How to Research Your Civil War-Era Ancestors

By Sally Ann Flecker Premium

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

– Lincoln’s first inaugural address, 1861

Bring out the big guns

Al Robertson figures he was 3 or 4 when “Johnny Shiloh” first aired on the Disney television show in the early 1960s. He was young — and impressionable. Robertson was bitten with the Civil War bug, bad. Later, with two decades of gun collecting under his belt — Robertson figures he has one example of each Union musket issued in the Civil War — he set his sights on bigger things. Truly big — as in the 1841 replica cannon that now occupies one stall, next to the family van, in his multi-car garage in Butler, Pa.

Robertson’s collection is not merely for looking. He competes with one of his Springfield or Smith muskets — and, yes, the cannon — at national and regional shooting competitions. The matches, sponsored by the North/South Skirmish Association, feature period guns and artillery with shooters all dressed in full Civil War uniform. (For information, write 501 North Dixie Dr., Vandalia, OH 45377, or see <>.)

How does one practice firing a cannon? “You have to have a big farm and high wall,” Robertson answers, laughing. He goes to a friend’s hundred-acre farm with a high-wall strip mine. “I’d get nervous with a 6-pound ball flying through the woods.”

Interested in getting in on the action of a Civil War battle? Serious re-enactments of Civil War altercations are all the rage. Check out the Civil War Reenactors home page <> for information about what’s involved and how to find a group near you.

Christian Hinchberger was only 17 years old in 1861 when he left his home in the small western Pennsylvania town of Butler to enlist in the Union Army. Over the next three years and six weeks as a member of the 78th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, he miraculously escaped harm. He was never wounded in battle, was not killed by the diseases that periodically swept through the camps.

In fact, Hinchberger missed only one roll call in the Civil War — during a long march from Monfordsville, Tenn., to Bowling Green, Ky. He and his fellow soldiers couldn’t find clean water anywhere that day as they marched hour after hour under a hard sun. They came across no cold, spring-fed wells, crossed over no clear running streams. Their tin cups, hooked to their haversacks or onto their belts, clattered empty at their sides. Finally, stricken with a terrible thirst, Hinchberger went against his better judgment and drank from a pool of deep standing water. But the animal carcasses left by retreating Rebels had poisoned the water, and Hinchberger fell violently ill. He wished he was dead, but he recovered. He continued on with the 78th for many a battle and adventure.

Christian Hinchberger was only one among the hundreds of thousands who fought on either side of the Civil War — just another foot soldier whose unassuming story was eclipsed by the glory legends of the smooth Jeb Stuart or the ferocious William Tecumseh Sherman, the audacious Stonewall Jackson or the enigmatic George McClellan. But there’s much to be seen and learned in the ordinary life of Christian Hinchberger and the others like him who followed orders, marched, fought, feared for their lives, missed their homes and families, saw their fill of death and destruction. The good news is that their stories are not lost forever.

If there’s a Civil War veteran in your family tree, you’d like to know more about him than name, rank and regiment. What was his daily life like? Where did he travel over the course of the war? What kinds of things did he see and do over the course of this life-changing experience?

How much can you learn about the world experienced by your Civil War relative? Here’s how Christian Hinchberger’s great-grandson put himself in his ancestor’s shoes — and how you can do the same.

Visiting the past

If Christian Hinchberger is alive to us today, it’s thanks to the great-grandson he never met. Bill May lives in a great white Victorian house set lazily back from the street in the same western Pennsylvania town the 17-year-old Hinchberger bravely set out from nearly 140 years ago. Step into May’s house and you know immediately you’re in the domain of someone fascinated by history. Photos from the last century hang on the walls; sitting on a side table is an early stereoscope viewer with photos of Niagara Falls. May points out that the rose-colored settee sits on the exact spot where the house’s original owner was laid out when he died. May himself, though, is firmly rooted in the 21st century. The tall, blonde, athletic father of two is a computer teacher at a local high school, specializing in Web design. But for the past nine years, May has been going far back in time, donning Union blue and entertaining audiences with his one-man show, A Visit from a Civil War Soldier.

Visit, which May has performed across western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia (it’s also available for sale on videotape at <>), is the story of Pvt. Christian Hinchberger, told as he’s returning home from the war, just in time to vote in the 1864 elections. “The performance you see was never written down,” says May. “You don’t see someone playing Christian Hinchberger, but someone who is Christian Hinchberger.” It’s a claim he can make with confidence. May’s transformation from a 30-something high school teacher into the young infantryman isn’t a matter of luck. May spent several years hunting down information and building a solid body of knowledge about his great-grandfather, his experiences and the time in which he lived.

May grew up hearing his great-grandfather’s war stories being retold around the family table. In fact, May’s mother grew up with Hinchberger in the household; he died when she was 12. “So he was not a distant ancestor,” May says. “We were brought up to respect what he had done.”

