VISITORS TO THE vast research sections of the National Archives run the risk of being trapped like those ancient animals at the La Brea Tar Pits. One after another stops to sip and winds up sinking into a morass.

"It's like a time machine," said one elderly researcher in the microfilm reading room. "I came here the first time, about five years ago, because my son asked me to look up what my husband's people did in the Civil War. He lives out in California now, and he wants my grandchildren to have some sense of where they came from."

She took off her thick glasses and rubbed her eyes."Well, it turned out that they were all deserters or whatever, and a couple of them were shot for it. So I started scratching around in the other branches of the family to see if I could find some heroes." She bent back to the microfilm reader. "I'm still scratching."

So am I, having been beguiled into "trying a few names" by James D. Walker, director of Archives genealogical programs.

"It's a good way to get an idea of the resources we have, which few people realize," he said. In staff, budget, number of buildings and just about everything else, Archives is comparable to the Smithsonian Institution. Repository of virtually every significant federal document since the Revolution, from treaties to the trivial, Archives is a do-it-yourself museum: All you need is a researcher's card, issued free, and you can dive into the first-hand sources on virtually any phase of American history, or on your own (or anybody else's) family.

"If you get really into it," Walker said, "you're bound to come up with some no-good rascal you're related to. As I tell my genealogy students, if you don't find bad guys you haven't done your homework."

RASCALS I FOUND straight off, after Walker took about 10 minutes to set me up for an apparently endless search. "Run through the indexes to those who served in the various wars, then try the pension and bounty land files. The Census reports you can use later, when you know what states and towns to look for. You're lucky to have a name like yours. You could be a Smith or a Jones. Or a Walker." "With few exceptions, the Burchards and Birchards in North America are descended from a 40-year-old laborer named Thomas Burchard and his wife Mary, who came from Old to New England with their five children on the True Love in September 1635.)

Among my rascals were brothers Sylvester and Theodore Burchard of Steuben, N.Y., who applied for the Western bounty lands awarded during the mid-19th century to veterans of the War of 1812. They were sergeants, they said, the both of them, in Capt. Samuel Johnson's Company of New York Militia, had served honorably, and wanted 160 acres each. The claim rejection notes tersely that they "entered the service . . . on the 7th Oct. 1814 and deserted on 21 Oct. 1814."

George W. Burchard redeemed the Steuben branch's military reputation in the Civil War. A lawyer, he enlisted at 26 in August 1862, four months after the death of his wife, Emma. He served with the 29th Wisconsin Regiment and then as major of the 54th Regt., U.S.C. Troops, through September 1866. Ten days after his discharge he married the fair Lucinda Charles of Iowa City, by whom he had five sons.

U.S.C. Troops? "U.S. Colored Troops," a research assistant explained. A detour into the Archives library showed the number and richness of sources on his aspect of black history. Made up of both runaway slaves and freemen, they were officered by white men, used at first strictly as labor battalions, and largely despised by the white Union troops. Later in the war they fought with courage - and losses - rarely equaled. "The 54th was one of the finest," the assistant said. "I could give you sources that would keep you busy for years."

The classic Civil War story is of course the family of divided allegiance that sent brother to meet brother on the battlefield. An hour or so in the indexes turned up my maternal great-grandfather, Fifer John Sadoc Smiley, serving with the 39th North Carolina at the Battle of Chickamauga, where Pvt. Frederick Burchard, 23, of the 35th Ohio was wounded, captured, and had his left arm amputated.

In the opening action, before first light, the 35th Ohio was sent into the dense woods and brushy bottomland along Chickamauga Creek as a skimish line. They ran into Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's dismounted cavalry.Threescore of the 35th Ohio were killed or wounded within 30 minutes, according to their commander, Lt. Col. Henry V.N. Boynton, but the regiment went on fighting from dawn to dark (they had gone into battle with 15 minutes' rest after a 14-hour march). When their ammunition ran out, they fixed bayonets and fought on. The unit lost half its men, which helps explain the vehemence of the final paragraph of Boynton's report from the field:

Returning our heartfelt thanks to our Heavenly Father, the God of Battles, that we were able to thus discharge our whole duty, and sorrowing as only soldiers can over the deaths and wounds of our noble comrades fallen, we pray that the future may find us ever ready to combat treason on Southern battle-fields and, when the war is over, among the vile traitors of the North .

