Researching Civil War Ancestors

Tracing the Civil War Soldiers in Your Family Tree

getty-gettysburg-cannon.jpg
Cannon at the site of Picket's Charge, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania. Getty / Nine OK

The American Civil War, fought from 1861-1865, affected nearly every man, woman, and child living in the United States. Almost 3.5 million soldiers are believed to have been involved, with around 360,000 Union soldiers and 260,000 Confederate soldiers losing their lives as a direct result of the war. Given the dramatic impact of this conflict, if your ancestors lived in the United States during this time, it is likely that you'll find at least one Civil War soldier in your family tree.

Locating a Civil War ancestor, whether it is a direct ancestor or a collateral relative, can provide another source of information on your family tree. Civil War pension files, for example, contain statements of family relationships, dates and places of marriage, and lists of various places the soldier lived after the war. Muster-in rolls often contain places of birth, as do descriptive rolls.

Before You Begin

In order to research a Civil War ancestor, you'll first need to know three things:
  • the soldier's name
  • whether he served for the Union or Confederate army
  • the state from which the soldier served
Without all three of these pieces of information, you may still be able to locate information on your Civil War ancestor, but it will be difficult unless he had a very unusual name. If you don't know where your ancestor was living when he enlisted, then the 1860 U.S. Federal Census may at least be able to tell you where he was living just prior to the Civil War.

In Which Unit Did Your Soldier Serve?

Once you've determined the state from which your Civil War ancestor likely served, the next helpful step is to learn which company and regiment to which he was assigned.

If your ancestor was a Union soldier, he may have been part of the U.S. Regulars, a unit of the United States Army. More likely he was a member of a volunteer regiment raised by his home state, such as the 11th Virginia Volunteers or the 4th Maine Volunteer Infantry. If your Civil War ancestor was an artilleryman, you may find him in a battery unit such as Battery B, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery or Battery A, 1st North Carolina Artillery, also called Manly's Battery.

African-American soldiers served in regiments ending with U.S.C.T. which stands for United States Colored Troops. These regiments also had Caucasian officers.

While infantry regiments were the most common type of service unit of the Civil War, there were many other branches of service on both sides - Union and Confederate. Your Civil War ancestor may have been in a heavy artillery regiment, cavalry, engineers or even the navy.

There are many ways to learn the regiment in which your ancestor served. Begin at home, by asking your parents, grandparents and other relatives. Check photo albums and other old family records as well. If you know where the solider is buried, his tombstone may list his state and unit number. If you know the county where the soldier lived when he enlisted, then county histories or other county resources should provide details of the units formed in the area. Neighbors and family members often enlisted together, which may provide further clues.

Even if you only know the state in which your Civil War ancestor served, most states compiled and published a list of the soldiers in each unit from that state. These can often be found at a libraries with a local history or genealogical collection.

Some lists have also been partially published online. There are also two country-wide published series that list the soldiers who served in the Union or Confederate armies during the war, along with their regiments:

  1. The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865 (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing) - A 33-volume set that lists all of the men who served in the Union armies by state, regiment and company.
  2. The Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865 - A 16-volume set that lists all of the individuals who served in the southern armies during the war, by state and organization.
Online you may want to begin your search with the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS) sponsored by the National Park Service. The system features an on-line database of names of soldiers, sailors, and United States Colored Troops who served in the Civil War based on records at the National Archives. The subscription-based U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles collection at Ancestry.com and the American Civil War Research Database are other excellent resources for online Civil War research. They will cost you, but both generally offer further details than the CWSS database. If your ancestor has a common name, however, it may be difficult to distinguish him in these lists until you have identified his location and regiment.

Once you've determined your Civil War soldier's name, state and regiment, it's time to turn to service records and pension records, the meat of Civil War research.

Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR)


Whether fighting for the Union or the Confederacy, each volunteer soldier who served in the Civil War will have a Compiled Military Service Record for each regiment in which he served. The majority of Civil War soldiers served in volunteer regiments, distinguishing them from individuals serving in the regular U.S. Army.

The CMSR contains basic information about the soldier's military career, when and where he enlisted, when he was present or absent from camp, amount of bounty paid, how long he served, and when and where he was discharged, or died. Additional detail, when pertinent, may also be included, including information on hospitalization for injury or illness, capture as a prisoner of war, courts martial, etc.

The CMSR is an envelope (called a "jacket") containing one or more cards. Each card contains information compiled several years after the Civil War from original muster rolls and other records that survived the war. This includes Confederate records captured by the Union armies.

How to Obtain Copies of Compiled Military Service Records

  • Online from Fold3.com – Fold3.com, in collaboration with the National Archives, has digitized CMSRs from most states, both Confederate and Union, and put them online where they can be viewed and downloaded for a fee. CMSRs are currently available for most, but not all states at Fold3.com.
  • Order Online from the National Archives – You can order Civil War Service records from the National Archives online or by mail for a fee. To use this service, you will need the soldier's name, regiment, state and allegiance. If you prefer to order a copy by mail, you will need to download and use NATF Form 86.

    Civil War Pension Records

    Most Union Civil War soldiers, or their widows or other dependents, applied for a pension from the U.S. federal government. The biggest exception were unmarried soldiers who died during or soon after the war. Confederate pensions, on the other hand, were generally only available for disabled or indigent soldiers, and sometimes their dependents.

    Union Civil War Pension Records are available from the National Archives. Indexes to these Union pension records are available online by subscription at Fold3.com and Ancestry.com (subscription links). Copies of the full Union Pension File (often containing dozens of pages) and be ordered online or by mail from the National Archives.

    Confederate Civil War Pension Records can generally be found in the appropriate State Archives or equivalent agency. Some states have also put indexes to or even digitized copies of their Confederate pension records online.
    Confederate Pension Records – A State by State Guide

    Format
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Powell, Kimberly. "Researching Civil War Ancestors." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/researching-civil-war-ancestors-1421787. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Researching Civil War Ancestors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/researching-civil-war-ancestors-1421787 Powell, Kimberly. "Researching Civil War Ancestors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/researching-civil-war-ancestors-1421787 (accessed November 23, 2017).