American Civil War Records

You probably have at least one ancestor that served in a military conflict. American history is full of those conflicts. This article will talk about records from The Civil War era and why they are so valuable. There are two reasons why this period is so relevant to a genealogist. The first is the Scale; there were nearly three million served, and a lot of us had ancestors in the Civil War. The second reason is that civil war records became so large and growing with new types of documents created, which provide us with a broader perspective.

Civil War research is fascinating, but before we begin, there are several aspects to consider before we start.

Even though 3 three million served, not everyone did so; we need to know what clues to watch for as you search American Civil War Records.

Identify Clues for Civil War service

Age: consider the age of your ancestor some were older some younger, watch for ancestors born between 1820-1845.

Memorabilia: watch for items you may already have such as letters, medals, ribbons, Civil War weaponry.

American Civil War Records-Civil War Soldier

Photographs: look carefully among your family’s pictures, and if you find any with military clothing, a good indicator that they served. Study the uniform and find out which war.

Obituaries: observing obituaries contain hidden clues, a possible date they served, but no mention of the war, or maybe that they served only, non-the-less still a clue.

Tombstones: a lot of information can be had by looking at the info on monuments. Some Civil War tombstones have a Grand Army of the Republic flag holder. The G.A.R. was an organization of the Union veterans. But, when finding these flag holders be cautious; there is the possibility of them being in front of the wrong tombstone. Some tombstones will have the G.A.R. insignia engraved; this a definite clue that this ancestor served.

1910 U.S. Census: is an excellent resource; not only will we find the standard type of information found on most census records. If we look at column 30, we want to watch for letters such as UA= Union Army, UN= Union Navy, CA= Confederate Army, or CN= Confederate Navy. Any numbers in this column have no bearing in search of military records.

Perfecting the Search

Same name: with more than 3 million men and a few women who served in the Civil War, there are bound to be those with the same name.

Keep the following in mind when running into the same names.

Most men served within the units were raised. So, think of where your ancestor was living when the war broke out; looking at the 1860 census will help.

County Histories: are an excellent source and will show the regiments and where they were living.

Once you have found a potential record, look beyond the ancestor’s name; look at the age, birthplace, death date, widow’s name.

It’s essential to know your ancestor’s correct service; the regiment/ship is a way to tell the difference between men of the same name. Many records used the regiment as the key identifier and arranged by regiment. Knowing the service opens other areas for research.

Obituaries: as stated earlier, are a great source as they can contain detailed info about the regiment and service of an ancestor.

American Civil War Records-Military Tombstone

Tombstones: can have engraved details of the regiment and service.

The 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Widows: is another record we should view. Many have thought it destroyed by fire. It was the population record destroyed. The 1890 special schedule was taken at the same time. When searching these records, you will find a few confederate soldiers recorded in these records, added by mistake and crossed out but are still legible.

Military Service Data Bases

There are several significant indices for Civil War service. We need to know how to use and where to find these indices.

One database is the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System developed by the National Parks Service, a Union, and Confederate soldiers database. The database came from the index of compiled service records, although the naval section is incomplete.

Once you have opened the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, using the provided URL. You’ll want to open either the Soldiers or Sailors section to find your ancestor’s service. Keep in mind that if you don’t know which side your ancestor served, you will have to do two searches, one for the union and one for the confederate. Go ahead and perform your search; you will probably find a list of identical names in doing so. Look carefully; if you’re not sure which is your ancestor, you probably need to do a little more research. You might want to look into some of the regiments and find the area they served and narrow the field to the area your ancestor lived.

Another Database

Another database to look at from Ancestry is the U.S. Civil War Soldiers Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. The records in the database include Union and Confederate soldiers and compiled from a variety of sources. As a result, the information varies from record to record.

As we search in this database for our ancestors, several soldiers will have the same name using the same name from the previous search. And after reviewing the info from the document of your selected ancestor. You might find there is not enough information to determine if this is your relative. If that is the case, we might want to look at the Rosters that were compiled by various states after the war between 1870-1880. You can find these Rosters in libraries of the state in which your ancestor served; many have been digitized and found on Ancestry or Google Books. The information in these records varies from state to state. Some can be detailed with lots of information, some not so much only name and age.