It is to be hoped that Boynton's boys didn't find too many vile traitors to combat when they got home, because they must have had their hands full: only 22 of the 35th Ohio's original 400 men were present for duty at muster-out.

COUSIN FREDERICK may have been a "noble comrade fallen" to his colonel, but to whole generations of cold-blooded and suspicious pension clerks at Washington he was just another pig at the public trough. There is a maddening series of letters in which they kept asking if there was enough of a stump left on Frederick to mount an artificial arm, in which case his pension could be reduced from $20 a month to $12. He was called in for remeasuring a couple of times a year, decade after decade, until a few years before his death at 81 in 1922. Eventually the stump (along with the rest of him) grew so withered the clerks gave up. It was my first introduction to government red tape, the real thing, taters of which still cling to some of the endless forms.

GREAT-GRANDFATHER Smiley, whose fifing may have haunted Frederick in those dark and deadly Southern woods, is made much of in the family, which gathers in his name each second Sunday in July at Cold Springs Baptist Church in Swain County, N.C. He went for a soldier as a lad of 17, served throughout in the losing Cause, and returned to found the church, the county's public school system, and the damndest family you ever did see.

What nobody had ever spoken of to me, before I found it in the Archives' Captured Rebel Documents file, is that in the fall of 1862, when the Confederate Army of the Tennessee was driven out of Kentucky, Great-Grandfather kept on going until he was safe in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Copies of some of Great-Grandfather's service records are in family papers passed down to me, but not the ones that tell about the desertion.

"We keep it all, the good news and the bad news," Walker said. "Sometimes people are sorry they came. There was a man in here a few months back who was just beaming at the chance to look up all the family heroes he had been told about. He was telling me wonderful stories about them as we went along. I pulled file after file for him, and it was one thief and drunk and deserter and malingerer after another. He took it very hard. People who are really emotionally involved with their ancestors probably shouldn't look them up, because sooner or later they're likely to find out something they don't want to know."

Great-Grandaddy's captain at first listed him as "captured in Kentucky," but Johnny had gone marching home to Mother.She sent him straight back to the war, a family member asserted when asked about it, but the record shows that the round trip of at most a few hundred miles took him nearly five months. What his punishment was is not in the file; by Gen. Bragg's standing orders he should have been shot.

Fifer smiley never carried a gun, but Pvt. Alonzo N. Smiley of the 3d North Carolina did, and it is (just barely) possible he was the one who shot poor Lorenzo D. Burchard of the 134th New York at Gettysburg. Alonzo, 27, was killed on Culp's Hill there, but may have gotten the best of the bargain.

Lorenzo had already had a tough enough time of it, having fought at Fairfax Court House, Warrenton and Germantown and survived the holocaust at Fredericksburg and the rout at Chancellorsville, in which the badly-handled Union 11th Corps was all but shattered in May of 1863.

Lorenzo, 22, was crippled by a minie ball that splintered his left femur just below the hip joint. The bone knit at the wrong angle, and the wound drained pus throughout the remaining 39 years of his life. The former carpenter was left "pale and feeble and confined to his home the year round," according to one of the examining surgeons sent every few months by those implacable pension clerks. Another of the doctors noted that Lorenzo had "a mild and restless expression of the eyes," an incomparable description of long-suffering resignation.

IT CANNOT have made Lorenzo any happier to know that if the generals on either side had done as they were told he never would have been involved in the savage action in which he was hit.

The first day's battle, July 1, 1863, took place against Lee's strict orders; he told his commanders not to fight until he could concentrate the army, which ws strung out from Harper's Ferry to Chambersburg. But Harry Heth's ragged division was desperate for shoes, and there was a factory in Gettysburg; when he ran into some Union cavalry he tried to brush them aside.

Meade, five days in command of the Army of the Potomac, didn't want to fight there; he had chosen a battlefield a few miles south. But Buford's cavalry held the ground, Reynolds came up with infantry, and soon the 11th Corps was involved.

Lorenzo still was all right, because his regiment was ordered held in reserve. Then Gen. Ewell arrived from Chambersburg and smashed the 11th Corps' line. O. O. Howard reluctantly committed the 134th to help form a screen north of town behind which the rest of the corps could take refuge. The reserves made a gallant stand that kept defeat from becoming disaster; they held long enough for the Bluebellies to dig in on Cemetery Ridge, against which Lee hurled and lost the heart of his army. The 134th suffered 63 percent casualties: 42 killed, 151 wounded and 59 missing.

This simple account was extracted from more than a score of separately filed documents, plus a dozen published accounts. When armies aren't fighting they are filling out reports: lieutenants to captains, captains to majors, majors to colonels, colonels to generals and generals to commanders in chief. To the extent that they survive, all these reports, some muddy and some bloody, some indexed and some not, are on file at Archives.

"WITH LUCK and patience you can find out pretty much what any individual private soldier, Yank or Reb, did in the war, or at least when he was with a unit and what that unit was doing," an Archives Civil War specialist said. "The odds are better on Union soldiers, because the Northern armies kept better records and many of the Southern records were destroyed in the confusion after Appomattox. Of course there are big gaps in the Union records too, because the Confederates spent a lot of time romping through the enormous Yankee baggage trains. In the case of officers, both files are much better."

Many of the Archives records are printed or microfilmed, but there are millions of originals, so many that the files are measured in cubic feet rather than pages. The Civil War files, for instance, include morning reports, letters of praise or reprimand, muster and pay rolls, scrawled battlefield orders, hospital passes, all the pieces of paper that armies generate. Dusty; yellowed, fragile, written in beautiful or illegible script, they are personal and real , in a way that books cannot be.

The flavor of them is suggested by the notation in the file of Sgt. Robert Smiley, 25, Co. A, 25th North Carolina, that during his otherwise satisfactory service he was fined $10 "for hewing rails." "That would be chopping up fence rails for firewood, presumably on Southern territory," said the researcher in the next booth. "Whenever an army passed, friend or foe, they burned all the fence rails, and the firewood stacked against the coming winter, even barns and outhouses. It was a serious problem."

Sgt. Smiley's file goes on to say that he surrendered at Appomattox April 9, 1865, and by May 10 had made his way to Washington, where he took the loyalty oath at the Navy Yard. Perhaps, wandering the streets and eating at the refugee kitchens, he met Medical Cadet William Metcalf Burchard, who enlisted at 17 in the 6th connecticut (which three weeks later was at Antietam). Invalided to Washington with dysentery, he stayed to study medicine at Georgetown University. Thus the Burchards came to the Federal City. . .

"YOU BETTER BE careful, fella," warned the pallid wretch in the opposite booth. "You can dribble your life away in here. I am, for instance, no doubt the world authority on the Confederate service of supply. It is totally useless, or at best worth a chapter in the definitive history of the war. But I just can't tear myself away. You want to know why the South lost? Because they ran out of hogs and salt, that's why. You want to know why they ran out of hogs and salt? No, you don't. Neither does any other rational person. Get out of here while you still can."

Sure, right after I check ot a few things. Such as C. Burchard of Vermont, who died August 21, 1864, of "debilitas" at notorious Andersonville Prison and was buried in Grave No. 6334. And George W. Burchard, whose ship Stonington , a New England whaler, was pressed into the Federal service by Commodore Stockton for the defense of San Diego and "Delos Angeles" in 1846. Ant Lt. John H. DeHart, 23, (maternal grandfather's line), killed at Cobb's Mills, N.C., while riding with the notably disloyal 6th North Carolina Cavalry. And Pvt. Calvin C. Taber, 23, (same line) of the 14th North Carolina, who was wounded in the head and captured at Petersburg eight days before the war ended. He was hurried to Washington overnight aboard the steamer State of Maine , but died at Lincoln General Hospital April 16, the day after Lincoln.

And what about Pvt. L. Taber, 25, who was a court-martial noted in his service file? "We don't have many Confederate courts-martial," said a researcher, but five minutes later she laid the document down:

HD. QRS. DEPARTMENT OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA

17th September 1863

GENERAL ORDERS No. 88

I. Continuation of the proceedings of a General Court Martial, convened at the Camp of Wilcox's (late Pender's) Division, by virtue of Special Orders, No. 197, Head Quarters Department of Northern Virginia, current series, at which were arraigned and tried the following named prisoners - (Some of the Specifications are omitted):

20. - Private E.L. Taber, Company K, 16th.