When May was 8, his family made an excursion to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, where Hinchberger fought in the Battle Above the Clouds in November 1863. Until then, Lookout Mountain had sounded like a tourist experience his great-grandfather had had. “Seeing the notches where the bullets had hit the stone made the experience real.”

Fast forward to 1988. May, an adult now, took another trip with his parents, this time to Fredericksburg, Va. There, while visiting Chatham Manor where Clara Barton and Walt Whitman had nursed soldiers fallen in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, he encountered his first Civil War reenactor. May was impressed: “He talked to you as though he had been there.” By the time he caught up with his parents, who were off looking at the cannons, an idea that would dominate his life for the next decade — taking his great-grandfather’s stories and bringing them to life — had taken shape.

Check the attic

As a starting point, May had written accounts: Hinchberger had kept a diary for one year of the war. The family also had scrap-books with newspaper articles in which Hinchberger, as a well-known Civil War veteran, had been interviewed over the years.

“This war was the first in history where so many people of all socioeconomic classes sat down and wrote about everyday life,” says Babs Melton, director of the Stonewall Jackson Museum in Strasburg, Va. <>. The museum, located on Hupp’s Hill, a site of strategic importance in the Valley Campaigns of 1862 and 1864, uses diaries and letters to connect the lives of individuals to specific moments in the war. Take Cornelia Peake McDonald. “She had a large family,” says Melton, “seven kids, and her husband was a Confederate soldier. Her baby died. She writes about the vicissitudes of war, battles going on in and around Winchester, the scarcities she faced.” Accompanying each of the seven exhibits for the battles fought in the Hupp’s Hill area is McDonald’s account of what she was doing that very day. The museum is working on exhibits of other such accounts.

Do any members of your family have letters or journals that may have been handed down from one generation to the next? It’s worth asking about, even if you haven’t heard of them before. Reading the personal papers of people who lived through those turbulent times is thrilling and humbling.

In an almost unthinkable juxtaposition of new and old, you can sample on the Web letters written 135 years ago or more by the fickle light of a Civil War campfire. Here, among the selected letters from the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry <> is Albion Martin, a dentist from Shenandoah County, Va., fussing to his wife, Annie, about what he had to do to secure a coveted position in the company: “I must give you a little history of my appointment to the Office of Commissary as I may have already been slandered in the neighborhood of Mt. Jackson and your ears may be pained by a rehearsal.”

On the Civil War Love Letters site <>, you’ll find a letter Harvey Black wrote to his wife, Mollie, on Nov. 1, 1863, at Brandy Station, Va. In the letter, Black reminisced over fond moments from their nine-year courtship (they met when he was 17 and she was 8):“I don’t know how much pleasure it affords you to go over these days of the past, but to me they will ever be remembered as days of felicity…. But maybe you will say it looks ridiculous to see a man getting gray-haired to be writing love letters, so I will use the remnant of my paper otherwise.”

The 1864 war diary of Captain R. W. Burt < html> is chock full of names and matter-of-fact details of military life: “Oct. 18th: Marched at 9 AM through a beautiful valley pretty thickly settled. Halted at 5 PM at forks of Rome and Summersville roads. Foraging plentiful, but out of ‘tack.’ Captain Blackburn’s resignation accepted. Marched 13 miles. Oct. 20th: Marched at 7:30 AM and halted at 9 PM near Gaysville, distance 22 miles. Got mail. Foraging for our living. Oct. 25th: Making out pay rolls. Oct. 26th: Foraging party of 16 men under Lieut. B. Williamson went out… and got stampeded by the Rebels. Our Corps returned.”

To find a wonderful roundup of links to digital Civil War letters and diaries, click on <>.

You also can browse through an array of first-person narratives by Southerners during the Civil War at <>, an online exhibit by the Library of Congress. This digitized collection includes diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts and ex-slave narratives by not only prominent individuals, but also relatively inaccessible populations: women, African Americans, enlisted men, laborers and Native Americans. Choose from hundreds of documents and search by keyword, subject, title or author.

Look in the library

All is not lost if your search for family papers turns up no hidden treasures. Now is the time to begin getting friendly with your local library’s microfilm machine.

The first thing you’re going to look for is your Civil War relative’s obituary. “The obit will usually mention his regiment,” says May. With the name of the regiment, you’ve found the key that will open the door to useful information. Regimental histories let you follow accounts of particular pertinence to your region. For instance, here’s an account of a few days in the life of the 3rd Georgia during Burnside’s 1862 North Carolina expedition.

“Learning that the Confederates were building ironclads at Norfolk, Burnside planned an expedition to destroy the Dismal Swamp Canal locks to prevent transfer of the ships to Albemarle Sound. He entrusted the operation to Brig. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno’s command, which embarked on transports from Roanoke Island on April 18. By midnight, the convoy reached Elizabeth City and began disembarking troops. On the morning of April 19, Reno marched north on the road to South Mills. At the crossroads a few miles below South Mills, elements of Col. Ambrose Wright’s command delayed the Federals until dark. Reno abandoned the expedition and withdrew during the night to the transports at Elizabeth City. The transports carried Reno’s troops to New Berne where they arrived on April 22.”

