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Researching Ancestors of the Civil War Era...

How to Research the Civil War Soldier
for Genealogy and the Family Tree

 Military, Army, Navy, Service Records, Promotion, Wounded, Transfer, Prisoner, and Unit Designations

Introduction
 
Researching your ancestors who served in the Union or Confederate military during the Civil War can be very rewarding, but it requires a lot of patience and a basic understanding of the servicemen of the era. While gathering and organizing the volumes of information on your 19th Century soldier, it is important to know what to look for as well as where to look, because it really saves a lot of time (not to mention headaches) as you are trekking for the most reliable and detailed genealogy for your family history. It is therefore helpful to acquire a basic understanding of the life of the Civil War soldier while researching the military service.

Civil War soldier family tree & genealogy research
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Help and assistance researching Civil War soldier genealogy and family tree. Courtesy VMI.

Soldiers
 
During the Civil War, for both the North and South, many soldiers enlisted in the company being raised in the local community and they often served with brothers, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and best friends. The common soldier served in at least two units while some served in as many as seven or more. Serving in multiple units generally causes problems for the researcher, because, in the following example, Private John Hero enlisted in a company from his hometown in 1861, but because of an illness he was discharged in 1862, and having fully recovered, Hero enlisted in another company and received his bounty in 1863, but in in a matter of weeks, the parent regiment was decimated during the fight at Gettysburg in 1863, so Hero was transferred to a battalion, where he served until that unit was captured and paroled near Petersburg in 1864. Hero, having been paroled, enlisted in a unit that was in the process of reorganization, where he served until April of 1865, when he, along with his unit, was paroled at Appomattox.
 

It is important to have a basic understanding of the life of the Civil War soldier in order to better assist in researching the soldier's military service. Gathering service information on an ancestor who served in the Union military is usually profitable, so the emphasis in the Confederacy.
 
During the four year Civil War, many soldiers served in at least two units while some served in as many as six or more. Serving in multiple units generally causes problems for the researcher, because most of the Confederate records were destroyed before the conflict concluded. Why keep records that may serve only as incriminating evidence for a possible treason trial, was one consensus among Confederate officers. While many Southern soldiers complained after the war that Lincoln's so-called hordes intentionally destroyed their compiled military service records, the soon to be former Confederate soldiers were burning and destroying all traces of Rebel service as the outcome of the conflict was rather obvious. To fully appreciate the complexity of collecting information on the Southern soldier's military service, one only needs to know that when the Civil War was finally over, neither the Confederate states nor the U.S. government had any idea of how many Southern soldiers had died during the conflict. Neither side had any clue as to the total Confederate troops killed, wounded, captured, missing in action, desertions, and for deaths other than battle, so the word estimate is used often when discussing the late conflict.
 
Consider the example of Private John Hero who enlisted in a company from his hometown in 1861, but because of an illness he was discharged in 1862, but having fully recovered, Hero enlisted in another company and received his bounty in 1863, but in in a matter of weeks, the parent regiment was decimated during the fight at Gettysburg in 1863, so Hero was transferred to a battalion, where he served until that unit was captured and paroled near Petersburg in 1864. Hero, having been paroled, now enlisted in a unit that was concluding its reorganization, where he served until April of 1865, when he, along with his unit, was paroled at Appomattox.

Civil War genealogy
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Confederate First lieutenant with wife and baby, ca. Civil War.

(About) Tintype photograph of Confederate First lieutenant with wife and baby. While her husband was at war, one may only imagine the difficulties and hardships his wife endured. Many cold nights passed while the pangs of war kept papa from his precious baby and darling wife. While preparing for battle, most soldiers said their last prayer and wrote their last letter to their loved ones. As days turned to weeks and weeks to months and months to years, a husband, a father, held firmly to only what mattered in this short life, to only what sustained him: family. Ca. 1860-1865. Library of Congress.

Civil War Genealogy & Soldier Research
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Civil War Ancestor & Ancestry Research

Records
 
After the war, when the soldier or widow applied for his military pension, his state required proof, such as enlistment papers, showing the former soldier's military service. Notice that the state didn't have the required Confederate records and troop rosters, because they had already been destroyed, so burden rested with the soldier alone. Often times affidavits from former troops were sought by the veteran in an attempt to receive the pension.
 
For research purposes, to locate a Confederate soldier's enlistment, discharge and parole papers is akin to winning the lottery, and since the war was fought some 150 years ago, from 1861 to '65, time too has not been kind to the sleuth. For the veteran's pension to be approved, it was necessary to establish both entry and exit dates for military service. So it is elementary to understand that to also fill in the blanks between the two dates with the soldier's daily life, is a rather challenging task.
 
When a soldier was wounded and subsequently returned to service, he may have transferred to different regiment, or simply been ordered to serve in a mustering unit that was pushing toward a fight. Exigencies of the Civil War have the tendency of making it difficult for those researching kin of that conflict. Late in the war, 1864 onward, there were many occasions when all available men were called up, including convalescents and those fit to carry a firearm, in a last ditch attempt to defend the homeland. 
 
After a soldier was separated from his company during battle, he may have straggled and then temporarily served in the first unit he encountered. This also occurred after a prisoner exchange. The prisoner exchanges occurred for the first half of the war en masse, with each side usually trading soldiers of equal rank,  and while some prisoners were paroled under the condition that they would not bear arms and rejoin the fight, others simply refused the condition and returned to their old unit. There was a segment, however, that was determined to honor their word, even when threatened with desertion by their commander. When a soldier was absent from his command, regardless of the reason, it was documented.
 
Some military units had various numerical designations, particularly early in the war when most units were raised for only 90 days. Other commands, for instance, were initially raised as an artillery regiment but later redesignated as infantry. In 1864, many of the fighting regiments, as they were called in the North, were reduced by some 70%, so the unit was either increased in numbers to achieve the desired strength, remained understrength, disbanded, reorganized, or it consolidated. Unit attrition was attributed to killed-in-action, mortally wounded, diseases, wounds, desertion, capture, missing-in-action, death from all causes other than battles, and enlistment expiration. A typical regiment consisted of approximately 1,100 soldiers or ten companies. Each company consisted of 110 soldiers, and by subtracting 70% because of attrition, the high cost of war becomes quite obvious. As the contest endured and attrition increased, brigade and division commanders would have to determine whether or not to strengthen, consolidate, or disband a regiment.
 
When a soldier such as Robert Gustavus Adolphus Love, who on paper was R. G. A. Love, initially served as a captain in the 16th North Carolina Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia, but upon his promotion to colonel of the 62nd North Carolina, he was now in command of a regiment that was assigned to the Department of East Tennessee. Every promotion needs to be verified as an official promotion through channels because, while collecting information on an ancestor who fought during the Civil War, it is common to find contradictions in the highest rank held. The best route to pursue and verify the soldier's rank is to try and obtain any or all of the following: discharge papers, official promotion document, parole letter when the war ended, approved pension record (if not approved then don't state the rank claimed either), muster records, troop rosters, and correspondence in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
 
Apply information from the soldier's diary, memoirs, and personal correspondence cautiously since they were written by the soldier himself, who may or may not have embellished his military service. In the case of memoirs, which were generally written decades afterwards, they were well-known for their accounts  describing spectacular actions while also being prone to bouts of memory lapses.

"We Made It"
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Nellie Carhart, Annie Mead, Lizzie Palmer, sisters

(About) Left to right: Nellie Carhart, Annie Mead, Lizzie Palmer, sisters. This tintype photograph was found with the tintype of Private Abram M. Carhart, Company C, 177th New York Infantry Regiment. The three sisters were raised only knowing the bitter realities of Civil War. Between 1870 and 1879. Library of Congress.

Civil War Soldier & Ancestry Research
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Civil War Soldier Genealogy & Ancestry

Units
 
While most soldiers served in the same regiment with family, friends, and neighbors, it was always the band of brotherhood that kept the unity strong. Many contemporary writers believe that the main reason why many soldiers refused to coward and run in the other direction while confronted with battle, known as the White Feather, was because of the disgrace the soldier would be confronted with back in the local community. So they insist it was shame that kept many soldiers firmly in rank and file formation as they pushed and marched headlong into an onslaught of musketry and cannonading. This writer has a serious problem with that flawed position, because it was and always has been the man next to you that kept the unit strong and as a fierce fighting force regardless of the odds and outcome. They fought for each other and not because of the likelihood of being confronted with shame and humiliation at home. By being assigned to a unit with family and friends would actually serve as an even greater motivator to fight and to fight like furies. 
 
Although many served in the same unit because its ranks were being filled with able-bodied men from the same local community, it was love, yes love, that compelled the majority to serve alongside their family and friends as combat and carnage awaited them. While fight or flight applies to combat, fear results in flight while love commands the fight. The community as a whole also entrusted their loved ones to enlist and serve with relatives and neighbors-- and they had conviction that the men of the extended family would look out and care for their loved ones during the war.
 
The folks from the soldier's hometown are good sources  of information for the locally recruited army company, for they would be in receipt of personal letters and diaries and local newspapers telling of the day-to-day life and struggles of the unit along with its assignments, battles, and casualties.
 
While the war dragged on, letters and communication became more scarce, making them all the more valuable when located by the family genealogist. Oral history, the unit's history, memoirs, diaries, letters, and old newspapers are all resources for the researcher, but their information should be corroborated if possible. Early in the conflict, stomachs were generally full and the bands of bushwhackers had yet to wreak havoc on the homefront, so greater focus was given toward recording the unit's information both at home and by men of the unit.
 
The first impression was a lasting impression as the saying goes, so the local unit that the soldiers originally enlisted in was generally well-known by many of the area's citizens, but as soldiers began to transfer one by one to various units that had been raised outside of the town or county, only a few individuals, namely family members, would receive and have knowledge of the command's activities. But as correspondence continued to falter as months passed, making it more difficult to ascertain the soldier's whereabouts during any given month, casualties too continued to rise, making less information available to the family researcher.
 
Significant battles and events were generally front or near front page news in both Northern and Southern papers, such as the fight at Gettysburg and Gen. Early's assault on the nation's capitol. But as the exchange of letters continued to decline because of hardship reasons, Confederate soldiers were also now torching and shredding the unit's records, and that meant all available records for many units. From muster to transfer to casualty reports, all were destroyed, and what the Confederates failed to erase, the Union troops were happy to oblige.
 
During 1864-65, the exigencies of the conflict caused mayhem for the troops (and now the researcher) as patchwork detachments were being formed and moved rapidly to engage the foe on battlefields near and far, and in concert the unit made lieutenants out of privates by laity vote and without official authorization. They did it because they could, but in diaries and memoirs it may explain why the rank indicated is higher than the rank listed on the pension and parole document. During the war the more popular actions and deeds were generally discussed by citizens and soldiers, while other events generally received little attention. Some soldiers abbreviated their name during the war, for instance, signing all military related documents as J. Jones instead of Joshua Jones, which at face value can be problematic for the genealogist. 
 
As the Civil War continued to bludgeon the nation in early 1865, some Confederate commanders accepted the obvious outcome of the conflict as the "Lost Cause" and made little to no effort maintaining records, and other commands began to summarily destroy all Confederate documents in a  monumental attempt to remove their association with the short-lived Confederacy. It's not what you know but what you can prove, so if the Rebels were put on trial for treason, which was a probability, it was thought best not to hand deliver to the Yankees the evidence necessary to seal their fate at the end of a noose or firing squad.

Recommended Reading: Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor (Hardcover). Description: It is tantalizing to speculate about the role your ancestors may have played in the great national drama of the Civil War. But family records are often inaccurate, or provide precious few leads on where to begin the search. Now, experienced historian Bertram Hawthorne Groene shows you how easy it is to trace your forbearers' role in the war, where and how long they fought, whether they were Union or Rebel, soldier or sailor -- even with a minimum of information.
Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor provides you with:
-- The names and addresses of all state archives.
-- Names and addresses of institutions that hold microfilmed service records from the national archives.
-- Names and publishers of useful regional Civil War reference books.
-- Names and publishers of sourcebooks for identifying Civil War weapons and accoutrements.
-- And much more.
Historians, genealogists, antique dealers, and collectors of Civil War artifacts will find this concise guidebook of great value. But most of all it is of inestimable practical value to family historians, North and South, who are discovering the pleasure and satisfaction of compiling an accurate family history. "[A] must have for the individual researching Civil War soldiers, ancestors' military service records, Union and Confederate army records, compiled military service records (CMSR), and for the family genealogist." If you are remotely into genealogy, then this book is for you.

