the present content of approximately 950 books represents a clear majority of surviving volumes. Therefore, a very key objective of the site is to provide a resource center that will hopefully be expanded through institutions and individuals bringing to our attention books that have to date eluded our search.

Users of the site will find that the “Orderly Book Index” page, accessed by clicking on the bottom center button of the introductory multi-topic page, is the primary tool for navigating throughout the database. The menu grid presents entry paths to books relating to 1) infantry units of the thirteen colonies/states, Canada, the “Additional Regiments of 1777”, and miscellaneous infantry units, followed by 2) artillery, mounted, and supplemental branches and 3) books associated with units above the regimental level. By clicking, for example, the “Massachusetts” button within the menu grid, the entire bibliography of Massachusetts infantry orderly books will be accessed. (The particular manner of presenting individual units within a given colony's/state's page is discussed within the introductory section titled “M&R Numbers”.)

It is highly important for the user to note that by scrolling down the “Index” page, two additional approaches for employing the index will be found. The “Sorted by Year” button accesses the total books database by year, and then by the month and day based on the first entry within a given book. This option to view all books related to a specific time period will be of particular benefit to the researcher focusing on a specific campaign, region, or “phase” of the Continental Army's development. (As will be described below, each book listing provides specification of the sites occupied by the particular unit during the period of coverage of the book.) The second optional access technique is via the “Sorted by Source” button, which provides users with the ability to view the manuscript Continental Army orderly book holdings of a specific repository. Obviously, this option will allow a researcher to print his or her own customized “study list” when working at or with a particular institution.

Each orderly book cataloged within this index is specified by four criteria. The majority of the total number of books composing the current index has been physically examined by the compilers to validate these criteria. Virtually all of this validation process, of course, has been based on the examination of microfilmed copies of the manuscript books. Within the Index, a double-dagger symbol specifies each of the books that have been so examined by the compilers. A single-dagger symbol signifies a book that has not, to date, been physically available to us for completion of the validation process. It is very strongly hoped that, following the opening of the website, respective holding institutions and individual researchers will be able and willing to examine the currently unvalidated books and thereby assist in bringing the database to 100% validation.

The four criteria which have been used to profile each orderly book include the following:

Each book is identified as to the Continental Army unit in which it was maintained. At times, but relatively rarely, a manuscript book is found to contain a contemporary inscription on an inner cover, flyleaf or elsewhere which is validated by the internal content. Much more often, the unit identification has needed to be deduced from that content, the primary basis for such identification being citations of officers' names appearing within duty assignments and court martial panels. In the majority of instances, such deduction of the unit identification had been earlier performed by the repository holding the manuscript. In all cases possible, however, these unit attributions have been evaluated by the compilers through examination of each book's content. In some instances, earlier attributions and cataloging by the institution have been found to be in error, a typical example being a book containing only a few regimental orders having been identified solely as to the brigade or division within which the unit was, at the time of the book's coverage, assigned, the regimental identification having been mistakenly neglected.

One aspect of the current index that will be of particular benefit to researchers relates to those Continental Army orderly books within the manuscripts collection of the National Archives. To date, the only catalog available to researchers has been copies of a handwritten inventory of the Archives' collection, but even that document is devoid of unit identifications, providing only descriptions of each book's general content. Within this website will be found a complete specification of the unit associations of the National Archives' large and important Continental Army orderly book collection, those unit identifications being validated through examination of the microfilmed copy of each book. Again, to our knowledge, this profiling of the Archives' collection can be found within no other source.

A final point relating to the source unit of a particular book is the issue of original "authorship". Since orderly books were produced via duplication of orders from higher-ranking officers, of course, the term "copyist" or "recorder" would be more precisely correct than the concept connoted by the term "author." Some institutions, most particularly among them being the Library of Congress, catalog their collections of orderly books on the basis of the individuals who, purportedly, physically wrote those books. We consider such attributions generally mistaaken. In the large majority of cases, these author attributions relate to commissioned officers, rising even to the rank of brigadier or major general, who indeed first penned (or more likely, dictated) the order. It is very strongly believed by the compilers of this index that: 1) virtually all Continental Army orderly books were maintained by a non-commissioned officer or regimental adjutant, 2) the duty of daily orders transcription not infrequently rotated within a pool of such “copyists”, and 3) the result is that the true identity of who actually put pen to paper for the production of the very large majority of these books is, and will remain, unknown.

