As America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, you can explore the history of that conflict — and your ancestors’ roles in it — in ways those fighting men in blue and gray never could have imagined. Today, you can look up the name and unit of every known Civil War soldier on the web, along with histories of his (and, yes, her, in some cases) regiment. Many of the service records that, until recently, you could get only by writing to the National Archives can now be downloaded to your desktop. Pension applications, which can solve mysteries
about a Civil War veteran’s whole family, are increasingly available without even a trip to the library. And you can walk in Civil War ancestors’ battlefield footsteps with animated maps, collections of letters and photographs, and even the complete Official Record of the conflict — all online.
It’s all a far cry technologically from those pioneering Mathew Brady photos of the war (yep, also online — see the National Archives website) or Abraham Lincoln scribbling his Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. (Today, we bet Abe would’ve used an iPad.)
The sesquicentennial celebration itself has its own ever-growing web presence, of course, at the National Park Service Civil War website. It features a calendar of events and links to resources and exhibits. To help you get off on the right foot in researching your Civil War fighting kin (that would be the straw foot, in the classic “hay-foot, straw-foot” training given raw recruits), we’ve selected the top 10 websites for Civil War research.
Also a National Park Service site, this essential starting place for Civil War research has added new features in time for the sesquicentennial, including backgrounders on the social, economic, political and military aspects of the Civil War. Browsing each topic is like having a Park Service ranger lead you through the underlying history of the war. You’ll also find a section on using the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) in the classroom, plus a guide to African-Americans in the war and suggested readings.
Another new feature, still in the works, will list all the names of burials in the 14 national cemeteries managed by the Park Service, all but one of which is related to a Civil War battlefield park. The first phase, now online, involves data from records of Poplar Grove National Cemetery at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia, and includes images of the headstones.
But the heart of this site remains the database of 6.3 million names from both sides, covering 44 states and territories, derived from General Index Cards — now at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) — that Gen. Fred C. Ainsworth’s staff created in the 1880s to determine eligibility for military pensions. (The index does include Confederates, even though they were ineligible for federal pensions.) Transcribers copied names from muster rolls, which companies usually kept and updated about every two weeks. On the CWSS, “hits” for soldiers’ records also link to regimental histories and, in turn, capsule histories of battles.
Searching this massive database is easy: Enter any combination of last name, first name, side (Union or Confederate), state of enlistment, unit number or function (such as infantry or cavalry). Name spellings can vary widely in Civil War records, as in other genealogical resources, so try variations if you don’t find your ancestor at first (the CWSS database doesn’t accept wildcards). You also can try entering less information — omit the first name, for example, in case your John W. Smith was transcribed as J.W .Smith, J. Smith or even mistakenly as J.W. Smith.
Once you’ve found your Civil War ancestor in the list of results, click on his name to see the basic information from his General Index card: name, side, company, rank on
enlistment, ultimate rank, any notes and NARA microfilm location. You can use this information to search for his compiled military service record (CMSR) at Footnote or request it from NARA (see the box above). You also can click on the regiment name to view information about this unit with links to write-ups of its battles. From this regiment page, you can search for others in the unit or browse a list of all the regiment’s soldiers (which often will include relatives of your ancestor who enlisted at the same time and place).
The “Sailors” part of the CWSS name, alas, is a bit misleading. No naval records equaling soldiers’ CMSRs exist on either side. Although the Park Service is organizing and indexing sailors’ records, the only sailors online now are 18,000 African-Americans indexed in a Howard University project.
Thanks to its partnership with the NARA, this subscription site (recently acquired by Ancestry.com ) is working toward instant gratification for Civil War researchers who formerly had to wait for NARA records to arrive in the mail. For $11.95 a month or $79.95 a year, you can view a nearly complete collection of Confederate Soldier Service Records. They contain digitized papers relating to individual soldiers, as well as card abstracts of entries from muster rolls, regimental returns (personnel reports from a post commander), rosters, payrolls, appointment books, hospital registers, Union prison registers and rolls, parole rolls and inspection reports. Union CMSRs aren’t as far along in digitization, but it’s worth a look, especially if your ancestor in blue came from a southern, border or western state.