Researching People of the American Civil War:
 
American Civil War Pension, Muster, & Service Records (Genealogy)

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Recommended Reading: Civil War Research Guide: A Guide for Researching Your Civil War Ancestor. Description: It has been over 40 years since the last comprehensive guide to tracing and researching Civil War ancestors was published. The "Civil War Research Guide" goes beyond, but does not exclude, such major national sources such as the National Archives in Washington, and features information on little-known publications, websites, auctions, memorabilia dealers, and patriotic organisations. The authors lay out a systematic procedure for performing research and recording the results in order to build a proper file on a Civil War soldier, making the experience both educational and entertaining. Continued below…

About the Authors: Stephen McManus resides in East Whiteland, Pennsylvania, and is a graduate of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute and Delaware Law School. Donald Thompson resides in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and is a graduate of Rhode Island College. Thomas Churchill resides in Summerville, South Carolina, and is a graduate of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. "Great Civil War soldier research guide...[I]ndispensable source for tracing your Civil War ancestor, witnessing the soldier's military service, and for the individual interested in primary source documentation of Civil War soldiers and their military service [records]." "Invaluable aid to researching and gathering the primary documentation of the Civil War soldier." 

 

Recommended Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy, 2nd Edition. Description: A very helpful genealogy reference! It is extremely helpful if you're in the "I want to trace my roots, ancestors, family tree and heritage. How do I begin, where do I start, and how do I go about doing it?" situation. It contains numerous helpful common sense tips that will prevent future headaches and a lot of well thought out suggestions and tips too. One helpful hint: "Talk with your extended family and interview them for genealogy information, be patient with them, and let them tell their stories....document everything." There are plenty of well-mannered tips like these that elevate this book to excellence. A lot of the confusing aspects of genealogical research such as document requests and providing proof and evidence are well covered. RATED 5 STARS. Continued below...

Customer's Review: I bought this book when I hadn't yet done any research at all about my family history. A year and a half later, I have a file drawer full of information, and I have needed no other reference. I also bought a book called "The Source", which is supposed to be the 'genealogist's bible', and it has been a giant paperweight in comparison. Idiot's genealogy is full of the kind of practical information that can carry you through years of research. Happy hunting!!!

 

Recommended Reading: Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family's History and Heritage. Description: A recent Maritz Poll reported that 60% of Americans are interested in their family history. And with good reason. Through genealogy, you can go back into history to meet people who have had more influence on your life than any others -- your ancestors. And the better you get to know your ancestors, the better you will get to know yourself: the who's and what's and why's of you. Continued below...

Barbara Renick, a nationally-known lecturer on genealogy, tells the uninitiated researcher the steps needed to find out who their ancestors really were, and brings together for even the more experienced genealogical researchers the important principles and practices. She covers such topics as the importance of staying organized and how to go about it; where and how to look for information in libraries, historical societies, and on the internet; recognizing that just because something is in print doesn't mean it's right; and how to prepare to visit the home where your ancestors lived. Genealogy 101 is the first book to read when you want to discover who your ancestors were, where they lived, and what they did.

 

Recommended Reading: Rebel Private: Front and Rear: Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier. Description: First published in 1907, the memoirs of a former Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Second Manassas, and Chickamauga reveal the ground-level perspective of a Civil War private. Continued below…

From Publishers Weekly: William Fletcher joined the Confederate Army in 1861. He served with the Army of Northern Virginia's elite Texas Brigade until the Battle of Chickamauga. Unable to march because of wounds, he transferred to the cavalry and finished the war with the Texas Rangers, then wrote his memoirs 40 years later. Most of the original copies were destroyed in a fire. The current edition presents unvarnished images of hard marches, short rations and battles in which being wounded could prove worse than being killed. Fletcher describes the horrors of being a Civil War casualty as vividly as any firsthand account from either side. The author emerges from these pages as fighting less for a cause than for his own pride in being a good soldier. His narrative does more than many learned monographs to explain the Confederacy's long endurance against overwhelming odds.

How to research your Civil War ancestor and military service records (Compiled Military Service Record), What unit or regiment did the soldier serve in, Locating Confederate soldiers online, Soldier genealogy, Researching Confederate soldiers for beginners details

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