Our next Search Area

Compiled Military Service Records: these records were compiled by the Pension Division of the War Dept. after the war was over. And are a series of Cards taken from the muster, pay, hospital, other rolls, descriptive books, and papers about individuals. What is excellent about these Cards is that they follow the soldier over some time so you can learn about his service. They exist for both Union and Confederate soldiers/sailors. Not all states have full records microfilmed or digitized. All states have at least one index. They are available on Ancestry and Fold3. If your ancestor’s full-service record has not been microfilmed or digitized, you can order it from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

What Can We Find?

Here we will look at what we can expect to find in Compiled Military Service Records.

American Civil War Records-Muster Roll Call

Index Cards: often span several cards, we can see our ancestors’ actions over some time. The card indicates whether the soldier was Union or Confederate and is called Company Muster Roll with the date. In the section Present or absent, we can find valuable information in this section. If absent, an explanation would be present, if wounded and location. Each Muster roll call with different dates gives a timeline of their service.

Descriptive Book: was used to fill out the service record cards. It gives a more detailed description of our ancestors, Age, Physical description, Birthplace, Occupation.

Prisoner of War: this compilatory service record card will show where captured, name of the camp(s), date of transfer, date of death (if applicable).

Index Card: on these cards, you will find a name, a rank-in and rank-out, an alternate name, and transfer to other units. Some states have only index cards available online or on microfilm.

Civil War Pensions Files

Civil War pensions provide some of the riches records available to tell you about your ancestors. Those that could apply for the pension were, the veteran, the widow, minor children, dependent parents.

Union Pensions: can be found on the General Index to Pension Files; these cards include the veteran’s name, his regiment, and widow (if applicable).

American Civil War Records-Widows Pension Card

This card shows the name of the soldier, the dependent, his service regiment, the date of the filing, who was filing, and the application number and certificate numbers, the state from which he filed. If the certificate number is blank, that means the application was not approved.

nother type of index.

The Organizational Index to Pension Files: they are arranged by regiment, then by a company, then alphabetically by the soldier’s name. They don’t contain the widow’s name but do have the death date of her husband. Some widow’s files are available on Fold3; most of them, you will still need to contact the NARA in Washington D.C. To obtain pension files from NARA, they give you two options. Full archive (is the preferred) copy up to 100 pages about an 80-dollar charge, Document Packet they choose eight documents that NARA deems as a genealogically necessary 30-dollar charge. They are both ordered online.

These records contain so much information you should consider the Full file when ordering.

There are questionnaires the soldiers filled out they contained information like;

Marriage(s) to whom, where, when, and names of any children.

Affidavits by neighbors, comrades, physicians of proof of the soldier’s disability because of his service.

In the widow’s file, you will find marriage records she had to prove she was married to the deceased soldier. There might also be statements by friends and family who witnessed the marriage.

To obtain the parent’s pension, they had to prove the deceased was their son and prove their son was their means of support.

Confederate Pensions:

ou will not find these records in the NARA file; the federal government did not grant them. The former Confederate states, plus Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma, have allowed these records.

The Eligibility for Confederate Pensions is based on residency, not where he served. If he served in one state and moved to another former Confederate state after the war, he would have to apply in that state. If he moved to another state that was not one of the former Confederate states, he could not receive a pension.

Confederate Pension files can be several pages long and include statements from the veteran, widow, neighbors, comrades, and reports from attending physicians, also marriage and death records. The accounts of these individuals contain valuable information. You can find most of these records on Ancestry; some states such as Florida have them online through their state archives. Check with the state archives or state society. They are relatively easy to obtain and contain the information you are looking to find.

Civil War Veteran Organizations

Veteran Organizations: These Fraternal organizations were popular in the late 1800s. They were established as a way of networking, socializing, advocacy, and support. The types of reports created were Rosters, Reunion booklets, Biographical sketches, Death/memorial rolls, Meeting minutes.

Many of these organizations’ facilities do not exist anymore, so where can we find these reports? You can find them in State and local historical societies, State and local archives, Libraries (all types), Local genealogical societies by asking for assistance. These records are not the easiest to find but well worth the effort as they give us an insight into our ancestor’s life after the war.

Union Veterans Organizations

Here is a list of a few organizations that existed.

  • Grand Army of the Republic: is the largest organization of Union veterans, has nearly 500,000members at its peak in 1890. Open to all honorably discharged Union veterans who had never borne arms against the U.S. and Racially integrated. They lobbied for pension reform, worked for “proper burial” of all Civil War veterans. They had two department levels, State Level and Region level. These levels held the records of the Proceedings of the annual encampment. The G.A.R. was only to exist as long as there were members still living; once the last member passed, it no longer exists.
  • Affiliate Groups Sons of Union Veterans, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865 To find the G.A.R. records, you will have to research.
    • State/local historical societies
    • State/local archives
    • Libraries
    • Google Books; Internet Archive
    • Ask at local genealogical societies

These records can be challenging to find, but they have a wealth of information and well worth the effort once found.

Confederate Veterans Organizations

American Civil War Records-G.A.R. Symbol

United Confederate Veterans: being the largest Confederate veterans organization and founded in 1889. As a combination of several state and local organizations. They also campaigned for state pension laws. The U.C.V. is divided into two levels, Division = state level, and Camp = local level. The records to look at are the Rosters and Reunion books.

An excellent publication is the Confederate Veteran published in 1893-1932, Targeted to U.C.V., Sons of Confederate Veterans, including United Daughters of the Confederacy, and similar groups. Sons of Confederate Veterans resumed publication in 1980. This publication contains lots of biological information. To find these records look in the same areas as above listed in the G.A.R. section.

Other Veterans Organizations

  • Additional Organizations
    • United Veterans League
    • Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS)
    • National Association of Nurses of the Civil War
  • Different Types of Organizations
    • Local organizations – e.g., Washington County Veterans Association
    • Based on a shared experience – e.g., Ohio Association of Union Ex-prisoners of War
    • Veterans living in different states – e.g., Indiana Veteran Association of the War of the Rebellion in the State of Kansas
    • County Histories are a great place to find these organizations.

The Union and Confederate records are robust, and you don’t need a direct ancestor to access these records. Let’s say you have a cousin or uncle in your family tree who served, and you want to know more about their history. As you have just discovered, civil war records provide the service records and additional information that we had not anticipated. Remember, the Civil War records provide a timeline about their life before the war, and after the war, they had to file during that time through various forms.

Do you have experience with the American Civil War History? Have you done genealogy research using these records?

Whether your answer to these questions is yes or no, I would enjoy hearing from you.

Kindest Regards


8 thoughts on “American Civil War Records”

  1. I appreciate your detailed information about genealogy research. 

    Though I don’t have any experience with the American Civil War History, my close friend is interested in genealogy research of his ancestors and he is surely going to be using these records. 

    His interest started when he learnt that one of  his ancestors was born in 1825 and he has also seen a family photograph of that person in military clothing. 

    Thanks for the excellent write up and I am sure my friend will be very grateful once he gets the link to your post tomorrow morning as I am forwarding this right away.

    • Thank you for your comment and recognition. That is awesome that your friend has found an ancestor that served in the Civil War. Wow to have a picture how priceless. I hope when you share the article with him he will be able to find the records to match the photo. You are welcome and thank you for taking the time.

      Kindest Regards

  2. Wow, this is actually a really comprehensive and well detailed article about American Civil War Records. I’ve read a couple of articles about it but none was as detailed as this. This post have done a great research back into the post and its a really good thing, to know of the pension files and the likes is really educative and it’ll really help this growing generation to keep records of what happened in the past. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for your comment. I appreciate that you recognized the detail and work involved. I enjoy sharing and hope by doing, so it helps others find their ancestors and the contribution they made for the freedom we enjoy today. You are welcome and thank you once again for your kind words.

      Kindest Regards

  3. Thank you for puting this up here, you must have put a lot if energy and resources into such an explicit research and I truly appreciate your effort. American civil war will continue to linger in our memories for a long time. We really owe our ancestors who has paid the supreme price  for our safety and existence. 

    • Thank you for your acknowledgment of the work involved in researching this article. It did take a little longer than usual, but I had fun putting it together and learning more than I knew before. You are right; we do owe our ancestors a great deal of gratitude for their sacrifice for the freedom we all enjoy today.

      Kindest Regards

  4. Thank you, great genealogy article. My Aunt is really the genealogist of the family. She has looked into the American Civil War records and found our relatives who were in the Civil War. How exciting! Genealogy is so interesting, because you learn about who your ancestors actually were. 

    Its great that the Civil War had people file all that information. This way there was a record for us, of who our ancestors were. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known!


    • Thank you for your kind words. It’s great that you have someone in your family who is actively working on your families history and really cool that your Aunt found ancestors that served in the Civil War. It is so rewarding to find new information about our ancestors, it is a tedious job but so worth the effort. There are a lot of records to be found if a person knows where to look. I am glad you found the article useful.

      Kindest Regards

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