Researching Your Civil War Ancestors

by Laura H. Congleton | Aug 14, 2009

Between 1861 and 1865 more than 3 million men took part in the U.S. Civil War, fighting for either the Union or the Confederacy. Soldiers and sailors included men from all walks of life, including both citizens and foreign nationals. Many people today can claim a Civil War ancestor. If you think someone in your family may have served but aren't yet certain, here's how to find out.

Start with What You Know

Start by collecting identifying information for your ancestor: his name, estimated year of birth, and places where he lived. It's far too easy to get sidetracked in your research and spend days, if not months, tracing the wrong person. Wait to use the Civil War indexes posted online until after you've collected the details that make your ancestor unique.

If you don't yet have one specific ancestor in mind and are just beginning your search, select one of your family lines and begin tracing it backwards. Use vital records (birth, marriage & death certificates), obituaries, wills, religious documents, land records, census records and cemetery records to connect each generation. The goal is to find someone who was in this country (not necessarily as a citizen) between 1861 and 1865, and who was roughly 16 to 42 years old at the time. Once you've identified this person, and found some facts to separate him from other men with the same name, you can begin trying to determine whether or not he served in the Civil War.

Clues at the Cemetery

If you know where your ancestor was buried (check his death certificate or obituary), a visit to the cemetery might be all you need. Many Civil War veterans were given government-issued headstones, or included details about their service on their grave markers. You can also look for a Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) medallion located near the grave of a Union veteran. The G.A.R. was formed by and for Civil War Union veterans and ceased to exist when the last Union veteran died in 1956. If neither the cemetery nor the obituary offered any clues, don't give up.

What the Census Shows

Certain federal and state census records may help prove that a man with a given name, living in a given town, served in the Civil War. The federal census records are available online through a number of subscription websites, including Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, and HeritageQuest. Many public libraries offer free access to these sites. You can also borrow the census microfilm reels from a local branch of the National Archives, from a Family History Center, or from some local libraries and historical societies. State census records, on the other hand, generally have not been digitized and need to be examined on microfilm, or in their original ledger books at the appropriate County Clerk's office.

If you've identified where your ancestor was living in 1910, be sure to check the federal census. Column 30 was used to indicate whether or not men over 50 were Civil War veterans. The results were entered as UA for Union Army, UN for Union Navy, CA for Confederate Army, and CN for Confederate Navy. Because many surviving Civil War records pertain mostly to Union veterans, the 1910 census is a great resource for locating Confederate veterans still living at the time.

If the person you are tracing was not recorded in the 1910 census, try checking the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Widows. Four important things to remember about this census:

1. Only part of this special census has survived. You can only check records for half of Kentucky through Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia; records for people living in Alabama through part of Kentucky were lost.

2. This schedule provides details on the veteran's service, but it does not provide any information on his family or his age, just where he was living in 1890. You will need to use other sources to verify this is the same person you are researching, rather than someone else with the same name.

3. A Civil War veteran did not need to be alive in 1890 to be included in this special schedule. If he was once married, and his widow was still living in 1890, she should be listed. An entry might read: Mary, widow of Nathan Green, or Carrie Deal, former widow of Robert Bills.

A widow's entry includes information about her deceased husband, not about her. Please note: You may not be able to find the widow under her remarried name in the indexes, so be sure to check the veteran's surname as well. If you don't know the name of the widow's former husband, try looking her up in Index to U.S. Military Pension Applications of Remarried Widows for Service between 1812 and 1911, transcribed by Virgil D. White, 1999.

4. Confederate veterans are sometimes listed in the 1890 Veterans schedule; do not skip this source just because you are tracing someone you believe was a Confederate.

The goal in checking census records is to identify a specific person as a veteran. By working backwards methodically through the census records, and documenting the person's age, location, and family relationships, you are helping to establish that you have the correct person.

In addition to the federal census, some states recorded their own census in off years. Some of those state census records included questions about Civil War service. For example, the 1865 New York State Census includes information about Union veterans living AND dead. If you are tracing someone who lived in Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, or Wisconsin, be sure to check the appropriate state census.

Military Service & Pension Records

Once you have matched a specific person with the unit in which he served, there are many other places you can go for more information. For example, the National Archives in Washington, DC, has Compiled Military Service Records (CMSRs) for both Union and Confederate veterans. These files are short summaries of attendance and pay records. If a soldier was captured, there might be more information, but there is rarely any personal information other than the occasional physical description. Many of these records are available online at Footnote.com. You can also read more about how to order copies of these records from NARA at: http://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/pre-ww-1-records.html.

Both Ancestry.com and Footnote.com have digitized NARA indexes to the Union pension files. If you are still having trouble linking a veteran with a common name to your family tree, the pension files often contain a great deal of genealogical information. However, it can sometimes be rather expensive obtaining copies, and not everyone applied for a pension.

Ancestry has the Series T288 index (sorted by the veteran's surname), and Footnote has the Series T289 index (sorted by state and unit). Men in the United States Colored Troops are included in these files. For example, Crawford Hooks of Co. C, 4th Alabama Colored Infantry applied for an invalid pension on April 4, 1891. The index indicates he was granted a pension under Certificate #774108. Once you have verified that a veteran (or his dependents) received a pension, you can use the NARA link cited above to order a copy of the file. Some pension files, particularly those of widows, Navy survivors, and Navy widows, have been digitized and posted on Footnote.com.

The federal government did not grant pensions to Confederate veterans, but many individual states did. An excellent summary of where those records are located can be found on the NARA website here: http://www.archives.gov/genealogy/military/civil-war/confederate/pension.html.

Some states, such as Georgia, have digitized and posted online their Confederate pension files. Other states have posted Civil War rosters, some of which include physical descriptions of the men.

The National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database has lists of Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as African American sailors. The former entries don't have many details, but the information on sailors is quite helpful. For example, the entry for John Parker indicates he was born in Atlanta, GA, was 27 and a fireman when he enlisted in the Navy in Cincinnati in 1863, and that he served on two vessels: the Naumkeag and the Pinkney. Two free specialized databases of note include Canadians in the American Civil War at: http://pvtchurch.tripod.com/ and Jewish-American Civil War Veterans at: http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/USA/. Another useful fee-based database can be found at: http://www.civilwardata.com/.

A search of Google will no doubt help you to locate other specialized records of interest.


Sign up for a free trial account and begin tracing your family history today.

Start 7-Day Free Trial »