According to my mother, my great-grandfather didn’t like to talk about his experiences fighting in the Civil War. He told the family he’d been a drummer boy for the Confederacy and left it at that. Only after his death did the truth come out: At 16, Great-grandpa lied about his age and enlisted in the 37th Alabama Infantry, ultimately seeing brutal action at the battles of Corinth and Chattanooga. But today, I can find a record of his service simply by searching the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS), the National Park Service’s recently completed online database of 6.3 million soldier names. A few clicks, and there’s my great-grandfather’s secret for all the world to see.
Similar information on military ancestors from just about any era awaits genealogical researchers both on- and offline. Most everyone has at least one relative who was a soldier, sailor, Marine or guardsman — that, plus Americans’ fascination with military history, has fueled our interest in ancestors’ service records, draft registrations, bounty-land claims, pension applications and more. So where do you scout out these records? Follow these marching orders straight to genealogical victory.
The information in the CWSS database came from General Index Cards in the Compiled Military Service Records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. It represents just the tip of the iceberg of NARA’s information on America’s military. These records can provide crucial clues for your family history search: birth date and place, spouse’s name, place of residence at enlistment and after discharge, and even a physical description.
The Internet has an arsenal of information about military service — that’s where I learned more about my great-grandfather’s regiment. State archives and volunteer efforts (such as RootsWeb and the USGenWeb Project) are posting ever more actual records online. Missouri, for example, has a free database containing military service cards of more than 576,000 Missourians who served from the War of 1812 through World War I. Subscription Web sites such as Ancestry.com are also adding to their caches of military records. But because of military records’ centralized nature — they largely originate from the federal government — the bulk of these records remain offline at NARA. Military service records from the Revolutionary War to 1919 are at its Washington, DC, location; those from World War I to the present are at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), located in St. Louis.
But that doesn’t mean you have to march on the nation’s capital or the Gateway to the West. Fortunately, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) has many of NARA’s records on microfilm. Search the FHL’s online catalog (click the Library tab) to see what’s available. You can borrow film for a nominal fee at your local FHL branch Family History Center. To find one near you, go to FamilySearch and click on the Library tab, then on Family History Centers.
First, of course, you need to know what to look for. Since the US didn’t have a large standing army until the 20th century, most historical military records revolve around specific wars. What’s available depends on the war your ancestor served in. You also can deploy the pension records — a great way to find out more about the soldier’s family — that evolved in the aftermath of each conflict. A few other varieties of military paperwork, such as draft records, can be useful, too. Following are highlights of what you can find on your fighting ancestors for each major war.
Colonial Wars, 1675 to 1763
Revolutionary War, 1775 to 1783
Pension records and bounty-land warrants: You also can tap most of these sources for surviving Revolutionary War pension records (many early applications were lost to fires in 1800 and 1814) and records of land grants given as “bounty” to veterans in lieu of wages. Pension indexes plus the actual applications are available on microfilm at NARA and the FHL. Because the veteran or his widow had to submit various sorts of documentation to apply for a pension, the files might contain records of birth or marriage, even pages torn from family Bibles.
Similarly, claims for bounty land—which the government awarded for military service in wars up through 1855— required proof that can be genealogically valuable to you. NARA has about 450,000 bounty-land claims on file. Footnote has these land claims and pension applications online. You can search and view them free at HeritageQuest Online (accessible through subscribing libraries), though this service doesn’t contain every page from long files.
Nine states also rewarded soldiers with bounty land: Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. See Lloyd deWitt Bockstruck’s Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Genealogical Publishing Co.) for an index to these records. Those with Virginia ancestors should also check the half-pay pension records, on microfilm at NARA and FHL, which can contain proof of heirs spanning several generations.
Lineage societies: The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a lineage society for women with patriot ancestors, has a library in Washington, DC, full of genealogical information. You can use the DAR’s free Patriot Lookup service to see if the organization has documented your ancestor’s military contribution (or other “patriotic service”) to the Revolution, then order copies of the files other descendants have used to prove their connection. Ancestry.com also has a searchable database of DAR lineage books spanning 152 volumes.