You can look for your Union ancestor, however, in the nearly 3 million record images of the Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index. This series, from NARA microfilm T289, contains index cards, arranged by unit, for pension applications of veterans who served in the US Army between 1861 and 1917 (including other wars). You can learn about a soldier’s term of service and use the indexed information to request his pension record from NARA. Unique to this series of records are death dates and locations for many of the veterans who died after the war.
Other Civil War resources at Footnote include Confederate amnesty papers, postwar claims cases filed by Southern citizens, Union naval pensions and a small but growing database of pension applications from Union soldiers’ widows.
You can search Footnote records by name, or you can browse any collection by clicking on the database name then drilling down by state, sometimes by regiment or company, and then by an alphabetical list of names. Given the vagaries of bureaucratic name-spelling, this browsing approach is often the surest way to find your ancestors’ records. It’s especially effective if you’ve already found a soldier’s unit information using the CWSS (see No. 1).
Footnote’s new owner is also worth a look for Civil War records, though Ancestry.com isn’t quite as rich a resource for this data — yet. This subscription site ($19.95 a month, $155.40 a year for a US Deluxe membership) includes several databases that duplicate or overlap the free CWSS info. You’ll want to check out the US Civil War Soldiers Records and Profiles (an updated version of the American Civil War Research Database, also online here), which covers much of the same ground but also pulls in records including state rosters, pension records, regimental histories, photos and even journals; to date it covers more than 4.2 million soldiers.
The other star attraction here is the General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, which covers more than 2 million Union Army soldiers who filed for pensions after the war. The pension index cards come from NARA microfilm T288, and are arranged by name. It’s much easier to search this database — or Footnote’s similar index, for that matter — than to pore over the microfilm alternative, available through the Family History Library.
Ancestry.com also has 1.5 million Civil War prisoner of war records, Alabama muster rolls and some other Confederate records, historic photos and a database of headstones provided for Union veterans who died from 1879 to 1903. The collection, titled Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, compiles documents from three NARA record groups relating to the war.
Don’t overlook Ancestry’s complete census collection when researching your Civil War kin. The 1890 veterans schedules for states alphabetically from part of Kentucky through Wyoming are almost the only surviving piece of that enumeration. The 1910 census also asked whether a person was a survivor of the Union Army (abbreviated UA) or Navy (UN) or the Confederate Army (CA) or Navy (CN).
This free site for Civil War buffs is cluttered with ads, but if you can get past the commercials you’ll find a searchable version of the 128-volume The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (the “OR” for short). This is the official — and exhaustive — government account of all that went on in the war. The thousands of pages of information on this site also include historical letters, a searchable collection of Civil War photos, guides to period weaponry and vessels, and regimental histories. A clickable map takes you to all the battles fought in that state or territory, with summaries of each.
Although not limited to the Civil War, this free site under the auspices of The Ohio State University is especially strong on that era, including not only the complete online edition of the OR (searchable, along with an index) but also its companion atlas. In 1895, the Government Printing Office produced these 175 full-color plates with detailed maps of battles and other events covered in the OR. This site’s Civil War collection also includes letters and diaries.
For the latest in Civil War battlefield maps, turn to this site from the organization (formerly called Civil War Preservation Trust) dedicated to preserving those grounds. The trust is adding animated maps that put the battle action in motion, and serves up downloadable maps (free registration required), a collection of historical maps, and battle maps overlaid on Google Earth imagery. You also can explore the Civil War Discovery Trail across 32 states, search for battlefields by state or by year, and plan your visit to these historic sites. The History Center (under Education) includes biographies of key figures, battle histories from Hallowed Ground magazine, and links to primary-source documents about the war.
Although not specifically geared to the Civil War, this site from the Department of Veterans Affairs is the fastest and simplest way to search for the government burial site of your Civil War veteran ancestors (and possibly their dependents). It covers VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries and other Department of Interior and military cemeteries, among them numerous Civil War battlefield cemeteries. Unlike postwar US government records such as pensions, which cover only the winning side, the Gravesite Locator does include burial sites of Confederate veterans.
You can search all the cemeteries or a single location using last name (the only required field), first name, middle name, birth date and/or death date. Name searches can be exact or “begins with.” Because the Nationwide Gravesite Locator includes burial records from many sources, results of your searches will vary. You should get at least the veteran’s birth and death dates and cemetery; some listings give precise burial locations with a link to a map.
If your impressions of the Civil War were mostly formed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ landmark PBS series “The Civil War,” this handsome site is for you. More than just a collection of pictures, the site’s image gallery features two interactive sections (you’ll need the Flash plug-in), Telling Details and Telling a Story. In the first, click on the highlights in each image to learn more about places, battles and daily life of the Civil War. In Telling a Story, you can play Ken Burns by mixing archival images, narration and music, then e-mail your “movie” to a friend. A section called The War adds biographies, maps, historical documents, a bibliography and links.
There’s also a complete background on the making of the series, with video clips and a schedule to catch rebroadcasts. Bios tell about Burns and his fellow filmmakers, and you can even download a Civil War screensaver.
Although state sites can be packed with Civil War data, most focus tightly on soldiers from that state. (You can see some of our favorite state-specific sites for Civil War research in the States’ Rights box on the previous page.) The Library of Virginia is the exception, and not just because so much of the war’s pivotal action took place within that state’s borders. Even if you don’t have Virginians in your family tree, but you grew up calling the conflict “the War Between the States” (or “the Recent Unpleasantness”) and whistlin’ “Dixie,” visit this site for its index to names in nearly 30 years’ worth of Confederate Veteran magazine published between 1893 and 1932. You can search for names or other words and phrases, or browse an alphabetical list of names. Index entries typically list the veteran’s service unit, death date and place, and the issue and page of the original citation.
Of course, those with Virginia kin will want to consult this site for its helpful guides to Civil War research at the Library of Virginia, list of Civil War Resources in the Personal Papers and Military Records Collections, Confederate Navy Index, Index to Virginia Confederate Rosters, Virginia Confederate Pensions, Virginia Confederate Disability Applications and Receipts, Virginia Military Dead Database and applications for admission to the Robert E. Lee Camp Soldiers Home.
If the previous nine sites haven’t quenched your thirst for Civil War info on the web, this classic — but constantly updated — list of links will take you wherever you might still want to go online. We rarely honor mere link sites in this day of databases and slick graphics, but George H. Hoemann’s American Civil War Homepage remains essential to exploring the Civil War on the web. From music of the era to political cartoons, Animal Mascots of the Civil War to the Confederate Salt Co., you can delve into aspects of the Civil War you probably hadn’t even thought of.
Be sure to scroll down to the State & Local Studies section, organized alphabetically by state. Here you may find some surprising gems — perhaps containing info about your ancestors — you’d never have thought to Google for, such as “A Few Soldiers of Old Tallapoosa” (Alabama) or “Trumbull County, Ohio, in the Civil War.”
Tip: Besides service records and pensions, the National Archives’ Civil War records include draft records, court martials, some soldiers’ home records, photos and others. Click here to learn more.
Tip: Civil War battlefield maps and historical accounts of the battles your ancestor’s unit participated in can help you trace exactly where he was during those conflicts. You can find maps and accounts of many battles at http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields, http://www.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/bystate.htm and http://www.civilwarhome.com/records.htm.
Many of the best Civil War sites concentrate on a single state. (Keep in mind that Confederate pensions, after all, came from the seceding states, not the federal government.) Here are top state Civil War sites, both North and South:
- Alabama Civil War Service Cards File: Search a database of 231,000-plus entries from a card file maintained by the Alabama Department of Archives and History from the early 1900s until 1982.
- Arkansas Civil War: Search Confederate pension records, Arkansas Confederate Home records, and 1911 questionnaires of Confederate soldiers in Arkansas.
- Western History and Genealogy: This Denver Public Library site includes Colorado veterans and a database for Nebraska.
- Florida Confederate Pension Application Files: Search a database of 13,000 veterans’ and widows’ pension applications.
- Georgia Civil War Pension Applications: Get online access to the Georgia Department of Archives and History’s collection of microfilmed pension records of veterans and their widows.
- Illinois State Archives: Find a database of more than 285,000 soldiers from Illinois who served in the Union Army, plus downloadable regimental histories.
- Indiana Civil War Soldiers: Search a database of more than 213,000 Hoosier Civil War records.
- Louisiana State Archives: Search 49,000 names indexed from microfilmed Confederate Pension Applications.
- Archives of Maryland Online: Access two volumes of Union muster rolls plus “The Maryland Line in the Confederate Army.”
