How to Use the American Civil War Research Database

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Our Civil War ancestors tramped across an American landscape ripped apart by sectionalism. Locating your soldier and tracing his long march can help you understand his role—and your family’s place—in this significant period of US history. If you can’t make it to the National Archives, though, don’t fret—you may be able to locate your Civil War ancestor with a quick trip to your own computer.

The American Civil War Research Database is one of the most comprehensive, fully searchable sources of soldier and regimental data on the Internet. For an annual fee of $25, you can search through more than 2.6 million records, covering 85 percent of Union and 23 percent of Confederate personnel. The site’s dynamic links will take you into several layers of information, ranging from the names of other hometown enlistees to those who died in any given battle.

Locating your ancestor is as easy as entering a surname and launching a search. Be sure to follow the search tips, though, as many records identify soldiers’ first names only by an initial. And since many soldiers joined a neighboring state’s military unit, you may not find them if you specify the state where they lived.

Once you’ve found a soldier, click on the name to read his history. There you’ll find dates of enlistment, age at enlistment and rank achieved, along with source citations. Because much of the information in the database comes from state rosters, you’ll find data previously unavailable to the public.

As a bonus, you can follow the link to your ancestor’s place of residence (if known) and see the names of every other soldier in town. You may even find your soldier in one of the 5,500 photos on the site.

You can also use the site to follow your ancestor’s path through the war. If you know which regiment your solider served in, use the Regiment Lookup to dive into battles fought, regimental assignments and the unit’s combat experience. From the Casualty Analysis screen, you can view the dates and places where soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or reported missing; click for the names of the soldiers in each of those categories.

To see how losses in your ancestor’s regiment compared with other regiments, use the Regimental Dynamics screen to sort statistics by such options as the percentage of men who were killed, wounded, disabled or captured. You can also sort by unit type, state and length of enlistment. For example, in sorting Union regiments by percentage of deserters, you’ll see that of the 257 men in the 154th Pennsylvania Infantry, nearly 44 percent went over the hill. These statistics lead, of course, to questions about the ability of the officer corps, camp conditions or recruiting techniques.

Although the American Civil War Research Database is available by subscription in various databases, the dynamic links on this site itself make it a far more valuable resource. If you’re interested only in locating your Civil War ancestor and don’t want detailed regimental information, you can purchase a seven-day pass to the personnel database for $10. In either case, a subscription to the American Civil War Research Database is one of the best bargains on the Net.