In September 2009, the Society completed a three-year project to conserve a collection of manuscript orderly books. The project was funded by a $67,000 matching grant from the Save America's Treasures program—a partnership of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services—to fund the preservation and conservation of irreplaceable and endangered historic properties, sites, documents, artistic works, and artifacts.
The Society's collection, now numbering forty-seven volumes, is one of the larger institutional holdings of orderly books in the United States. It includes forty-two orderly books kept by Continental Army or militia units during the Revolutionary War and five that document British army activities during the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. The collection is notable for the range of dates and units it covers, providing researchers the opportunity to compare examples of these critical day-to-day records of American and British military activities during two wars.
Because so many of the volumes were in their original "hard-worn" condition, access to and duplication of their contents had been severely limited. The grant enabled the Society to have the volumes structurally repaired, strengthened, cleaned, and housed in individual archival boxes to ensure their long-term preservation. The conservation work was carried out at the Center for the Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) in Philadelphia. Orderly books acquired since the conclusion of the Save America's Treasures project have been sent to CCAHA for similar treatment. Several of the orderly books have been digitized and are available through the Society's digital library.Read More<
As physical objects, the orderly books vary in size, format, and materials. While most are pocket-sized volumes bound in boards with simple leather spines, there are some notable exceptions among the Society's collection, such as the folio-sized orderly book of Col. John Philip De Hass's First Pennsylvania Battalion, November 1775-April 1776, bound in a once-fine suede. The binding on the orderly book kept at Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene's headquarters in 1781 is made of vellum that had become brittle with age and is now restored to its former suppleness. The goal of the conservation work was to retain and preserve as much of the original materials as possible and in only a few cases was it necessary for the conservators to create a replica binding.
The contents of the orderly books make them invaluable to scholars. An orderly book in the collection kept by Gershom Foster at Cambridge, Massachusetts, opens with George Washington's General Order of January 1, 1776: "His Excellency hopes that the importance of the great cause in which we are engaged will be deeply impressed upon every man's mind; and wishes it to be considered that an Army without order, regularity and discipline is no better than a Commissioned Mob. . . . It is ordered 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." Thus, with this order Washington formalized the practice, familiar from British military tradition, of systematically keeping a daily record of the general, brigade, and division orders; Congressional declarations; courts-martial and disciplinary actions; troop movements; and other details of military operations at every unit level. As orders were handed down through the ranks, they were copied into the unit's orderly book. At the company level, the orderly book was kept by the orderly sergeant, who then read the orders aloud to the junior officers and enlisted men.
The orderly books reveal in vivid, often gritty detail the realities and hardships of camp life, with frequent injunctions about cleanliness, profanity, theft, treatment of civilians in the community, and proper behavior in camp. An orderly book covering the New York campaign during the summer of 1776 addresses the jealousies and strife that had erupted among troops from different parts of the country, entreating the men to "consider the Consequence that they can no ways assist our Cruel Enemies more Effectually than making Division among our Selves."
But the practical and routine details of army administration are often punctuated with news of the events that shaped and propelled the war. The orderly book of Stirling's Brigade kept in the early fall of 1780 by Lt. William Popham records the haunting announcement handed down by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene on September 26: "Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered — Genl. Arnold who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private & public obligation, was about to deliver up that important post into the hands of the Enemy. Such an event must give the American cause a deadly wound if not a fatal stab — happily the Treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune." The orderly book of the New Hampshire Brigade, which was then stationed at West Point, picks up in the aftermath of Arnold's treason, documenting the heightened security procedures that were ordered for that post.
Maintaining the order and discipline of the troops is the constant theme of the orderly books. In 1779, the rules and regulations of the Continental Army were codified and published in an official manual, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. The chief author was Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Steuben, the Prussian volunteer whose drill and instruction had transformed the troops at Valley Forge. The orderly books in the Society's collection contain at least a dozen direct references to the implementation of Steuben's Regulations. In one, kept for the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment at Morristown, New Jersey, during the harsh winter of 1780, Capt. Jacob Bower recorded General Washington's order that "the officers commanding Division & Brigades, by the closest personal attention to the Police of their Respective Corps to correct those disorders & introduce an exact conformity of the Regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States Established by Congress . . . . Ignorance of any of them cannot be an excuse."
The Society has assembled its orderly book collection volume by volume, through gift and purchase, over a period of more than fifty years. The donors often have been descendants of the original officers who kept the orderly books and carried them home as records of their wartime experiences. More than thirty-five of the orderly books are part of the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection, and the acquisition and preservation of orderly books continues to be a collecting priority. The growing collection is preserved, cataloged, and made available to researchers to be mined for the rich information it holds on the army operations and camp life in the era of the American Revolution. Read Less<