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Researching Ancestors from the Civil War Era...

Civil War Soldier: The Genealogy and Research

 Military, Army, and Service Records: Promotion, Transfer, and Unit Designations
(Genealogy Research Tools are Located at the Bottom of this Page)

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

(Above) 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

During the course of the Civil War, many soldiers served in two or more regiments or units. When a soldier was hospitalized, his current unit information was recorded. When the soldier later applied for veteran and pension benefits, however, his initial unit facts, as well as his last unit information, were typically recorded.
 
When a soldier was wounded and later returned to service, he may have transferred to another regiment or returned to service in the nearest regiment. After a soldier was separated from his company during battle, he may have been assigned to the first regiment he encountered. This also occurred after a prisoner exchange.  (A captured soldier was exchanged with the enemy; a "prisoner for prisoner exchange.") Prisoner exchange was common practice and some prisoners were paroled by simply stating that they would not bear arms and further pledged that they would return to their homes. While some chose to ignore the demand, superiors instructed others to rejoin the nearest regiment until they received official orders. Regardless of the transfer, protocol required a letter sent to the prior regiment stating the reason for transfer, hence, clearing the soldier of desertion or dereliction-of-duty. (This also allowed the former regiment the option to recall the soldier.)
Complicating the research was the fact that most units had various designations. Furthermore, by 1864, many regiments were reduced by as much as 70% and then the remnants consolidated with other regiments, reorganized, disbanded, or remained weakened. This attrition can be attributed to killed-in-action, diseases, wounds, desertion, capture, missing-in-action, and enlistment expiration. A typical regiment consisted of approximately 1100 soldiers or ten companies. Each company consisted of 110 soldiers. Subtract 70% and one will see the horrible cost of conflict. As the Civil War progressed, brigade or division commanders would determine whether or not to strengthen, consolidate, or disband a regiment. Promotion: Robert Gustavus Adolphus Love, or R. G. A. Love, initially served as Captain in the 16th North Carolina Infantry Regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. When Robert G. A. Love received a promotion to Colonel he transferred to the 62nd North Carolina Regiment.

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

(Above) 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 realties of Civil War. Between 1870 and 1879. Library of Congress.

Examples of Added Confusion

The First Impression was a Lasting Impression

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

Most soldiers served in the same regiment with family, friends, and neighbors. Many believed this unity made it unthinkable to coward and display the "white feather" in the presence of the enemy. Overall, many entrusted their loved ones to enlist and serve with relatives and neighbors--with the common belief that they maintained their loved ones' best interest in mind. Their relatives, friends, and neighbors, which did not enlist in the military, basically knew and remembered the original regiment their loved ones enlisted and served in. The first impression was a lasting impression. If a soldier originally enlisted in the 25th North Carolina Regiment, correspondence with his loved ones stated this fact. As the Civil War progressed, communication and correspondence became very difficult. Furthermore, the soldier's family and relatives would likely recall significant battle events and facts mentioned during their correspondence. If a soldier fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, this would most likely be remembered by loved ones and friends. If a soldier transferred regiments and there was failure to record the transfer or little mentioned about the transfer, this would account for some of the post-war confusion. Also, the gaining regiment may have been overshadowed by more significant events of the prior regiment or vice-versa. In some cases regimental records were very accurate. If the soldier's name was Pleasant M. Parker, his name was recorded as Pleasant M. Parker. Some regiments may have recorded Pleasant M. Parker as P. Parker, or P.M. Parker, thus confusing the researcher. The latter practice also made it more difficult for the soldier or widow to make veteran and pension benefit claims. 
 
Destroyed Confederate Army Records
 

As the War grinded through 1865, many Confederate commanders embraced the "Lost Cause" and either made no effort to maintain records or destroyed their records.
 

During the last months of the American Civil War, when the "Lost Cause" was embraced, many soldiers were unofficially promoted by their peers to fill vacancies. This explains why the officially mustered out rank/grade was often times a lesser rank than claimed via soldiers' papers, diaries and memoirs. During the last months of the War, privates were being unofficially appointed to the rank or grade of lieutenant. Concurrently, some Confederate commanders were destroying all, or what remained, of the regimental records. Some Confederates viewed their documents as evidence for the Yankees. They further understood that all Confederate documents were incriminating and paramount to "Treason against the Union." At the time, the Rebels didn't know if they would be hanged, shot or imprisoned for their rebellion.

Overall, many Confederate Service Records were accidentally or intentionally destroyed, lost, poorly recorded or inaccurately recorded. To make matters worse, some regiments never recorded any information. Lt. Col. Walter Clark states that "The majority of troop rosters and official military records had been forcibly confiscated by Lincoln’s hordes or wantonly destroyed.” Walter Clark's Regiments: An Extended Index to the Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865: By Charles C. Davis, p. 5.

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. Continued below...
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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