So, Your Ancestor was a Civil War Soldier?

Searching for that Civil War Ancestor


Prisoners From the Front
by Winslow Homer 1866 Metropolitan Museum
Homer captures the appearance of soldiers of both sides.


I have both an interest in genealogy and a separate interest in American military history. I am a descendant of a Confederate trooper and the designated family historian for a surname organization. Recently, I have been combing the well-known commercial genealogical site to spot errors in my family databases. Please be aware that many examples that I give in the following material are fictitious and only for the sake of example. There may or may not have been a John Smith in the 13th Ohio Infantry Regiment and so on.

Drilling Recruits

In the process of seeing what other subscribers have listed, I have noticed that many genealogists, recording information regarding persons of interest on (not always ancestors), totally miss the fact that the man was a Civil War soldier. I am certain if we might speak with him that he would say that his service was an important chapter in his life. All veterans believe this and yet both on Ancestry and even on Find-a-Grave, the fact of Civil War service is often unacknowledged. I would like to see these men receive the little extra attention on Veteran's Day that they deserve. The 1860 census tells us there were about 31.5 million people in the United States. The population in Northern states was 23 million people and in the south there were 9 million of which 3.5 million were slaves. It is believed that at least 2.1 million men served in the Union Army and maybe 0.9 million in the Confederate Army. In other words, both sides managed to mobilize 10% of their population for war and yet the South, having excluded their black population from service, did this nearly exclusively from the white population. Could either side have done better? It is necessary to consider that part of the male population were old men, boys and the infirm. The bottom line is that if your ancestor was in the U.S. and was of military age, there is a fair chance that he was a soldier, North or South.

Beginning the Search

So, how do you decide if a male of military age might have been a soldier? In some cases, that fact has been passed down in the family and it is just a question of documenting it. In other cases, you must delve for it. There are databases listing Civil War soldiers and if your person shows up on one that is a beginning. I should offer a word of caution here. If your ancestor was John Jacob Gingleheimer you may have it easy, assuming Gingleheimer is spelled correctly. On the other hand if he were named John Smith, I am sorry for you. You may find there were thousands of Civil War soldiers by that name. It is not uncommon to find multiple men with similar names living at the same time. I would say first that you should focus on the logical. If John Smith lived, died and was buried in Pennsylvania, he is not likely to be the man in the First Kansas Cavalry Regiment. If John Smith was a blacksmith, he was not likely to have been the surgeon of the 47th New York Infantry Regiment. If John Smith was killed in 1864 at Cold Harbor, he did not father your ancestor in 1872 and so on.

1890 Census

A Page from the 1890 Veteran's Schedules U.S. Census
Notice that the information is detailed and very helpful.
Next, there are resources to help your focus. Rarely, family lore incorrectly identifies which side a man fought on and in that situation, it is easy to bark up the wrong tree. Make a list of possible individuals appearing on lists of Civil War soldiers. In some cases, home town and ages are given in the available, searchable databases and a big help. Most experienced genealogists know that the 1890 U. S. census was mostly destroyed but that the veteran’s schedules have survived for many states. If your ancestor was in Monroe Township, Bing County, Ohio in the 1880 census and 1900 census, try looking at the 1890 veteran’s schedule for the same location. There is a good chance that you will find him with the name of his unit and the dates of enlistment and discharge. At times there are other bits of information. Another trick is to look at the Pension Card Index. Most veterans at some point in time were pensioned. Often the man’s wife outlived him and, at his death, also received a widow’s pension. If you know that John Smith’s wife was named Kunigunda Jones, you are in luck. How many John Smiths living in Pennsylvania married someone named Kunigunda? The Index Card names the unit or units in which the soldier served. For a truly sophisticated researcher with good local resources it is possible to say men from Bing County often enlisted in the 13th, 42th or 90th Ohio Infantry Regiments and the 4th Ohio Cavalry Regiment. A search of the roster of those units might give up the name. However, there is no single source to visit for that kind of information and, in most cases. it is not practical to use this approach.

