Researching your Civil War Ancestor


By Frank A. Tomasello, Camp Commander, Louis R. Francine Camp #7 (NJ) SUVCW © 2018

If you are one of the many who would like to learn more about their Civil War ancestor(s) but don’t know how, or think the task overwhelming, I offer this quick guide to research based on my own experience.

THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES (or the Holy Grail Part I). This is obviously the best place to find information of this nature. Few of us, including myself, have the time and/or resources to travel to Washington D.C. for this purpose. If you do, this is the place because they house the actual documents that you can see unfiltered by archivists that don’t always understand what they are looking at. One can also order records from them. I have not done this but am told it take 6 to 8 weeks, or more, and costs $75.00 and up, and its never a sure thing what that will actually buy you.

ANCESTRY.COM® (or the Holy Grail Part II). This site is without exception the most comprehensive out there and gives one access to obscure records not found at the National Archives. For example, I unintentionally found delinquent tax records, for a liquor distributor who just happened to be an ancestor of mine, there. To round out the life of your Civil War ancestor to include a picture outside of his military life, this is the place to go. Although this is a pay site, one need not break the budget to utilize it. Most public libraries have subscriptions that allow patrons to access the site for free. This is where I did all of my initial research and I highly recommend it. One drawback to this method is that one must go to an actual library to do this. That can be a plus as the library staff that I have seen at several libraries are more than willing to assist you with using the computer and/or the Ancestry site. So even if you think yourself “computer illiterate” you can be quite successful here. Also, Ancestry allows a free trial period on their site. Admittedly, I have not tried this, and it requires that you sign up for a subscription, and then cancel before the trial period expires. I don’t know how easy or difficult that may be so I urge caution.

(FREE) FAMILY SEARCH.ORG® run by the Later Day Saints Church (LDS/Mormon) who are the world’s experts on all things genealogical. This is by far my favorite site. It is sort of a “low rent” version of Ancestry and is completely free. One simply puts in names and birth/death dates of the research subject (to the extent one knows them) and see what comes back. Go to the collections tab and search the Military results. I find the 1890 pension/widow census the most help. If your ancestor, or his widow, was around in 1890, you will get their address, military unit with muster in/out dates, and often the disability claimed for their pension. Also, pension and civil war service listings gives a lot of the same information. Also, the census records 1870 and later often list occupations to round out the picture of your soldier’s life.

(FREE) FIND A GRAVE.COM This is an excellent source. Here one may find an actual photograph of the tombstone of the person one is researching. The listing for each deceased is known as a “memorial”. There are provisions in memorials for links to spouses, parents, siblings, etc. from which one can construct a family tree and perhaps find even more Civil War Ancestors as I was able to do. More importantly many of the tombstones contain service information. I have also seen many memorials where the stone doesn’t mention service but the person who created the memorial does. A must see.

(FREE) National Park Service (NPS) Soldiers and Sailors Database. This is as “bare bones” as it gets. If one has simply a name one can enter it and may find a soldier’s unit and rank and nothing more. Sometimes this is enough to “open the door” to further exploration. This site was recently changed making it less straightforward in my opinion, but still useful. As a note of caution, I have noticed some errors on this site so always double check what is found here with other sources.

(FREE) Sort of an odd name for a great site. Here every soldier and every regiment in the War is listed broken down by regiment, company, rank, died in service, transferred and even deserters. If one knowns the state, regiment and company of a particular soldier then one can find muster in date, rank at muster in, date(s) of promotion(s), if any, muster out date, and info if the soldier died or was killed while serving. There is also a blurb under each regiment outlining the service record of the unit. This site covers several states and US units including the USCT and Veterans Reserve Corp. For those familiar with the Stryker books, this site is similar but is searchable and thus much easier to use.   

(FREE) SUVCW Graves Registration Database Here is a pet project of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (National). It is a searchable database for Civil War Veterans. It also includes some tidbits of information not likely to be found on other sites such the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) post the soldier belonged to. It is a work in progress so it is not as comprehensive as say Find A Grave, but it is worthwhile and hopefully will continue to grow.

(FREE) This site is apparently privately run but seemingly endorsed by at least the N.J. Department of the SUVCW. It facilitates researching soldiers by name, county of burial, cemetery, etc. One drawback is that it only has listings for soldiers with a tombstone which is somewhat limiting. As those who register graves there can add approximately one paragraph of info, there are often “tid bits” found there not found anywhere else.

Utilizing a combination of the above resources one can construct a fairly detailed account of a soldier’s life. I hope you will do so. It can be a rewarding experience and is at the core of what we do as Sons of Union Veterans.