While, in some cases, it might be appropriate to associate a book or series of books with a particular officer, these books were maintained for that officer, not by him. The notable series of books associated with Brigadier General John Glover within the collections of the Peabody-Essex Library, as well as that within the New England Historic Genealogical Society relating to Colonel Thomas Nixon are primary examples. Clearly, these books remained within the estate and among the descendants of the respective officer, but handwriting variations, grammatical differentiation, and scribbled marginalia by the actual transcribers certainly demonstrate no involvement in their production by the officer with whom they are now associated. Given that colonels and brigadiers had aides who typically wrote even their official correspondence via dictation, those officers certainly did not devote one or more hours daily copying orders. This task was, very clearly, the job of orderly sergeants, other non-commissioned officers and adjutants. In a small number of instances, the identity of those men is known, and it is to Continentals such as William Torrey, Caleb Clapp, and Francis Tufts, as examples, that we, as researchers, owe gratitude for their production and preservation of these invaluable source materials. Due to the very small proportion of books that can be inarguably attributed to a particular author, and due to the minimal significance this factor has to researchers focusing on content, this index has eliminated all reference to the topic of authorship.

For each profiled book, the second criterion shown is the date range of the book's coverage. Since essentially all books contain the orders of General Washington (or the detached regional commandant), it is typical for a book to contain entries made on a daily or near-daily basis. Occasionally, however, a book may contain a gap of several weeks, the reason for such usually not being apparent. More relevant to the researcher employing the Index are what might be termed “multi-part” books. Although not common, a number of books have been found to contain two or more component series of entries separated by many months or, at times, by a year or more. Such books, however, can be validated to relate to the same unit. Lastly, a small number of examples might be termed “reused” books, containing, within the same volume, two segments of entries that relate to two completely different units and chronologically separated by a year or more. In the latter two cases, i.e., "multi-part" and "reused" books, this Index provides separate listing of each component portion within a single volume.

The third criterion specified for each book are the geographic sites occupied by the unit during the period of the book's coverage. To those unfamiliar with the composition of orderly books and the process by which their entries originated, the issue of place specification can be somewhat bewildering. As a typical example, a transcribed order of General Washington's that is datelined “Middlebrook [New Jersey]” may be immediately followed by a copy of a resolve of the Continental Congress datelined “Philadelphia”, which is then followed by an order datelined “Headquarters Highlands, Peekskill [New York],” these preceding three followed by “Regimental Orders, Camp Redding [Connecticut.]” The logical reaction to this broad area of geographic citations is be initially confused as to where the book was actually maintained. This hypothetical, but completely typical, example of a Connecticut regimental orderly book maintained at the Redding winter quarters of the division during 1778-79 provides the basis to introduce the manner in which orderly book entries originated.

All general orders of General Washington (as differentiated from those orders of his directed to specific officers), or abbreviated "extracts" of them, were communicated to all component segments of the army, including those units encamped within close proximity of his headquarters and those more remotely located. The latter units, of course, were sent those general orders via the next regularly scheduled, or, at times, an emergency, “express” rider. Thus, an early 1779 order of this type would be datelined from Washington's headquarters near Middlebrook, New Jersey, and transcribed into a regimental orderly book being maintained at the Connecticut campsite.

The Continental Congress often forwarded to General Washington announcements on the progress of the war and foreign diplomacy, as well as “resolves” relating to the administration of the army. The commander-in-chief frequently ordered these congressional messages to be transcribed in all orderly books and to be read to the troops. That same book being kept at the Connecticut winter quarters now was expanded with all such distributed congressional messages originating in Philadelphia.

In an attempt to more effectively manage the war effort, Congress had divided the colonies (and Canada) into seven military departments. The Highlands Department of New York, although remarkably smaller than each of the remaining six departments due to the critically strategic importance of the Hudson River, was continuously occupied by Continental troops from late 1776 until the final British withdrawal from New York City in November 1783. During the winter of 1778, the Connecticut Division, posted at Redding, Connecticut, functioned as an extension of the Highlands Department and was under the control of the departmental commander. All orders issued by the latter would be “expressed” to Redding as well as to all other dispersed cantonments within the Highlands.

Finally, the “local” divisional, brigade and regimental orders originating within the Redding camp provide a model for both identifying the unit of authorship of a given orderly book and for categorizing the types of book content most useful in researching the minute details of Continental Army life and operations. (Further specification of the structure and content of these books is provided in the introductory section titled “About Orderly Books.”)

The final category of information provided for each orderly book profiled within this Index relates to the source and available formats in which that book can be accessed for research use. In short, this profiling component for each book: 1) identifies the institution that holds the original manuscript, 2) provides citations for those books that have, at some time, been published, and 3) specifies those books, either published or unpublished, the manuscripts of which have, to date, been microfilmed or that can be found online. As to the second point, this Index's database demonstrates that only about one in ten of the surviving Continental Army orderly books has ever been published. Among the large number of unpublished books, it is of major benefit to researchers that nearly all the largest institutional collections have been fully microfilmed and can be accessed through purchase, rental, inter-library loan, or through visitation to the holding institution or another repository holding a microfilm copy set. Even more convenient, of course, a large number of orderly books have been digitized and are now available online. As a final benefit to the researcher, this index provides, for each book's holding institution, a direct Internet link when such is available.

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