Basic Truth: A Soldier's History is his Unit's History

Okay, let us assume that we have your man. John Smith of Company A of the 13th Ohio Infantry Regiment. A key principle is that a soldier’s personal military history is generally reflected in the history of his unit. Let’s Google “13th Ohio Infantry Regiment.” We learn from a Wikipedia article that two units had that designation. The first was enlisted for 3 months of service and the second for three years of service. By reading the unit’s history we can learn of its movements, battle participation and assignments to larger units. You can assume that you ancestor was part of this but there is a possibility that he was absent for a block of time and not at a particular battle, etc. For this reason, it is important to document his date of enlistment and date of discharge. It also may be possible to document absences in between. You may be confused by several different dates given by the same or different databases as the enlistment date. Do not worry about it and pick the earliest among the several dates. That is most likely to be the date he signed on the line so to speak. While the unit was organizing there would have been an initial muster as a unit in state service and also an initial muster into Federal service and these dates sometimes appear as “enlistment date.”

Organization of Units and Branch of Service

The basic system of origination, method of recruitment and troop utilization in both the Union and Confederate Army was nearly identical and thus what is said about one is true of the other. This should be of little surprise since the higher officer corps of the Confederate Army were mostly men who resigned from the U.S. Army at the beginning of the war. There was even one officer, who was still serving in the U.S. Army at the Battle of First Manassas and only afterwards went South. A descendant of this man can honestly say that his ancestor fought on both sides, as can those who descend from “galvanized Yankees”, those Confederate POWs who agreed to serve in the U.S. Army in the West against hostile Native Americans. The Confederate Army was created in the image of the “Old Army.” Navy and Marine personnel are a special case and I must confess that I rarely have encountered any, but I am sure that genealogists whose ancestors lived in coastal communities with strong seafaring traditions might expect to find a few. Both the U.S. and C.S. Marine Corps remained small and in a traditional shipboard role without any particularly memorable moments. The vast majority of Civil War ground troops were members of one of three Army combat arms: Artillery, Cavalry and Infantry. Today, these men are the tip of the spear and there are large numbers of logistical and support personnel backing them up. In the Civil War that was not the case. There were very few specialized logistical units, such as, dedicated engineer, medical or signal troops. If men were needed for those functions they were often detailed from line units for periods of time.

Most Civil War soldiers were members of the infantry branch. The basic unit was the infantry regiment. The title of most regiments includes the name of the state that was responsible for recruiting and training the unit; for example, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. At various points in the war states were assigned a quota of troops to provide for service of the United States. Once the state was ready with the regiment, it was mustered into U.S. service and at that point the Federal government provided for it until the regiment was mustered out of service at the completion of its term of service or the end of the war. There were units which did not have a state designator. Units of the Regular Army of the United States, U.S. Sharpshooters and U.S. Colored Troops did not. Regiments were commanded by a colonel. He was assisted by a regimental staff, which included a small number of other field officers (a lieutenant colonel and major), surgeon and assistant surgeon, adjutant, quartermaster, regimental sergeant major and band members, etc.

I have a word of caution regarding terminology used in some of these Civil War databases, including those in The person who originally set the titles of these data fields was very uninformed regarding Civil War military terminology, which is a shame. Members of the regimental staff and field are referred to as being members of “Company S.” This is totally bogus and there never was such a thing as “Company S.” These particular soldiers were members of the regiment, who were unassigned to a particular company. All the other soldiers of a regiment were members of one of its 10 companies, which were lettered A to K with the letter J omitted because it might be taken for an I. Companies were commanded by a captain, who was assisted by one first lieutenant and one second lieutenant. You can think of a regiment at full strength as being about 1000 men and a company about 100 but they were almost never at full strength. Veterans had a strong affiliation toward their regiment and regiment name is a basic fact that genealogists recording information about a soldier should state. If you tell any Civil War buff that your ancestor was a Civil War soldier, you can expect the question back, “Oh, what regiment?” The regiments were grouped into larger units: brigades, divisions, army corps and armies. These might change during the war with various reorganizations, etc.

Civil War Artillery
from Battles and Leaders
The organization of cavalry was similar to infantry, except that the number of companies per regiment were 12 in number in the Union Army. So, you expect a company L and M in cavalry units. In the Confederate Army and occasionally in the Union Army the mounts were the private property of the soldier and the owers were paid a rate for the use of the animal. Artillery was fielded by battery (a company sized unit) and regiments in field artillery existed only on paper. Artillery batteries were often named after their commander: for example Cushing’s, Rickett’s or Chew’s Battery even if they also had a more formal name; for example, Battery A of the 4th Virginia Light Artillery or Battery K of the 6th U.S. Light Artillery. Naming units after their commanders has a major problem in that the name lasts only as long as the commander. What happens is a succession of names over time as commanders are replaced. I should only mention that in addition to field or light artillery there were less mobile units with heavier guns, often used in fortifications, and called heavy artillery. Artillery terminology in truth is even more complicated, but I am trying to simplify it. If your ancestor served in artillery you need to be very careful about terminology and to be certain you know the various possible names that the unit might have been called. It is very easy to become confused and misidentify it.

VRC soldiers in distinctive sky-blue uniforms
Toward the end of the war the Union was hard pressed to raise additional troops. Many regiments had enlisted for a three-year term of service time and veterans were well-aware what happened on battlefields. Many planned to leave the colors as soon as possible. I cannot blame them. The Army got creative about manpower. One approach was to form wounded and mildly disabled soldiers into special units for rear area assignments. Activities such as guarding prisoners or staffing hospitals need not occupy men who were totally fit for field service. These units were at first called the Invalid Corps, but as the men did not like that title for obvious reasons, it was renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps or VRC. While researching you might find a Pension Index File card notation placing the soldier in one of the usual regiments and then a second unit also listed, which is a VRC formation. That tells you that the soldier had been wounded and transferred to the VRC after his recovery. I should also mention that there is another body of troops whose designation sounds similar and that was William S. Hancock’s U. S. Veteran Volunteer Corps. These soldiers were able bodied and represented an effort to reenlist veteran troops into a body of regiments that were not state affiliated. The effort was a failure for reasons I will not go into and you are unlikely to have an ancestor who reenlisted in one of these 10 existing, non-state affiliated Veteran Volunteer regiments. To make things more complicated, the term "Veteran Volunteer" was also applied to those state affiliated regiments that were able to reenlist enough men to remain as a fighting formation until the end of the war. Veteran volunteers were allowed to wear reenlistment chevrons on their frock coats, formerly used by Regulars, and these may be noticed in some period photographs.

Ranks of Civil War Soldiers

I have some comments about Civil War ranks. The primary division is between officers and enlisted men. Enlisted men, basically privates, corporals and sergeants, were the foundation of the army and were enlisted for a term of service, which was different for different regiments. During that time the soldier must serve and legally would not leave the service without some situation causing the Army to discharge him prematurely. In those cases in which you discover a soldier was mustered out prior to the muster out date of his regiment expect to find some explanation. It might be disability on a “surgeon’s certificate” or to take a commission as an officer or some other reason. Sometimes it is not clear from available searchable records why and you must get copies of the soldier’s files from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Those are rather costly and I do it only when I absolutely must. I must say that when I do I really develop a new appreciation for the soldier as an individual, particularly after reading the pension part of the record. Most veterans who lived long enough got a pension but there might not be pension records for a particular man.

Things were much different for officers. They were supposed to be gentlemen and the natural leaders of society according to 19th century notions. Of course, many proved to be “dammed fools” or alcoholics or worse but at least they managed to maintain the dignity of a gentleman long enough to procure a commission. A researcher should avoid saying that an officer enlisted. Enlisted men enlist. Officers are commissioned. Unlike enlisted men officers can tender a resignation at any point in time and if accepted can leave the service. A lot of the older men who became officers early in the war suffered a breakdown in their health from field conditions and emotional strain and resigned prior to their unit being mustered out.

Infantry Lieutenant Colonel's Shoulder Strap
I have a couple other things to say regarding ranks. Similar to my prior discussion of “Company S” the person who set up some Civil War soldier databases was also very uninformed regarding the terminology of Civil War ranks. For example, they will say an officer was a “full lieutenant colonel.” Now, anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the military will sneer at hearing such a thing. There never was nor ever will be such an animal. Both lieutenant colonels and colonels are addressed in writing or speech as colonel. Thus, to distinguish between the two ranks you might informally refer to a colonel as a “full colonel.” However, never ever would you call a lieutenant colonel a “full lieutenant colonel.” That just does not make any sense. This is another modern invention of this database that knowledgeable researchers should not repeat. I could cite similar things about some other rank titles used in the databases, but I do not wish to chew on this bone more than I need to.