N.C. Troops.

CHARGE - Misbehavior before the enemy.

FINDING.

Of 1st Specification to Charge, Not Guilty.

Of 2d Specification to Charge, Guilty

Of 3d Specification to Charge, Guilty

SENTENCE.

And the Court do therefore sentence the said Private E. L. Taber, Co. K, 16th N.C. Troops, to be made to wear on his left ankle a ball and chain: the ball to weigh not less than twelve pounds and the chain to be not less than three feet long, for the space of one month.

The Court are lenient in this case, because the evidence shows that the accused has fought well in other battles, to wit, at Seven Pines, Manassas No. 2, Fredericksburg, and one day before Richmond, and because the evidence shows that he has already been severely punished for his conduct on this occasion of being kept in confinement at Castle Thunder for several months.

The Court were quite lenient, it seems; most of the others tried that day were sentenced "to be shot to death by musketry." But those omitted Specifications are frustrating. What sort of "misbehavior" in the face of the enemy? When? Where?

"It can be reconstructed, at least to the regimental level," the assistant said. "How bad do you want to know? How much time have you got?" Elias, a black-haired, hazel-eyed six-footer, went on to be wounded May 6, 1864, at The Wilderness. Having enlisted in April 1861, he seems to have grown pretty tired to the war by then, because after he got out of the hospital he went AWOL for a couple of weeks. Elias was captured at Five Forks when the demoralized Confederate units there collapsed on April 1, 1865. He was released June 21 at Point Lookout. . .

GENEALOGIST WALKER noted my baggy eyes with approval. "It's fun, isn't it?" he said. "We can do the same for any war, sometimes more, sometimes less. And you can document immigrations, from such things as ship passenger rolls; migration, from Census reports and land grants and records of territorial courts and so forth. It's all here. You know, the national history is just a whole lot of personal histories."

Personal histories, indeed. There is Pvt. Phines Burchard in the Mexican War, for instance. Five feet one, dark complected, with black hair and eyes, Phines signed up at 21 in Travis County, Texas. He "served honestly and faithfully" as a scout with Capt. Ben McCulloch's Texas Mounted Rangers, "acting as spies under the immediate orders of Maj. Gen [Zachary] Taylor."

Later, not so honestly and faithfully, he forged and sold an 80-acre land grant made out to cousin Thomas Burchard. The government not only forgave him but issued him another 80-acre grant.

Later still, more sordidly, he tyrannized his wife Elizabeth and their 10 children. "I was afraid to leave home for fear he would do the children harm, he was so mean to us," she said in an affidavit supporting her application for a widow's pension in 1905.

"He would not provide for me. I had to go out and work for 50 cents a day to make a living for myself and the children and he threatened to kill the children if I did not stay home and care for them. . ."

She got the pension.

EVERY TRAIL forks and forks again. One is led into historical byways and backwaters such as the Patriot War of 1837, in which Gurdon Burchard was called up for a month by the Buffalo Guards. 1837? Wasn't that the Texas War of Independence?

"Nope," says a specialist. "That was the last time we almost went to war with Canada, or rather with England, since Canada was not yet independence. There was a revolt in Canada, largely involving dissatisfied French-speaking citizens and immigrant Americans, and the Canadians sent a raiding party to burn the American steamer Caroline at her dock in Buffalo.She had been supplying the insurgents.

"Well, Americans went wild about that. They were already mad anyway, because of the dispute over the boundary between Canada and Maine. Some ambiguous wording in the Treaty of 1783. There was a lot of trouble along the St. Johns River, rival timbering parties and so forth. Also the U.S. was angy about the British dumping paupers and petty criminals on us by shipping them to Canada and slipping them over the border. Americans formed guerrilla and vigilante companies and demanded war. A bunch of them burned the Canadian steamer Sir Robert Peel , - named after the founder of the famous London Bobbies, don't you know - at Welles Island, one of the Thousand Islands. The whole border was in arms. . .

"It was quite an affair. You should look into it."