Orderly Books of the Continental and British Armies

Four manuscript orderly books from the Revolutionary War, one open with handwriting filling the pages and three others closed beside itIn September 2009, we completed a three-year project to conserve our collection of manuscript orderly books, which then numbered thirty-five volumes. 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 Institute’s collection of manuscript orderly books—now numbering more than fifty volumes—is one of the larger institutional holdings of orderly books in the United States. While the majority of the orderly books document the activities of the Continental Army or local militia, there are also examples from British army units 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 operations 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 supported conservation treatment to stabilize, repair, strengthen and clean the orderly books and house them in individual archival boxes to ensure their long-term preservation. The 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 Institute’s digital library.

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 Institute’s collection, such as the folio-sized orderly book of Col. John Philip De Haas’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 is to retain and preserve as much of the original materials as possible, and in only a few cases has it been necessary for the conservators to create a replica binding. In one case, the orderly book of Capt. John Dorlon’s Company of Col. Jacobus Swartwout’s Regiment of Minutemen (New York, 1776), the individual leaves had separated completely from the binding, which required a painstaking examination of the text, watermarks, stains and other evidence to get the pages into the correct order. In this example and some of the others, the book has a reversible (or tête-bêche) format, meaning that the text had been written to be read from the “front” of the book, with additional text to be read from the “back” when the volume is flipped over and turned 180 degrees.

Orderly books are among the most valuable primary sources for scholars studying the operations and progression of the Revolutionary War. To learn more about their history and rich contents, visit a special feature on our holdings of orderly books in Discover the Collections.