There also were brevet ranks during the Civil War. If your ancestor received a brevet rank, it is worth documenting and it may explain why a man that was only lieutenant colonel was photographed in the uniform of a brigadier general and was addressed after the war as general. These were honorary and not substantive ranks. The full story of the rise and fall of brevet ranks in the U.S. Army is really very interesting but I do not have space to do so in this discussion. I find it confusing to call an ancestor “General So and So” when he truly served only as a field officer during the war. Most of these brevets were awarded after the war and post-dated to a date during the war. The typical date is 13th of March 1865, which became known as “the Glorious 13th March 1865” and not because anything happened but because the system of deciding who got a brevet and who did not had become so politicized in the postwar era. The existence of these brevet ranks can be confusing to a researcher when first encountering them.

Special Populations


Frequently Reproduced Photo of Soldiers of the 107th Regiment U.S.C.T.
Courtesy: Library of Congress

These soldiers were recruited in Kentucky in 1864 and photographed at Fort Corcoran, Arlington, Virginia in 1865. They are wearing their dress uniform with frock coats, white gloves and brass shoulder scales. The soldier at the extreme left is a non-commissioned officer but his chevrons are not well seen in the photograph. He is holding a non-commissioned officer's sword and wearing a sword belt buckle unlike the other soldiers. All in all they are a very spit and polished group.

C.S. Army Officer's Servant
from Battles and Leaders
The experience of the African-American population during the Civil War is well worth comment. During the early part of the war Blacks were denied the opportunity to serve as soldiers in the Federal Army. In part this was done out of a fear that critical Border States would be driven into the Confederate fold by the vision of black men under arms. Later in the war it was recognized that here was a population of men with a vested interest in the outcome, who were ready, willing and able to make good soldiers. The situation for Blacks radically changed with the January 1863 official issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, which contained language officially approving hiring Black in both civilian and military capacities within the military forces of the United States. Certain units among the state affiliated forces were comprised of African-American enlisted men and the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the movie “Glory” was one of these. The Union Army by the end of the war was about 9% African-American and Blacks might also be found on many Navy ships. The Federal government had organized a force of U.S. Colored Troops with regiments that were independent of state affiliation. This served to eliminate any foot dragging on the states’ part. Early on you will occasional encounter the terminology: Corps d'Afrique or of African Descent to distinguish these units.

In addition to being soldiers, many Black, non-combatant civilians were evident in the logistical tail of the Federal Armies as evidence by soldiers’ accounts. They were the teamsters, cooks, officers' servants and so on. They did these functions at great risk to themselves since, if captured by Confederate forces, they could expect no mercy. Blacks, so much part of the Southern landscape, also proved valuable sources of intelligence to Northern forces. The big problem with researching African-American ancestors who were Civil War soldiers is being 100% certain your ancestor is the same as the man listed with a particular unit. I do not have enough experience to advise how to proceed. African-American soldiers received pensions, much the same as other veterans and finding one would be very helpful. For the most part the ability to document the service of any non-combatant (civilian working with the Army) regardless of race or sex is next to impossible. We tend to focus on the contributions of African-Americans to the Union cause but in fairness you might be surprised to learn that at the end of the war a few African-Americans were enlisted as soldiers by the Confederate Army. It is hard to picture but one of those true ironies of history. Black non-combatants were also caused to serve the Confederate war effort. Many Southern officers took their body servants into the field and African-Americans served in this capacity on both sides, but freely so in the Union Army. In short this war touched everyone and it is sad that so many of the individuals were unable to leave us an account of their experience.


Part of the Pay Voucher of Lieutenant F. S. Adams 1863

Adams employed a civilian African-American servant named "Cupid." It is likely this is a nickname and does not reflect the identity of the man. It was accepted that a gentleman needed a servant but unacceptable for a soldier to act in that capacity in the U.S. Army. The existence in the field of these black officer's servants is frequently mentioned in period accounts. Their duties included procuring and preparing meals (officers were not entitled to Army rations) , caring for uniforms, equipment and horses, etc. They were known for their resourcefulness and it is sad that it is nearly impossible to document who they were.

Another group I would mention are foreign-born individuals. Their records should be there just like native-born, but often the name is so butchered you will never recognize it and often as a genealogist you may have no idea just were your ancestor was living during that critical period just after his arrival. I can only say there were large numbers of recent immigrants in the Union Army and it is not easy to know what became of them after the war.

Pension index card of Frank Thompson
Alias Emma (nee Edmondson) Seelye
It suffices to say that women were never knowingly enrolled as soldiers during the Civil War. There are a few aberrations in which a woman passed as a man, including one who was discovered when she gave birth but these cases do not represent the policies of the governments involved. It is estimated that over 100 women entered either Army, passing as a male and under a false name. I suspect most were discovered but who knows just how many might have pulled it off. I have encountered estimates of upwards of 1000 women who did this, but without any real data this seems a gross overestimation. Social attitudes of the 19th century were unforgiving and constricting. A woman who was trying to pass as a male would be totally mortified when discovered, excepting maybe that brazen portion of the population who were not "respectable" women to begin with. In fact, political correctness aside, that particular category was well represented among the known cases of those women who tired to pass as males. For example, we have the curious court-martial of Colonel J. Lafayette Riker of the 62nd New York Infantry. Colonel Riker was charged with making a false muster in that his orderly was discovered to be both female, a prostitute and receiving pay as a soldier. Despite the obvious question of how could he have not have noticed his own orderly was not a man, the court managed to acquitted him. The War Department actually authorized the inspection of troops in the nude, so long as it was done indoors. In practice, I am uncertain how often this was done, but it would have acted as a deterrent if widely known. A very well-documented case of a female passing as a male was that of Emma Edmondson, who enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry as Franklin (Frank) Thompson. As detailed in the book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott (2014), Emma left home to avoid being forced into an unwanted marriage situation by her father. There were not many prospects for a woman in a rural area but Emma was able to find employment by passing as a young man. After about two years of passing as male, she decided to join the army. With great effort and always fearful of being found out, she managed to serve until the anxiety became too much and she deserted in April 1863 . With the support of her former comrades and most importantly her congressmen, she was able to receive a soldier's pension by provision of a special Act of Congress that was signed by Chester A. Arthur on July 5, 1884.

Some women openly were associated with troops, but they cannot be called soldiers. The well-known, Medal of Honor recipient Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a civilian contract surgeon even if she affected an officer’s uniform (try that today). I am uncertain of the official status of the female Vivandičres in Zouave regiments, but I am certain they were never mustered into U.S. service as soldiers. The contributions of female civilian, noncombatants to the war effort were huge, but this discussion is about Civil War soldiers. I should also acknowledge as under-appreciated, the fact that the Civil War unleashed forces that would lead women to a more active and militant role in the body politic, but that is the meat of a discussion far beyond this one.

Introduction to Resources

Having explained the nature of the military structure during the Civil War I am next going to discuss the various resources that are available to researchers.

Part of the Original Muster Roll of Company L of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, February 1863

The muster roll is the basic document from which NARA's individual service records were compiled. Troops were mustered and paid every 2 months and these rolls created at the time. When unfolded they are a 21 by 30.5 inches spread sheet. This particular unit is an exception to the rule that infantry regiments had only 10 companies. They were recruited in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and commanded by Captain James Kirk.

National Archives and Records Administration

A "General Index Card" for a Confederate
Useful Information but not enough to be certain
which John Bailey among many
Index Card
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) serves as the custodian of Federal Records. Among the records they have are the service, medical and pension records of Civil War soldiers, both Federal and Confederate. A researcher can order copies of these records by completing a NATF Form 86 and providing a credit card number. The exact name and unit of the soldier is necessary. These records once in hand are a goldmine. The pension records are particularly valuable and have provided my research with information that I have been unable to document from any other source. The problem is that often you cannot provide the necessary information to NARA to correctly identify your ancestor among many with a similar name. The proprietary Internet site Fold-3, of which I am a subscriber, does have some NARA files viewable. To a lesser extent so does You may need to hold your NARA request until you can provide them a little more information. The basic finding tool for NARA Civil War Service records is something called a “General Index Card.” After the war this index was compiled from abstracts of material appearing on the original muster and pay rolls that were submitted by all of the regiment’s companies, the staff and field members, hospitals, etc. every two months. Doing this produced a series of cards for each soldier appearing on each muster and these were sorted by each soldier’s name to produce a single general index card that is the “General Index Card.” A researcher should be aware that the spelling of a name may vary from muster to muster and that initials may be used. It is also possible that a single soldier may have multiple entries within the system if he were in different units during the War. You may find an entire set of cards for the same man in a different unit almost as if he were a different person. The "General Index Card" may or may not reflect the fact a soldier reenlisted in a different unit or was transferred to the V.R.C. The proprietary Internet site Fold 3 will display an image of the original card but it really does not contain very much information. The soldier’s name and the unit designation is about it. Occasionally, there will be additional information about the unit, such as it was also known by some other name at a point in time. That might be an important research clue.

Published General Reference Sources

Another general source that can provide information is the series The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. These are often cited as the Official Records or ORs. The original publication consisted of 70 volumes grouped in four series, published between 1881 and 1901. They are mostly a collection of original reports written by officers of both sides. Modern technology allows them to be searchable on key words. They are available on-line and I own a CD of them. You are unlikely to find a particular enlisted soldier mentioned, but regiments certainly will be mentioned and the commanders of units often recount their version of what happened to your ancestor’s unit during a particular battle and that is always interesting to read by way of a deeper understanding of an ancestor’s experience. I like the ORs as a source but there is a learning curve to use them effectively. There is a lot of material but often it is well buried.

OR Report

An Example of a Report appearing in the Official Records

Major General David Stanley blames a subordinate, Second Lieutenant George W. Lawton, for the failure of an operation and uses the word "stupidity" in describing his actions. These reports were written often in a self-serving manner to make the commander look good and should not be read as an unbiased record of events. Still reading something, such as this, might explain why the promising career of Lieutenant Lawton suddenly took a nose drive.

On-Line Genealogy Research Sites (proprietary site with an annual fee) has a collection of military records that are searchable. There are several different databases listing Civil War Soldiers and sometimes you will find your man in one and not another. If you ignore the previously mentioned terminology problems, the database that has the most information is called Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. That one often lists unit name and the dates of enlistment and discharge. Those dates are critical to establishing what a soldier might have done while in the unit. Other lists have approximate age and residence prior to enlistment. That kind of information might help you decide if you have the correct person, but the ages given are often wrong. I am usually able to get enough data from Ancestry that I can successfully fill out NARA’s NATF Form 86.

Fold-3 is another proprietary site with annual fee. They have a special focus on military records. A lot of their material exists in other places but having a focus on military records there are many cases in which Fold-3 allows you to view original documents not otherwise available on-line. In certain cases you can avoid paying the rather steep NARA fees and view the complete service record on-line. However, this is not consistent for all soldiers and in some cases all you get is the disappointing “General Index Card.” I find Fold-3 very hard to navigate. I keep telling myself that they could have designed it in a more user-friendly fashion. They have a tutorial that should explain how to use it effectively but in my mind a well-designed, user friendly site should not need one. What I have figured out after months of struggle is that when you are looking for a given soldier; for example, the John Smith who as in the 13th Ohio Infantry you must go through a process to focus your search. The key operation to bore down on what you want is to right click on it and ask that the data “Open in a New Widow.” First you will need to have stipulated John Smith in the Civil War and then all the John Smith soldiers from Ohio before hitting the listing of that one John Smith in the 13th, doing that right click and “New Window" all the time. Otherwise you seem to be stuck with 600 irrelevant hits, including every other John Smith on both sides of the conflict and then things seem to refuse to open even if you find what you want. I am certain Fold-3 designers would argue with what I say but this is my experience and I am not really looking to be critical.

State and Unit Rosters

There are all kinds of rosters, large and small. Some are available on-line and others in print form. Some that were originally in print form are available now on-line. Google Books or other similar formats have made older, now public domain books searchable on-line. I must confess that this development still leaves me a little in awe because I can now do in minutes what might have taken me an afternoon in a research library in the past. The major problem facing a genealogist using a roster is the question is a man with the same name as my person of interest in fact him? The National Park Service has an on-line roster called The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System” (CWSS) which is a database containing information about the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. However, it provides only minimal information, namely the name of the regiment that the man served in. My favorite on-line general roster is the one of Ancestry's that is called Civil War Soldiers 1861-1865 Records and Profiles that I mentioned before. This is the work of an organization called Historical Data Systems Inc. of Kingston, MA, and is actually a compilation of various older, published rosters into a single source. It often will provide enlistment and discharge dates, which I consider critical elements of a soldier’s service time-line. In print there is the 16-volume The Roster of Confederate Soldiers 1861-1865 by Broadfoot Publishing of Wendell, NC. However, this appears to be missing Confederate soldiers in units from Border States. Other rosters are state specific and some of these were originally published under the aegis of the state governments. For example, Maryland and Ohio have very nice compilations for their Union veterans. Other rosters appear as appendices in unit histories. The Virginia Regimental Series published by H. E. Howard Inc., of Lynchburg, Virginia includes rosters of soldiers in each unit written by local historians and often with supplemental information about the soldier.


An Original Discharge Document for Private Thomas Richardson, 4th Maryland Infantry Regiment and 18th Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps

Richardson, a native of Carroll County, Maryland, originally enlisted in Company E of the 4th Maryland Infantry and was injured on the march and transferred to the 18th Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps. The compiled service record should reflect this information but the original document would have been in the veteran's possession.

Unit Histories

It is said that the Civil War was one of the most written about events in history. I have already said that a soldier’s history is generally the history of his unit. There are numerous published unit histories. I might say that it would be unusual not to find one for any of the units that served for a period of time. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick H. Dyer (1908) is a roster of Civil War Units and contains a thumb nail sketch of each. Dyer’s material is commonly available on-line to the point that when searching for background on units, I find myself reading it over and over at site after site and I wonder if anyone troubles themselves to write anything that is original. More selective is a source called Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 by William F. Fox (1889). If your ancestor’s unit was a 3-month regiment that guarded bridges in Tennessee do not expect to find it. However, if it was a well-known and hard-fought unit Fox breaks down its casualties by company and battle. In addition to these two sources, there is another unique three volume reference series called Regimental Publications and Personal Narratives of the Civil War: A Check List by C. E. Dornbusch of the New York Public Library (1961). An Additional forth volume was published in 1987 by Robert K. Krick and then revised and updated in 2001 by Silas Felton. This is a great source and can guide you to books that will help you live your ancestor’s experience. Once you know the title that you are looking for you may be able to purchase a reprint or acquire a book via inter-library loan. I once got a long out of print Civil War book by inter-library loan. When I opened the book up I was shocked to read on the fly leaf “Ex Libris John Milton Hay.” This man was Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and later United States Secretary of State. I asked a friend who was a museum curator why they would circulate a volume that belonged to such a well-know historical figure. His reply was that librarians are all about the book and really do not consider the history of a particular volume. If you are wondering, I did return it when due. I should also mention Francis B. Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (1903). This is particularly useful as a source for officers of the Regular Army but does include some material on the state affiliated volunteers as well.


An Original Pension Certificate for Corporal William Young, 38th Ohio Infantry Regiment

Young had already been pensioned and this certificate reflects a raise in the monthly payment under the Act of May 11, 1912. The original document would have been in the veteran's possession.

pension surgeon's cert

An Original Surgeon's Certificate for Henry Waddle (see below), 11th Maryland and 126th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments

The older pension acts required that a veteran be disabled or an invalid. Almost all these documents list a host of conditions.

Pension Records

A Pension File Index Card for Henry Waddle's Widow 1912
It indicates the wife's name and two different units.
Without this clue you might think these were two different men.
Pension Card
I should say a little more about pension records. Union Army veterans received pension benefits via a series of pension acts passed by Congress in certain years. The earliest of the pension acts was in 1862 and provided benefits for widows of killed soldiers and soldiers who were maimed. Acts that followed were broadened to include otherwise disabled or indigent veterans. In 1907 the new pension act allowed a pension for any veteran who was over 62. Most Union veterans who lived long enough seem to have gotten a pension in my experience. Certain Southern states also pensioned their Confederate veterans. These pension records are genealogical gold mines, providing information regarding wives and children and occasionally other valuable documents submitted as a part of the process. They serve to conclusively identify the soldier.

Soldier's Photographs

Millions of soldiers' photographs were taken during the Civil War. It is always exciting to find one of any ancestor and doubly so for one of a soldier in uniform. Some photo archives have collections of images of individual soldiers, including the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle, PA. Many others are in private hands. One big problem with images is the issue of who owns them and do you have permission to reproduce them? Certainly if you plan to reproduce or publish an image you should make a good faith effort to have permission to do so. I was once advised by a lawyer that even though I owned the photo in question, it was really the intellectual property of the long-dead photographer and in order to publish it I should trace and receive written permission from each and every modern descendant of the man. Of course, that is unrealistic to the point of crazy but is emblematic of those vested interests in our society who would profit if there was never such a thing as fair use or public domain.

Unidentified Soldier of 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment
9th PA cav
George F. Thomson, Ass't Surgeon 38th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment
Chaplain Thomas Quinn of 1st Rhode Island Detached Militia
Chaplain Quinn

The photographs pictured are called carte de viste or (CDVs). These were taken with a camera that made multiple copies. Soldiers handed out the copies to family and friends. They were often kept in albums. It is possible to extract information from a photograph. The first photograph is an unidentified member of the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. Early in the war the clothing stocks at the various Army depots were exhausted and the Federal government asked the states to take responsibility for the initial uniform issue. The men of the 9th received a distinctive, state-issued uniform, which this man is wearing. In addition, the hats have a number 9 surrounded by a wreath. The photo of George F. Thomson shows him wearing a typical single-breasted officer's frock coat , appropriate for an assistant surgeon whose rank was equivalent to a first lieutenant, and holding a kepi with the regulation U.S. in a wreath. Chaplain Father Thomas Quinn is wearing a distinctive Rhode Island smock and captain's shoulder straps. Chaplains were not considered officers by the Army and most did not wear shoulder straps. However, they were allowed pay equivalent to a captain of cavalry and the occasional chaplain did wear captain's shoulder straps. Quinn served in several different Rhode Island units until he was discharged from the Army as a supernumerary in January 1862. At that time his was with the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery and what we now call the tables of organization did not call for a light artillery unit to have a chaplain. During the war several chaplains were mistaken for a combatant and shot because they were wearing what appeared to be an officer's uniform. That is exactly what Quinn was doing in his photo.

I have a plea regarding photographs in general. If you look on E-bay or go to your local antique mall, you will find piles of 19th century photographs of unidentified individuals, including those of Civil War soldiers. These were once someone's relatives and yet the identities of these individuals are now lost forever. If you own a photo and know the identity gently write the name in pencil on the back. Otherwise, in 50 years time it to may join the army of the unknowns that some antiques dealer will will tell you was "bought at an estate sale."

Soldier's Artifacts

A Fragment of Cuff Material from a Confederate Cavalry Uniform with a Virginia State Seal Button
Families do not always do a good job of holding onto or preserving things handed down from ancestors. At the end of the war soldiers were permitted to take home uniforms and certain items of government property simply because the government was hard pressed to collect and store all the surplus items now that the Army was demobilized. If you are a descendant of a Civil War soldier and lucky enough to have any artifacts attributable to him please keep them and not sell them to some stranger on E-bay. Artifacts are sometimes a clue to service and at other times are misleading and falsely attributed. As a person very knowledgeable regarding Civil War relics, I am amazed by the number of times I have seen postwar material claimed to have been used by a given soldier during the war. In some cases it may have been a soldier served in a state militia unit or a uniformed veteran's organization that affected military dress. In other cases, I have suspected fabrication on someone's part.


Of course, there is much more that I could have said and sources that I could have mentioned. As a fellow genealogist I respect the fact that this is your search and people learn by the experience of doing. Please document where you find information. Five years from now you might not remember. It is always exciting to find an ancestor that you can tie to a historical event, such as the American Civil War, but let us never forget for all its drama this was a tragedy of the highest magnitude. The American political system is founded on the ability to reach compromise and the issue of the existence of slavery did not lend itself to compromise. Instead we suffered a disastrous Civil War. I hope it was a lesson well-learned and yet today I observe an unwillingness to have polite political discourse and to reach compromise. I hope that our ancestors do not judge our foolishness too harshly.

A Note Establishing the History of the Flag Fragment
Purported Fragment of the 74th New York Battle Flag
Flag Fragment
Shoulder Strap of Captain Lovell Purdy, Jr., 74th New York Infantry
Shoulder Strap

Above is group of three artifacts attributed to Captain Lovell Purdy, Jr. of Company H, 74th New York Infantry Regiment. The 74th New York was part of the Excelsior Brigade and Daniel Sickles' Third Army Corps and was present at Gettysburg. Acting against orders, Sickles repositioned his Corps forward of the Army of Potomac's battle line on Cemetery Hill and directly in the path of Confederate General Longstreet's attack on the Union right flank. Purdy was wounded and the 3rd Corps cut to pieces as a result. However, they did act as a "bumper" for the rest of the Union Army and the Confederate attack lost its momentum at Little Round Top. At this point three of the seven Union Corps had been smashed by Confederates attacks and R. E. Lee was confident of victory. The stage was set for Pickett's Charge. The outcome at Gettysburg was a near thing and either side might have won. Purdy was a witness to the events.

Photography and the Civil War
Cyndi's List Links to Civil War information