A Beginner's Guide to Researching Your Civil War Ancestor

For Americans, history is a personal matter. Whatever we do or don't learn in the classroom, read in books, see in films...Americans still experience, negotiate, and understand the past on a deeply individual level. I suspect many public historians are familiar with Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s work Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. The product of a 1994 survey, their book helps confirm and quantify the very personal ways in which everyday Americans experience the past...namely via their families. People feel most connected to the past when gathering with the families, and their most frequent “past-related” activity is looking at photographs with family and friends. Americans place greater trust in family stories than in college professors, high school teachers, or nonfiction books (personal family accounts were second only to museums). And of course, many Americans explore history through their own genealogy. Nothing helps bring history to life more than a personal connection; a realization that your family, your ancestor, lived and participated in the events of another age.

This post hopes to assist you in connecting with the past by offering a beginner’s guide to researching a soldier, presumably your ancestor, from the Civil War era. While by no means exhaustive, it should help you uncover some basic facts about your ancestor and his/her experiences during the war. It’s also worth noting that these tools and resources often prove fruitful for academic research as well. Frankly, while I’ve dabbled in family genealogy, I’ve used these sources far more often in hopes of shedding light on that army captain, newspaper editor, or rowdy abolitionist. Whatever your subject, these should help you learn more about them.

Let me preface this guide by noting that I've geared this post towards individuals who don't have easy access to physical records (national and state archives, church records, courthouse documents, etc.). The farther along the family tree you research, the more widespread any relevant physical records will be...and we can't all live in Washington, D.C.! So this post is for the computer warrior and library-card holder, willing to plumb the depths the internet and local library to track down pieces of their past.

the Soldier

National Park Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS)All you need to begin your search is a name. Run by the National Park Service, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors system is a free index that allows you to search the names of all those who enlisted in both the United and Confederate States military during the Civil War. Think great-great-grandpa Joe Smith fought for the South in the war? Search and find out! (A cursory search indicates eight Joe Smiths in the Union Army...so understand that common names will produce multiple results.)  You can narrow you search by side (Union or Confederacy), state of enlistment, regiment, branch of service, etc. If your search is successful, the results will indicate the soldier's name (ex: Joe Smith), side (ex: Union), regiment (ex: 8th Ohio Infantry), their rank upon enlistment and upon mustering out (ex: private and private), and the film number associated with that individual. The film number usually refers to the microfilm number wherein the soldier's service records are stored at the National Archives.

While the CWSS is a great way to find out if you have a Civil War ancestor, it also offers some basic information on regiments, battles, Civil War cemeteries, monuments, and more. If we continue using Joe Smith of the 8th Ohio Infantry as an example, I can use CWSS to learn when the 8th Ohio was formed and disbanded, along with 8th's service during the Civil War. I can find out under what departments, districts, and commanders the 8th was attached (ex: 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Army Corps), what engagements they fought in (ex:  Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 12-15, 1862), and the total number of casualties suffered by the unit during the war (ex: 205). Thus, when you find your ancestor Joe Smith on CWSS, you can immediately glean some basic information about when and where he served.

 The Service record of 12-year old Theodore Duff, 6th MO Inf. (U.S.)

The Service record of 12-year old Theodore Duff, 6th MO Inf. (U.S.)

Fold3 (formerly Footnote)Fold3 is invaluable for the Civil War researcher. Unfortunately, unlike CWSS, it is a paid service, so you'll need to purchase a subscription, find access through a local institution (your local library is a good place to start), or use a trial. Fold3 allows you to access the actual service records of many Civil War soldiers; these are the same service records held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Fold3 has digitized these many of these records to make them available to you online. The records are organized by state; it's worth noting that some states have yet to be fully digitized, and only contain the index cards to service records. Fold3 also contains other information, including select pension records, army registers, photographs, and more.

If your ancestor's service records have been digitized, they should provide a wealth of information. Where and when they enlisted, their age, perhaps comments on their appearance and profession, and more. Often the records include monthly muster rolls that can reveal experiences throughout the war: illness, wounds, promotion/demotion, desertion, etc. For example, from Fold3, we learn that Private Theodore Duff enlisted in the 6th Missouri Infantry, U.S. near Vicksburg, MS on June 1, 1863. He deserted nearly two months later on August 29; a deserter description form lists him as "sprightly and talkative." This perhaps owed itself to the fact that Theodore Duff was a twelve-year old musician; a fact not revealed in the service records until the muster-out form of 1865. Although not every record will share a story as unique or detailed as Theodore's, nonetheless service records offer the most accessible window into your ancestor's wartime experience.