- Seeking Michigan: Search a collection of muster rolls, letters, lists of dead, monthly returns and other materials sent to the state Adjutant General during the war.
- Missouri State Archives: Find a Civil War Provost Marshal Index Database and database of Missouri soldiers.
- Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, 1861-1865: The New Jersey State Library digital edition is fully searchable.
- New York State Civil War Soldier Database: Searchable database of more than 360,000 New York soldiers.
- Index to Oklahoma Confederate Pension Records: 5MB downloadable PDF index.
- Pennsylvania State Archives: The Civil War Veterans Card File typically includes the soldier’s age, physical description, residence, birthplace and service data.
- South Carolina Department of Archives and History: A database here holds nearly 11,000 records of Confederate veterans from 1909 to 1973.
- Tennessee Confederate Pension Applications: Application forms from 1891 list service information plus place of birth, number and gender of children, and value of personal and real property. These cover veterans living in Tennessee at the time, not only those who served from Tennessee. Also find an index of Confederate Soldiers’ Home Applications here.
- Texas State Library and Archives Commission: Search 54,634 Confederate pension applications, the Confederate Indigent Families Lists, and the Index to Texas Adjutant General Service Records.
- Library of Virginia: Read about this stellar site under No. 9.
- Wisconsin Historical Society: Check alphabetical and regimental lists of soldiers who served from Wisconsin units during the Civil War, plus state veterans’ censuses from 1885, 1895 and 1905.
Working the System
- The free Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System is the best place to start researching your Civil War ancestors. Once you’ve confirmed an ancestor served and identified his unit, you can find him in other, richer records. To search, enter as much or as little information as you know about your ancestor. If you don’t know the state from which he served, for instance, leave that drop-down menu blank. You can always go back and refine with more details if your search returns too many hits.
- Clicking on the soldier’s name in your list of results will take you to the full entry for that individual. To learn more about a soldier’s unit, just click on the regiment link.
- The information about each soldier is basic, but this data can unlock other records about your Civil War ancestor — sometimes page after page of detail. Note especially the regiment name. If you’re researching a Union ancestor, whose compiled military service records (CMSRs) are likely not yet online, you’ll need to know the regiment to request records from the National Archives. You can order a CMSR online here; click on Order Reproductions. CMSR copies cost $25 and ship in 60 to 90 days.
- If your ancestor fought for the Confederacy (or served the Union from a southern, border or western state, or was an African-American soldier), you can search for the soldier’s name in the Civil War collection on the subscription site Footnote. Since you know your ancestor’s unit from the CWSS, however, it’s often faster — and avoids potential search quirks and misspellings — to browse to his records. In this case, click on Confederate Soldier Service Records, the state, the unit and the first letter of the last name.
- Once you’ve found your ancestor, click on his name to bring up thumbnails of the pages in his file. Click on any thumbnail to see it in the viewer.
- The viewer lets you zoom in and out, print or download, or scroll to other pages in the file using the filmstrip at the bottom. You could learn, for instance, where and when this soldier enlisted. Other pages give details about his service (in this case, time as a steward at a military hospital — where, an officer noted, “he has been discharging his duties to my entire satisfaction”).
Enlisting Offline Sources
Not all essential Civil War resources are online — at least not yet. When you reach a dead end on the web, turn to these paper and microfilm tools:
- Union pension files: The index is online at Footnote and Ancestry.com, but the actual files haven’t been digitized or microfilmed. Request copies from NARA using NATF Form 80 or order online here; select either the Pension Documents Packet ($25), eight pages of genealogical information, or the Complete File ($75).
- Confederate pension files: If not online (see the box on page 22), most are available on microfilm from the Family History Library.
- Compiled military service records: You can order Union and Confederate records online from NARA ($25). Confederate service records are online at Footnote.
- Union draft records: These have not yet been microfilmed; they’re at NARA in Record Group 110.
- Burial records: Nearly 359,000 Union soldiers who died during the war are recorded in the 27-volume Roll of Honor, available on FHL microfilm and reprinted in 10 volumes by Genealogical Publishing Co., which also published an index by Martha and William Reamy. Compilations of Confederate gravesites include Confederate Burials (28 volumes) and Deaths of Confederate Soldiers in Confederate Hospitals (14 volumes), both by Raymond W. Watkins.
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From the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine