Those Pesky (and Just Plain Wrong?) Roman Numerals

8 07 2010

Of course there were no corps in either army at First Bull Run, but just bear with me and maybe you guys can help straighten me – or the powers that be – out.

I received a digital copy of my next Civil War Times article in what is now known as the Collateral Damage department – it was first called In Harm’s Way.  As usual, and as anyone who writes for a periodical should expect, there were some editorial changes.  One in particular caught my attention.  I have two really big pet peeves.  The first I’ve written about many times, and that is the use of an before variants of the word history.  The H is pronounced in all forms of history (unless you’re Cockney), therefore it should be preceded by a, not an.  Check out any style manual.

I know better than to give anyone an opportunity to foul that one up in the editing of anything I write, as much as it’s in my power to do that.  But it’s a little tougher when it comes to Union corps designations.  I always use Arabic numerals (1,2,3), while many, including my editors, prefer Roman numerals (I, II, III).  My thoughts have been that Roman numerals were not used during the Civil War to denote corps, so I shouldn’t use them either.  It’s been pointed out to me that the compilers of the Official Records usually spelled it out (First, Second, Third), but did not use Roman numerals.

Perhaps because today’s readers expect Roman numerals, what was 2nd Corps became II Corps in the final version of my article.  So when, and how, did the use of Roman numerals to designate Union corps come into vogue?  What’s your preference, and why: any middle-schooler will tell you that Arabic is way easier than Roman!

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12 responses

8 07 2010
Craig Swain

Arguably any designation can be offered as accurate. Monuments and memorials use “spelled out” as well as Arabic numbers. But I would suspect that has more to do with pricing of the inscription than regulations. I recall at least one Roman numeral at a monument at Vicksburg, but could be wrong.

During the Spanish-American war, Union Veterans weighed in on the matter. After all you can’t have one of those Southern militia regiments serving in some famous Union Corps, can you?

I know that the “modern” Corps trace honors (or are only supposed to trace honors) back to WWI. For example the lineage and honors for HHC, I Corps:

I’m not a WWI guy, so I don’t know the primary sources to back this up. But I’ve been told that the Roman numerals were adopted to conform with European standards. Those designations continued through WW II and into the modern time frame.

8 07 2010
Ken Noe

Amen on “a history.” And don’t get me started in people who say ‘umble.’

9 07 2010
Joel Manuel

I don’t know when the “Roman” corps designations started, but they’re so prevalent in current CW literature that I’m kind of taken aback when I see it written “1st” or “2nd” etc.

Joel M.
Baton Rouge LA

9 07 2010
Harry Smeltzer

So, Joel, are you suggesting that use of the Arabic numeral has more impact, and sets the writing apart from the crowd? Add to that the fact that it’s more correct, and it sounds like a winning formula!

9 07 2010
Joel Manuel

Yes, except perhaps on maps.

12 07 2010
Craig Swain

I still contend that the Arabic is Span-Am. War vintage, in terms of official use, because the veterans were all upset. The old GAR members didn’t want the “War Child” to be in line to command the Fifth Corps, so the War Dept. renamed it the 5th Corps. Nor was Fitz Lee allowed to command the Seventh Corps, which they renamed as the 7th Corps.

12 07 2010
Harry Smeltzer

I have no reason to doubt you. To avoid confusion, however, you are drawing a distinction between the use of a numeral (2nd) versus a word (Second). I have seen contemporary uses of the number (for instance, I own a circular headed “Head Quarters 2d Div 3d Corps, Camp near Falmouth, Jany 18, 1863″), and the compilers of the OR used the word in their headings. But I’ve never seen any contemporary references to corps using Roman numerals. Do you concur?

19 07 2010
Craig Swain

Sorry, didn’t catch the response earlier.

Not so sure I would concur. Instinct tells me the “OR” convention and the others we encounter today (even, hum, Coddington) are functions of stylistic license taken long after the Civil War.

The stance I take on this is, like with other historical details – simple prevalence of something is not enough to call it beyond-doubt-fact. Military organizations being what they are, preponderance of evidence might well be overthrown by regulatory policy! Until a document is produced that states it was US Army policy to use a particular format for the designation of Corps during the Civil War, none of us have the final word.

19 07 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Well, let’s put it this way – can you think of any comtemporary use of Roman numerals? I can’t.

14 07 2010
Corey Meyer

I am not sure, but the first clock in the article is a nice example of the Victorian “4”…”IIII” not “IV”…sorry that that does not help with your question on Corps, but that’s all I’ve got right now.

10 07 2014
Patrick Schroeder

Many years ago I was told by a Park Service employee that Roman Numerals were not used during the Civil War to represent Corps when writing. I did not believe him at the time as so many present-day books and battlefield maps do. But I found out that he is correct. I’ve gone through thousands of Civil War letters and documents and have never seen Roman Numerals used. By the time I learned of this, I had already wrote my book “We Came to Fight”–on the 5th New York Veteran Volunteers, and I had used Roman Numerals for Corps in the text and on the maps. I refrain from doing that now as it is historically incorrect. During the war, they typically wrote out the Corps, such as Fifth Corps or 5th Corps, but never V Corps. Now working for the Park Service and dealing with the public on a regular basis I’ve learned that some of the public do not understand when the Roman Numerals are used to represent the Corps and misread it. I remember one man telling me that he had an ancestor that served in the “Vee” Corps…the same issue comes up with the First Corps and some will call it the “I” or “eye Corps”. You see the confusion. I advocate using numbers or spelling out the Corps in text and on maps.

11 07 2014
Harry Smeltzer

I’m right there with ya, Patrick. In fact, I don’t even use “the.” Just First Corps, Second Corps, (or 1st, 2nd), etc…

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