War of 1812, 1812 to 1815
War of 1812 records also are finding their way online. Ohio, for instance, which supplied more than 26,000 soldiers, has posted the text of its adjutant general’s office rosters. If your ancestor served in the multiple Indian wars from 1815 to 1858, check the microfilmed indexes to these records at NARA or the FHL. The actual records are on microfilm at NARA.
Mexican War, 1846 to 1848
Congress didn’t authorize pensions for Mexican War veterans until 1887, but these application files add a few genealogical goodies: Each applicant had to supply his wife’s maiden name, the names of any former wives and related death or divorce data, and names and birth dates of living children. The applications, which were accepted until 1926, are indexed on microfilm at NARA and the FHL, but for the most part, you’ll have to request the actual files from NARA.
Civil War, 1861 to 1865
But before setting out to track down your ancestor’s Civil War military records, you have to know what side he was on. Union soldiers naturally left more extensive and extant records, having fought on the winning side that had headquarters in what’s still the US capital. But what you can find about Confederate ancestors may pleasantly surprise you. You also need to know what state your ancestor enlisted from — it may not be the state where Great-great-grandpa lived when the war broke out: A volunteer may have used an enlistment center in a neighboring state if it was closer than one in his own state. Residents of border areas such as Kentucky may have jumped to Ohio or Indiana, say, to sign up for the Union cause. And don’t think that just because an ancestor lived in the heart of Dixie, he fought for the Confederacy: NARA has microfilmed records of Union Army volunteers from every Confederate state except South Carolina. Not sure which side your ancestor fought on, much less his state and military unit? That’s where the online CWSS comes in handy, with its basic information for Union and Confederate troops. (Ancestry.com has a similar database in its subscription collections.)
Service records: Among the many other excellent sites for exploring your Civil War ancestor’s life are American Civil War Portal and Civil War Rosters Arranged by State. You’ll find the entire Official Records — the “OR” — of the Civil War, 128 volumes in searchable digital form at eHistory and Making of America. (The massive OR, officially titled The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, is also in print at many large libraries and on microfilm at the FHL, along with an index and a companion naval series.) Many state archives and historical societies have online Civil War databases. For example, I found my great-grandfather in the Civil War index at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Ancestry. com has state Civil War databases as well.
Confederate service records that were captured or surrendered ended up in Washington, DC, where the War Department eventually began to compile files similar to those on Union troops. NARA has a huge microfilmed index to most of these records, spanning 535 reels grouped by state; the FHL has the index, too. Ask for the print version, The Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865, in libraries. Many of the actual records have also been microfilmed; otherwise, you can order them from NARA once you’ve found your ancestor in the index. NARA and the FHL also have histories of Confederate regiments that can help shed light on your ancestor’s Civil War experience.
As my Alabama database search shows, state archives also keep Confederate records. It’s even possible your ancestor served in a militia whose records are kept exclusively at the state level. If you suspect that’s the case, check with state archives, historical societies and adjutant generals’ offices, and consult the FHL’s extensive collection of state Confederate records on microfilm. You also can contact the Confederate Research Center.
Pensions: States also are your source for Confederate pension records, since the victorious Union government didn’t care to provide for the old age of the rebels. Former Confederate states that authorized pensions include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The FHL has microfilm of many of these files, saving you a trip to the state archives.
You can find veterans and widows of the Civil War (as well as other pre-World War I conflicts) who received pensions between 1907 and 1933 on Veterans Administration pension payment cards. These 2 million cards, arranged by the last name of the pensioner on a whopping 2,539 microfilm reels, are available at NARA and through the FHL.