If you’re searching for information on Union troops, Frederick H. Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion is the bible, with William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War a close second. The best Confederate tome is Stewart Sifakis’ Compendium of the Confederate Armies. An extensive collection of Civil War unit bibliographies can be found at the US Army Military History Institute at the Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Penn. Many of the Institute’s holdings are available for interlibrary loan, which can be arranged through your local library.

And, once again, the Internet offers you the opportunity to lose yourself in available resources. Start with a search engine like <>. You can start narrow — type in the name of the regiment — or wide, such as “Civil War regimental history.” You’ll find enough to keep you busy for a long time.

But don’t assume that just because your Civil War relative was a member of a certain regiment that he was present for all of the action. Was the soldier ever sick, on leave, or, heaven forbid, under court martial? Military and pension-application papers can provide a ton of useful information and are available through the National Archives and Records Administration <>. In the muster rolls or enlistment papers, says Julie Fix, director of education and technology for the Civil War Preservation Trust <>, “You might find out that your greatgrandfather had blue eyes. It personalizes it.”

NARA recently proposed changes in ordering military records. NATF Form 85 for military service records and NATF Form 86 for full pension records would replace NATF Form 80, effective Sept. 1, 2000. The changes also mean you’d automatically be sent the complete file, rather than just selected pages. Contact NARA by e-mail at or write National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC, 20408.

See for yourself

Inextricably tied to Bill May’s desire to commemorate his great-grandfather is his resolve to help save what he considers to be “sacred ground,” the battlefields of the Civil War. Although there are solid preservation efforts afoot — among them the Civil War Preservation Trust, which has already saved nearly 10,000 acres of battlefield land at more than 50 sites in 15 states — parcels of land where men once fought and died continue to fall into the hands of developers to be turned into strip malls and apartment complexes. May donates a portion of the proceeds from his live performances and from the sale of his videotape to the preservation effort. So far his work has raised nearly $30,000 for the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation in Middletown, Va., and the Brandy Station Foundation in Culpepper, Va. Brandy Station was the June 1863 site of the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America.

Of course, Gettysburg may be the best-known of the Civil War battlefields that have been declared national parks <>. Visitors to the park have a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the terrible battle of July 1-3, 1863. Many report a spiritual connection when they come to the grounds where such a terrible battle took place. Other battlefields protected by the National Park Service include Manassas <>, also known as First and Second Bull Run; Antietam <www.nps. gov/anti>; and Fredericksburg <>.

The Preservation Trust’s Civil War Discovery Trail offers another way to experience the Civil War. From Fort Pillow State Historic Site in Henning, Tenn., to the Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Va., the Trail is an impressive linkage of 518 sites in 28 states. Sites include not only battlefields but also museums, antebellum plantations, Underground Railroad stations and cemeteries. Battlefields have to meet requirements, including regular hours that they are open to the public and historical interpretation, Fix says.

“There’s something about walking on a battlefield that touches you,” says Fix.

Christian Hinchberger went on to have a good life. He bought a farm with the money he’d sent home throughout the war for his sisters to save for him. Four years after returning home he married a young woman from Philadelphia, his second cousin once removed, whom he’d known since childhood. In later years, he decided to try his fortunes as a shopkeeper, opening a small grocery store in Butler right around the corner from where his great-grandson lives today. He stocked it with poultry and produce he raised on the farm.

He never forgot his friends from the Civil War — including Henry Forcht, whom he picked up and carried for miles when Forcht was wounded in the thigh during Sherman’s March to Atlanta. (Forcht’s grandson would later marry Hinchberger’s granddaughter.) Hinchberger’s war experience was the defining moment of his life. On Memorial Day, with houses decorated with bunting, Hinchberger would parade with the remaining members of the old 78th through the town and up the unrelenting hill to the cemetery, where they’d place wreaths on the graves of the Civil War veterans. In the 1920s, the Chamber of Commerce offered to drive them; they were in their 70s and 80s by then. They replied, “We marched to Gettysburg; we marched with Sherman to the sea; we will march to the cemetery.”

Hinchberger, who mustered out on Nov. 4, 1864, and married on Nov. 4,1868, took his final breath on Nov. 4, 1934. As the end drew near, his thoughts wandered back to those days of marching and camping, days of camaraderie and terrible battle. “Camptoum Races sing dem songs,” he sang in snatches. “Doo dab, doo dah.” His final words were chilling — and simple:

“Ready. Aim. Fire.”

Three simple words repeated over and over until at last his breathing slowed, and then stopped. The war was finally over for this soldier, but not for the generations that followed him and his comrades, blue and gray alike, for whom the rifles still roar in memory and family lore. Ready. Aim. Fire.

From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine