Tips of You Ever Want to Research at the National Archives

I’ve finished with both my Civil War ancestors at the National Archives. I was really completely unprepared for how this whole thing was going to work, so I thought I might share some tips of anyone else decides to do some research there.

  • You can bring your own flatbed scanner. I knew this ahead of time, so I brought mine. But a lot of documents are larger than the standard 8.5×11, so a standard consumer scanner meant for modern documents will fall short. If you can afford it, take a large format flat bed. The Archives does have one, but it’s usually being used by someone else.
  • Be well hydrated ahead of time. They don’t allow any food or drink in the research room for obvious reasons, and it’s warm and dry. I was nearly ready to swill straight out of the Potomac by the time I got done.
  • Don’t bring any more equipment than you can carry in. They do provide carts if you absolutely can’t carry your scan-o-magic 8000 deluxe, but everything is searched going in and out. No bags, or anything you can stuff anything into. They don’t check your pants though, so Sandy Berger is still good.
  • The archives provides free locker space, but bring a quarter for the key slot. They also have a cafeteria.
  • The research room is under guard and heavy surveillance. It’s pretty safe to leave your stuff and go catch a break.
  • Bring a power strip. They have plugs under the desks, but one is occupied by your desk lamp. I chose to go without the desk lamp.
  • Civil War pension files tend to be much much larger than you would expect. It took a good solid two hours to scan each one, though I have an 8.5×11 scanner, so I had to do a lot of shifting of larger documents to capture everything.
  • The Archive staff are incredibly helpful and nice.
  • It’s really easy to get a researchers badge. Basically follow a power point presentation on how not to destroy history, and on how they do things, and it’s yours. Pay attention though because they explain how you request and check out documents.

I was really surprised. It’s interesting to hold original documents that your 3x great grandfather wrote by hand in ink. Because the Archives stores these documents under pretty ideal conditions, 150 year old documents look better than some of my family documents from the 1950s and 60s.

And just for those anti-gunners that act like no gun ever killed someone before Satan invented the semi-automatic firearm and marketed to paranoid gun nuts, reading the description of what happened to my 3rd great-grandfather at Antietam was pretty horrific. I’d like to see someone tell him that those old muskets weren’t fine killing machines.

First, the mini ball blew his right thumb clean off. Then it entered his chest about 4 inches below the nipple. It blew one of his ribs apart. According to one surgeon’s report, the ball passed between his lung and liver, and exited near his spinal column. Another later physicians report said the lung had been shot through, because he later received a pension increase for that wound due to breathing issues. I would think shot through the lung would be fatal back then, but maybe his lung was nonetheless still damaged. I’m sure there were bits of rib floating around in his body.

13 thoughts on “Tips of You Ever Want to Research at the National Archives”

  1. not to be pedantic, but it is a Minié ball after Claude-Étienne Minié

  2. A 50 caliber 300 grain soft lead projectile @ 1300 feet per second
    is an extremely formidable item to hit a soft human body.
    The Civil war was most certainly not civil.

    1. I did my own little box-o-truth once. Had a plywood sheet on some straw bales and lined up 10 1-gallon milk jugs full of water.

      1861 Springfield with ball went through 8 of them.

      WW II .30 caliber rifles went through 3, sometimes creased a fourth enough to spring a leak.

      AR 5.56 went through 3 and into a third.

      The hardest part of it was that the 1861 ball (.58 caliber) had a tendency to flatten and veer off course, so results were scattered.

  3. Another useful thing, for big documents, might be a copy stand and even a decent point-and-shoot camera.

    You won’t get any 300dpi out of it, but a good modern camera should get you more than enough to read text decently over, say, a tabloid-sized document – and it’ll be a lot cheaper and more portable than a large format scanner.

    1. (Though actually, doing the math, you might really get 300dpi out of a copy stand if the camera has a relatively high pixel count.

      For quality at that level you’d have to avoid low-end cameras, but …)

      1. Do the math – I’m reasonably sure a recent-model smartphone camera has the pixel density (even if they do have crappy elements). The app I use for scanning my receipts when I’m travelling claim to be able to do ~300 DPI, though since the camera itself outputs in JPEG there is some unavoidable compression. (Also, the program won’t output in TIFF, but since my Accounting Dept will take PDF, this is not a problem)
        In using that app, I find that lighting is the critical factor in how the scans come out.

        1. I’ve often gotten better results by just taking a picture. Two issues, lighting and leveling.

          But you may discover that with a little PVC and cotton cloth, you could build a box,and a cameral mount (even a DSLR mount). And then simply take pictures in one quick snap.

  4. ” I would think shot through the lung would be fatal back then. . .”

    There was a time before ours when many of our ancestors were incredibly tough, physically. Probably life-long exposure to conditions we would think incredibly unsanitary inoculated them against a lot that would do you and me in, in short order.

    FWIW, I recall that in the Anglo-Irish War, Irish patriot Dan Breen was shot through the chest and lungs at point-blank range with a .303 and recovered, after receiving what amounted to no more than first-aid quality treatment. He went on to become one of the ministers in the Irish government and lived into the 1960s. Actually I think he was seriously wounded twice during the rebellion.

  5. The National Archives will also make copies and mail them to you if you’re unable to research in person. They were able to find all the records on my ancestor even though he enlisted twice under two different names. Although his wounds were not as severe as those your ancestor suffered, my g3 grandfather was captured at Gettysburg and spent about a year at the infamous Andersonville prison camp.

    1. Yes, they will do it by mail. However, since Sebastian had two ancestors to research, and I had one, the $80/piece price tag added up to quite a bit. A person could go research for several days for the price of three pensions.

  6. There are a couple of really good apps that convert pictures taken by your phone or ipad to pdf. It’s very fast and obviously requires very little equipment. Just a thought for archiving.

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