Burials: In 1868, the Quartermaster General’s Office issued a Roll of Honor listing more than 228,000 Union soldiers buried during the war in some 300 national cemeteries. Genealogical Publishing Co. has republished this listing along with an index (it’s now on CD — see our tookit).
Veterans censuses: The 1890 US census included an enumeration of Union veterans (some Confederate veterans and widows are listed, too, thanks to census takers with lingering Confederate sentiments). Although most of the 1890 federal census was lost to fire, the veterans’ schedules for half of Kentucky and states beginning with L through Whave survived. You can get them on NARA microfilm; your library might have indexes. Ancestry.com has images of the census pages plus a new every-name index in its US Census Collection. Your long-lived ancestors might be listed in the 1910 census, which noted both Union and Confederate veterans.
Veterans groups: The Civil War spawned veterans groups and lineage societies for both sides. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the chief Union veterans organization, counting 40 percent of surviving veterans as members in 1890. Its national office closed in 1956, but you’ll find information and a list of posts online. Also check historical societies, state archives and libraries for GAR and similar groups’ records. The Southern equivalent, the United Confederate Veterans, published Confederate Veteran magazine from 1893 to 1932; search an online index to names in the magazine at the Library of Virginia (see this listing of the library’s records and click on Index to Confederate Veteran Magazine). Lineage societies have persisted on both sides — see the Toolkit for a sampling of groups that remain active today.
Spanish-American War, 1898
World War I, 1917 to 1918
World War II, 1941 to 1945; Korean War, 1950 to 1953; Vietnam War, 1961 to 1975
If your ancestor died in the Korea or Vietnam conflict, look for him or her in the Military Index CD, available at the FHL and many FHCs. You also can access these databases separately, as the Korean Conflict Death Index and the Vietnam Casualty Index, in Ancestry.com’s US Records Collection. Get NARA’s state-by-state Korean and Vietnam war casualty lists for free on the Internet.
March in Step
1. The Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS) is a good place to start looking for a Union or Confederate ancestor. I left the first-name box blank on the site’s search page, since my great-grandfather might be listed as William, W.F. or even Frank.
2. CWSS came up with 63 hits. When I found W.F. Dickinson, 37th Alabama Infantry, I took note of the alternate listing as W.L. Dickenson (evidently, his records were sometimes mislabeled). I also wrote down the National Archives microfilm info: M374 roll 12.
3. Learning about an ancestor’s unit can help confirm you have the right person. CWSS results link to regimental histories and rosters; I also found details at sites such as www.tarleton.edu/~kjones/alinf.html. The 37th was mustered at Auburn, Ala., and included men from Macon County — Frank’s home in the 1860 census. To rule out other men who could be the W.F. Dickinson in CWSS, I searched the 1860 census for that name in counties the 37th recruited from.
4. The National Archives and Records Administration Order Online site lets you request copies of pre-WWI compiled service records, as well as applications for federal military and bounty-land warrants. A service file costs $17; delivery takes up to 90 days. The form requires only the soldier’s name, state and the war he fought in, but I filled in all I knew about W.F. Dickinson.
5. Compiled service files might contain records of enlistment, discharge, medical treatment and more. W.F. Dickinson’s file included an 1865 prisoner-of-war record with Frank’s description (5 feet, 5 inches tall; light hair; gray eyes; fair complexion) and his signature promising not to bear arms against the United States.
Did you or someone you know serve in the US military during wartime? The Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center wants those stories for the Veterans History Project, which is collecting and preserving veterans’ audio-and videotaped oral histories, along with documents such as letters, diaries, maps, photographs and home movies. Since the project began in 2000, organizers have collected more than 33,000 veterans’ stories. You can see and hear some of them — as well as search a database of more than 1,000 digitized recollections — on the Web site. Even though last year’s submissions doubled the size of the collection, the total still represents just a fraction of the estimated 25 million living veterans from World War I and beyond. Find out how to record your oral histories and submit them to the project.
– Susan Wenner Jackson
Original article from the October 2005 Family Tree Magazine