Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Imagine, nearly a century and a half ago, an entire company of soldiers mustering out at the end of their service. A hundred or more war-wearied men line up and, one-by-one, give a personal accounting to field clerks as they leave the army to return home. Company officers sitting at a makeshift table huddle over a huge sheet of heavy ruled paper and list each soldier and record what happened to him during the epic event of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. Most revealing is the “Remarks” column that describes each man’s present disposition: “mustered out with Company,” “prisoner at Andersonville,” or “wounded at Chancellorsville.” Officers made entries for those not present, such as “recovering in hospital,” “died at Antietam,” “died of disease,” “deserted,” “lost,” and “status unknown.” An accounting was created for every one of the more than 360,000 Pennsylvanians who served the Union. Upon completion, the large paper, or “roll,” was neatly folded, and, together with other company records, was dispatched to the state Adjutant General’s Office in Harrisburg for safekeeping.

Now, today, picture a table containing one of these Muster Out Rolls, this time in a modern laboratory, only now the once crisp paper is warped, torn, tattered, stained, and dirty. People again huddle over the roll, not to record names and facts, but to restore it for today’s — and tomorrow’s — historians, genealogists, and researchers. They painstakingly remove scotch tape, lessen stains, and repair tears. They are professional paper conservators, and their challenge is to preserve these unique documents and the invaluable information they contain.

Thanks to a $375,000 grant from Save America’s Treasures, a federal program, and an appropriation of $675,000 from the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Archives embarked, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Heritage Society, on a three-year project in October 2005 to conserve these priceless Muster Out Rolls. The ambitious project will restore more than twenty-five hundred of these sizable records, some of which measure more than two by three feet.

The Muster Out Rolls had not fared well since being collected in the field and placed in the Adjutant General’s Office in 1865. After the Civil War, the office staff constantly consulted the documents, usually to verify pension claims made by veterans and widows. In time, a new group, mostly genealogists and scholars, wanted access to the records for family and historical research. As the large sheets of paper aged, and were constantly folded and unfolded, they broke apart along creases, and the well-intentioned staff would duly repair them with whatever was at hand — glue, masking and scotch tape, even staples.

The unique records were being destroyed by years of handling. Most were broken into twelve or more rectangular pieces, some much worse than that, resembling pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. After the rolls were transferred to the Pennsylvania State Archives in the 1960s, archivists concerned about their condition hesitated to handle them for fear of contributing to their disintegration. An alphabetical card file prepared by Works Progress Administration workers in the 1930s had helped somewhat. The card file is now part of a free public searchable database on ARIAS, maintained by the Pennsylvania State Archives. Additionally, Samuel P. Bates’ five-volume History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861–1865, rushed into print after the war, is also useful, but only provides cursory, and sometimes inaccurate, information. The National Archives has some copies of the rolls, but they are in a similar condition. The collection of rolls at the Pennsylvania State Archives is the only definitive source of the most accurate data about the Commonwealth’s Civil War soldiers.

Today, a new kind of war is being waged, one against time, mishandling, and overuse. This battle is being fought on two fronts: in Philadelphia at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) and in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania State Archives. The documents in the poorest condition — about twelve hundred “jigsaw puzzles” — have been sent to CCAHA, where conservators flatten, clean, de-acidify, piece together, and repair them with Japanese mending tissue. Other rolls are treated similarly at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Work on each muster out roll takes approximately twenty hours and costs $480. After treatment, the rolls are encapsulated between sheets of clear polyester film, placed in acid-free folders, and safely stored in flat storage cases.

The project team in Harrisburg consists of Linda A. Ries, director, Richard C. Saylor, archivist, and Lindsay Bergen and Ruthanna M. Kulp, conservation technicians. “The excitement of working with the actual documents created and used in the field by the soldiers themselves is a great privilege,” says Saylor. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to preserve these records during our watch. Without this project, primary source material for the study of Pennsylvania’s soldiers during the Civil War could be lost forever.” Kulp agrees. “In these fragile papers we meet the individuals whose actions shaped a new United States,” she says. “It puts a human face to war. Reading the ‘Remarks’ columns can be quite poignant — for example, General Strong Vincent’s entry states: ‘Died July 8th 1863 of wound received July 2 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Pa. Made Brig. Gen’l.’”

The record series “Civil War Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1861–1866,” safeguarded by the Pennsylvania State Archives includes Alphabetical Rolls, Lists of Deserters, Muster In Rolls, and Muster Out Rolls for each company and regiment. Each roster possesses its strengths and weaknesses, but the Muster Out Rolls were the final rolls compiled at the time that a company was disbanding. Each sheet contains ruled lines and a pre-printed masthead, with blank spaces for officers and clerks to fill in. The documents average one per company and exist for the more than two hundred and fifteen Pennsylvania infantry regiments, independent batteries, Veterans Reserves, and United States Colored Troops, among others.

Except for New Yorkers, more Pennsylvanians fought for the Union than any other northern state. It was one of the most important states in the North in terms of military might, and one of the first states to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops in 1861. Pennsylvania contributed more than its share of senior military leaders to the Union cause, including Generals George Gordon Meade, George B. McClellan, Winfield Scott Hancock, John F. Reynolds, John F. Hartranft, and John W. Geary. The Keystone State’s regiments distinguished themselves throughout the war and, in many cases, directly affected the outcomes of critical battles, such as the 51st at Burnside Bridge at Antietam, the 83rd at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, and the 148th, whose anthracite miners dug a tunnel and laid the explosives that blew a crater in the Confederate defensive works at Petersburg. Pennsylvania’s soldiers can also be considered a microcosm of the ethnic and cultural make-up of Americans who fought for the North in the Civil War: approximately 8,600 African-Americans from Pennsylvania volunteered, more than from any other northern state; units such as the 74th from Pittsburgh were largely comprised of German-speaking soldiers; and the 116th largely consisted of Irish from Philadelphia and was attached to the Army of the Potomac’s famous “Irish Brigade.”

The staff of the Pennsylvania State Archives anticipates the demand on these records will increase, given the popularity of the Civil War era and, especially, its upcoming one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. “The goal is to put them back together to the point where they can be reproduced easily,” says Ries. “We cannot photograph them in the condition they are in now; they are too warped and fragile. If we can repair them to the point where they can be digitally photographed, we can then create electronic versions to share with the public. These men fought and many died for the cause, and we owe them no less than making certain their legacy, the records of their accomplishments, are preserved intact.” Upon completion of the project in 2008, the State Archives will concentrate on obtaining additional funding to scan the documents and place them on the PHMC’s Web site by 2011, the launch of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

The project’s two conservation technicians undertake some cleaning and repair of the documents, transport them between the Pennsylvania State Archives and the CCAHA, and manage databases that keep track of it all. “We know where each one is at any given stage of the project, whether before, during, or after treatment, or if it’s in Harrisburg or Philadelphia,” says Bergen.

Members of the project team are available to travel and speak about the project to community groups and historical organizations.

Contributions to help carry out this exciting project are being actively sought. Donations should be sent to: Pennsylvania Heritage Society, Commonwealth Keystone Building, Plaza Level, 400 North St., Harrisburg, PA 17120- 0024. Individuals wanting to know more about funding opportunities may telephone (717) 787-2407, or visit www.paheritage.org on the Web.