Do You Trust Compiled Military Service Records?



3 February 2014

The Compiled Military Service Records for a dozen men in the Revolutionary War company of Col. Robert Rae credit them with “casualties” at Augusta (Georgia) or Silver Bluff (South Carolina). Yet none of the men actually were casualties.1

CMSR cards are basic to our research on military personnel from many wars. Why did all these RW cards err? Are they typical of other wars? What impact can this have upon our research? How do we “protect” ourselves against such errors?

Many of "history's mysteries" go unsolved for two reasons:

  1. We don't under the understand the source—which is a major reason why the CMSR cards can be so misleading.
  2. We are too trusting—especially with official records.

The solution for Problem 1 is to study finding aids and case studies. The case study at the link below will walk you through the methodology by which the mystery of the Silver Bluff casualties was solved. It will also identify major finding aids that every student of American history should be familiar with.

The solution for Problem 2 is even simpler. Just remember: There's no such thing as the Gospel according to the Government Clerk.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 3: Flawed Records,”  Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation &  Source Usage (