Getting Ready for the Civil War Sesquicentennial

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I have always felt closely connected to the Civil War era. My great-grandmother, whom I remember well, was born in 1869. My living room exhibits my great-great-grandfather’s Union officer’s dress sword and a “crazy quilt” incorporating Union regimental reunion ribbons and other Civil War commemorative ribbons. Just to balance the display and represent my husband’s family’s point of view, a portrait of Robert E. Lee looks out over the quilt and the sword.

As a teenager, the Civil War was my favorite period of history, and now, as an adult and a genealogist, my earlier interest insures that the Civil War time period is my favorite research time period. I look forward to the upcoming sesquicentennial commemoration of this struggle and am sharing here some of the essential sources for researching individuals and episodes in that great conflict. Of necessity, the resources listed here represent a brief and personal selection from among a much longer list of resources. Feel free to add your own personal choices.

Understanding the War in Context

It is essential for us, as genealogists, to understand the war from as broad a prospective as possible in order to understand and analyze the records accurately in the context of the time. No single issue brought about the war, nor did any issue alone sustain the conflict. National and local debate, spanning several decades, incrementally fanned the flames and by 1860, issues of economic and social differences between the north and south, disagreements over states’ rights vs. federal rights, passionate discourse between proponents of slave states and non-slave states, the unrelenting intensity of the abolition movement, and finally Abraham Lincoln’s election itself became inextricably intertwined. Taken as a whole, they led to secession, to the outbreak of hostilities, and to a brutal conflict.

While there are many books about the antebellum years (and, I’m sure, many more being written currently), background reading might include the following titles: The Civil War: the Complete Text of the Bestselling Narrative History of the Civil War by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken and Richard Burns (Vintage, 1994); Historic Papers on the Causes of the Civil War by Eugenia Dunlap Potts (Forgotten Books, 2010); This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press, 2009); Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era, also by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press, 2003); and The Women’s War in the South: Recollections and Reflections of the American Civil War edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg (Cumberland House, 1999).

Did He Serve?

Probably, the most obvious question is whether or not the person you are researching served in either the Union or Confederate armies or navies. Indices and lists of names of those who served may be the first resources you will want to use in answering this question. Which ones you use will depend on how much you know about the individual. Basic resources include:

  • The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System is maintained by the National Park Service. This database may be searched online and may also be consulted at battlefield park visitor centers. In conducting a search, you can enter as much as you know about the individual, including last name and first name; whether Union or Confederate service; state or country of origin; unit and function (infantry, cavalry, etc.). You can also do a surname search and receive a list of all individuals with that surname who served. A typical result will provide regiment number, rank and microfilm publication number and reel number on which the individual’s compiled military service record may be located.
  • Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-65, by Janet B. Hewett (33 volumes, Broadfoot, 1997), and Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861-65, also by Hewett (16 volumes, Broadfoot, 1995), provide similar information. Searching for Confederate soldiers in these volumes will prove slightly easier as the names are arranged in one alphabetical listing. The title listing Union soldiers is arranged in volumes by state. If you are unsure about your Union ancestor’s state of allegiance, you will need to check multiple volumes in order to compile a list of possible soldiers.
  • If you happen to be close to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. or one of its regional branches, you can search the microfilm publications that serve as indices to the compiled service records. The caveat, once again, is that there is no comprehensive index to Union soldiers (Record Group 94) and searches must be done state-by-state. Confederate soldiers (Record Group 109) may be searched via a consolidated index to the compiled records (NARA microfilm publication M253) or, if you already know the state, in any one of the state-specific indices. The best source for determining what is available on microfilm is the National Archives’ Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications.
  • Footnote.com, either through a personal subscription or your local library, provides additional index access to Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

What Did He Do in the War?

Once you have located the correct individual within a Union or Confederate unit, you will want to ascertain his actions and experiences throughout the war. Compiled military service records seldom provide specific genealogical information, but they should be read carefully to determine if they contain helpful personal information such as residence, age, physical description, place of enlistment, etc. They also afford you an opportunity to create a chronology of the individual’s movements throughout a specific time period. Footnote.com provides a wonderful opportunity to access these records efficiently and to print quality copies (no more ugly microfilm copies from worn and scratched microfilm!). If the individual died during the conflict, you may be able to determine his place of burial and cause of death. In some cases, court documents pertaining to his estate have been included. Once again, a caveat…the majority of Confederate records have been microfilmed and are being made available on Footnote. The majority of Union records were not microfilmed, but if you visit the National Archives, you can view the original carded records. Once again, however, Footnote is adding images of Union records to their site. I would recommend checking there first.

You will want to search for any pension records and analyze them carefully for pertinent genealogical detail and anecdotal information provided in the affidavits of soldiers who served with the individual applying for the pension. Remember that Union pensions are available at the National Archives; Confederate pensions are available at the individual state level. You will also find titles such as Martha and William Reamy’s Index to the Roll of Honor (Genealogical Publishing Co., currently out of print) and the various volumes of the Roll of Honor: Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defense of the American Union, Interred in the National Cemeteries (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

How Can I Create a More Detailed Account of His Service?

Once you have located the compiled military service record and created your service-related chronology, you will want to flesh out that document by using such sources as E. B. Long’s classic The Civil War Day By Day: An Almanac 1861-1865 (Da Capo Press, 1987). A new book of the same title by Phillip Katchner is due out in August of this year (which will help with my copy of Long,  which is in tatters).

A variety of other resources can yield important findings. Search any record that might pertain to the individual in question, actions in which he may have been involved, or experiences that may have been similar to those he had. Some useful titles include: August V. Kautz’s The 1865 Customs of Service for Officers of the Army and The1865 Customs of Service for Non-commissioned Officers and Soldiers (Stackpole, 2001 and 2002) which are handbooks of the duties for each rank or officer grade. Carlton McCarthy’s Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 will provide detailed information about the life your ancestor may have lived in Confederate Service.

Detailed listings of available government military collections, both Union and Confederate, can be found in such titles as Preliminary Inventory of the War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109 (Iberian, 1994); The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America by Henry Putney Beers (NARA, 1986); The Union: A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War by Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers (NARA, 1986); and Inventory of the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library (NARA, 2005).

Although your soldier will usually not be mentioned individually, consult the War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies for further background information and details.

Check collections of photographs, diaries, letters, and maps that may be located in an historical society or archival institution. Printed sources that will prove helpful here include collections of Brady photographs, such as Benson J. Lossing’s A History of the Civil War Illustrated with Reproductions of the Brady War Photographs… (The War Memorial Association, 1912). Other primary level details are provided in Robert Knox Sneden’s eye-witness accounts and illustrations, Eye of the Storm (Free Press, 2000) and Images from the Storm (Free Press, 2001). Research in online collections such as the Civil War maps and the Jedediah Hotchkiss Civil War maps at American Memory, and the Civil War legacy project at Virginia Memory will contribute an added dimension to your work.

Finally, be aware of the projects and activities planned for the upcoming sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. States such as Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and North Carolina, among others, have websites providing such information. Not surprisingly, you can also join a Facebook page about the Civil War Sesquicentennial network.

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