Ancestry—A well-known subscription service, Ancestry won't shed much light on wartime experiences. I'm including it here, however, because Ancestry is a great way to learn more about your ancestor's entire life. If the CWSS and Fold3 have yielded results, you're already armed with a rough birth date, possible place of living, and other details that can help you locate your ancestor on Ancestry. Via their digitized census records, you can learn about your ancestor's family, profession, and wealth; you can find clue that perhaps indicate their allegiances, politics, or reason for enlisting. Did they live in a border state? An occupied region? Did they wait to enlist because of a family? Were they slave-owners? Ancestry can give you a larger view of your ancestor's life.

Ancestry also possesses digital copies of unique, sometimes heartbreaking recordscensus slave schedules. These antebellum schedules indicate the names of slaveholders and number of slaves in a given household. Unfortunately, the schedules reveal little about the slaves themselves. Names are rarely recorded, nor are family connections listed. Age, sex, color, and a few other categories (deaf, dumb, blind, insane, manumitted, etc.) are all that are revealed. Still, these sources can shed much light on slave-holding households, and help bring home the realities of human enslavement.

The Regiment & the War

Frederick Dyer and Joseph Crute, Jr.—The works of these two scholars can offer basic regimental histories for any unit North or South. Let me immediately say that the basic information these texts offer is incorporated freely in the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. I'm including the books anyway because they constitute tremendously useful scholarship that deserves to be recognized. Frederick H. Dyer's Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (available online) lists offers unit histories for every Union regiment in the war, among other things. Joseph H. Crute, Jr.'s more recent Units of the Confederate Army provides similar information for Confederate units.

 Cover of Lang's Loyal West Virginia, a Useful Resource

Cover of Lang's Loyal West Virginia, a Useful Resource

Regimental Histories, Diaries, & Memoirs—You've found an ancestor, his service records, and you know some basics about his unit's wartime service. These constitute key facts for the researcher...but maybe you want a story. Regimental histories, diaries, and memoirs can provide just that—tell the story of the regiment. Where it came from, why it was raised, its leaders, its trials and tribulations, its heroes and villains, its moments of glory and moments of shame. Understand that many of these histories were written after the Civil War; one must be careful to parse the truth out of the rose-tinted memories of the antebellum years; this is less of an issue with diaries, obviously. On the positive side, because of their age their property rights have since expired, meaning many are available for free online! (For example, A Military History of the 8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Joe Smith's regiment, is available free online; it was written by the 8th Ohio's lieutenant-colonel and was published in 1881). Google is your friend here, along with Google Books, Archive.org, and other sites where books are available for viewing and download. Of course, scholars have also penned many regimental histories in the 150 years since the conflict, so be sure to check out bookstores or Amazon to see if more recent work can be purchased.

On a similar note, there are a number of works that encompass histories of every unit from a particular state. For example, the Virginia Regimental Histories Series contains books by scholars on every Confederate unit from that state. Anyone looking into a Pennsylvania regiment should consult Samuel Bates' History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers; likewise any investigating a West Virginia regiment can draw upon Theodore Lang's Loyal West Virginia from 1861 to 1865. The New York State Military Museum maintains an excellent website database on New York regiments in the war; regimental pages within this site contain great bibliographies on materials for that regiment (doing the legwork for you!). In sum, these state-specific resources often contain a wealth of information about regiments, rosters, battles, and their state's contributions to the war.

Archives—If you really want to delve into a regiment's history, you can dig into primary research at an appropriate archive. This presumes the relevant archives is near you! I grew up in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but my ancestors fought in Illinois regiments...such is life! Even if an archives isn't near you, however, it's worth searching their websites; occasionally they might have materials digitized! They may also be willing to copy and send materials to you for a fee. But assuming a relevant archives is near you, be sure to check if they have any materials pertaining to your regiment. You may often find Civil War letters, diaries, post-war remembrances, ribbons, medallions and more. While you'd have to be very lucky to find anything belonging to your ancestor, perhaps nothing can give you greater a greater knowledge and feel for the Civil War than by reading actual Civil War documents in the archives. Archival research is what many historians love, myself included, and one of thebeauties of history is you can practice it, too!

Google—I'm adding this as its own catch-all category because so much can be found simply by being a determined Google-searcher. Search for names, units, battles, etc. online. You'll be surprised at how much is out there. Many genealogical websites, historical societies, university archives, scholarly websites, and more may contain information relevant to your ancestor and their unit. To give a personal example, by thorough Google searches, I stumbled across some transcribed letters of George Washington LeGrand, an Arkansan who fought in Indian Territory during the Civil War. These letters—hosted on an cooperative, local history website—shed light into LeGrand's antebellum years (he participated in the California gold rush). I would never have found these letters anywhere else, and they contributed immensely to my knowledge of the man. Search relentlessly, ruthlessly, and carefully.


As I noted at the beginning of this guide, it would be difficult to cover all of the many resources available to the modern researcher. Hopefully, the select resources discussed above can provide fruitful starting points for you own investigation of the past! If you have questions about resources and research techniques, or wish to share useful sources of your own, please share them below! Happy hunting!

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

Further Reading and Sources

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.