Key Military Records from the Civil War

By Sally Ann Flecker Premium

Not sure if you have a Civil War ancestor, or need to discover more detail? Here’s a quick guide to the best resources for finding your Civil War roots:

  • Your first step should be to try to find what regiment your ancestor was in. The best sources for this are the 39-volume Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865 and the 16-volume Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865, both by Janet B. Hewett, available in major libraries. For the Union volumes, you’ll need to know the state in which your ancestor might have joined the military; don’t forget that regiments were often formed regionally, so men from Indiana might have joined an Ohio regiment, for example. Check neighboring states if you’re not sure. These records are being put online at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <>, an ongoing project administered by the National Parks System. Five states’ rosters have been computerized to date.
  • Once you know your ancestor’s regiment, you can learn a lot more from regimental histories. Ask if your library has the microfiche of “Civil War Unit Histories” and “Regimental Histories of the American Civil War.” You may also find firsthand reports of your ancestor’s unit in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (known as the “OR” for “Official Records”) or its companion naval series.
  • All official records of the US Army and Navy during the Civil War are searchable through Cornell University’s Making of America Web site <>, which provides free online access to digitized primary sources in American social history. Not only can you browse the digitized images of their pages, but you also can benefit from the site’s Optical Character Recognition program to search for words and names, and go directly to the pages containing them.
  • State archives and historical societies may have records not available elsewhere, and they are the primary source for Confederate pension records (Union records are in the National Archives — consult the Index to Pension Records – but those on the losing side had to apply to their state governments). A good resource on Confederate states’ archives is The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Governments of the Confederate States of America by Henry Putney Beers.
  • Don’t forget to check your library for periodicals, an often underutilized resource. Many states have or had Civil War journals, and from 1893-1932 there was a Confederate Veteran magazine (for which there is also a two-volume index).
  • Though most of the regular 1890 census was lost to fire, part of the schedules of surviving Civil War veterans and widows escaped the blaze. These records were supposed to be Union-only, but sympathetic enumerators sometimes included Confederates. The National Archives has the existing records — half of Kentucky and states beginning with L-W — and your local library may have the indexes.
From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine