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Researching Civil War Ancestors

Tracing the Civil War Soldiers in Your Family Tree


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. 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.

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