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Info on researching your Civil War Ancestor

Here are some good links when researching American Civil War ancestors. I want to talk alittle about HOW to research these ancestors before I get into the links themselves.

Let’s talk about some general truths about any kind of genealogy research. I am going to hit on a few notions:

A) Not all soldiers wore uniforms or carried a rifle.
B) The story of a Regiment helps to understand the story of the soldier
C) Knowing how the US Military worked helps to understand the career of the soldier


A) Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They lived in their era with everything else going on IN that era. So a family that lived in the US and East of the Mississippi River in the early to mid 1860s endured the impact of the Civil War. This likely meant economic impacts(as trade between the states was dramatically limited), social impacts(associating oneself with one side or the other led to families being ostracized from their local social order and sometimes having their property stolen and/or destroyed), and of course lethal impacts as men went off to war never to return and families caught in the middle of the fighting. It isn’t just the soldiers who are impacted in a war.

B) If you find an ancestor who fought in the American Civil War you will likely also learn of the organization in which they served. The overwhelming majority of people who was in the Civil War were in the ARMY as Infantry. There were also Cavalry and Artillery branchs of the ARMY at the time but I would wager you will find far FAR more Infantrymen than anything else in your research. There was also the NAVY of course but the author of this tome has very little experience in researching Sailors…perhaps I need to fix that. 🙂 You have to be careful if you find this information in “unofficial” sources. The common notion of “north vs south” leading to the idea that if your ancestor lived in Alabama then they were CLEARLY fighting for the Confederacy is a VERY BAD HABIT to get yourself into. There were Union regiments from about every state in the south and Confederate Sympathizers(and sometimes full fledged organizations) from about every state in the north. Sometimes you might find several organizations from the same state with the same organizational name! Here in Kentucky there were THREE different organizations called “3rd Kentucky Infantry”. One was Confederate and the other two were Union until about 1863 when the two Union outfits got themselves sorted out. In your records, once you determine the COMPLETE name of an organization AND their allegiance, I believe it is a BEST PRACTICE to include the side in which they served. So I might have “3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry(CS)” in my research as well as “3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry(US)”.

Once you have the name of the organization you will probably also have the sub-unit within that organization. For example 11th Tennessee Infantry, Company A or 5th Indiana Light Artillery, Battery C where “company A” and “Battery C” are the sub-units. It is important to keep that sub-unit in the name of the organization. Company A of the 11th Tennessee could be in an entirely different place than Company K of the same regiment at any given time. As you begin researching the life of an organization, having the sub-unit handy can help you better understand the career of you soldier because you have a much more granular perspective of where they were.


C) I talked alittle about how the military worked in the section above. It is important to remember that the Confederate Military worked IDENTICALLY as the US Military. They all had the same military structure, followed the same military traditions, and generally adhered to the same military rules. While ranks may vary from organization to organization in the Confederacy, particularly in the early war, this was more about individual attempts by commanders to make their organization unique. It didn’t last long however because the exigencies of the service require uniformity in practice.

In your research you will find ranks and sometimes roles listed for soldiers. You may see things like “Teamster” or “Pioneer” or “Nurse” in their muster records. These are jobs that the soldiers performed. Unlike modern military where you are specifically TRAINED to do a specific job and you keep that role until you are retrained, the Civil War was a different animal. Soldiers were pulled from the ranks to do any number of things without regard to training. The RANK of the soldiers was indicative of much the same kind of thing as modern soldiers with a couple differences that are era specific. During the American Civil War the average literacy rate was about 40%. Having the ability to write was vitally important to both armies so if you could WRITE, you were likely promoted and quickly. Understand what those ranks were and what they were supposed to do will help shed some more light on your Civil War Ancestor.

I am including a couple links to books on Google Books here that will help the researcher better understand how these ranks and organizations worked. They are called Customs of Service and were written for Enlisted personnel and Commissioned personnel. We have two publications that break this information down a bit more for Genealogists without any real understanding of military tradition.   First is our “Primer on Civil War Military for Genealogists” which explains how the Army organizations(Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery) functioned.  What Privates, Corporals(all 8 of them), Sergeants(All 6 of them), and etc did both on the battlefield and off.  Second is our “Understanding Civil War Muster Records” which breaks down the “cards” found in your average Muster Record, how the records were compiled, and how you might find some really interesting information in them just by knowing where to look and interpret them.

Soldiers and Sailors Database
The US National Parks Service put together this system to help people find soldiers and sailors by name. Just because you do not find an ancestor here DOES NOT MEAN THEY DIDN’T SERVE! This list was compiled from the several State’s Adjutant General Reports which were themselves compiled after the war based on the THEN available Muster Records and interviews with other soldiers in some cases. Paperwork. Whether 160 years ago or today, paperwork is the beginning of many MANY errors because the people completing the paperwork are just doing their job. People get tired while doing their job and mistakes are made. Some soldiers ARE omitted from the NPS Soldiers and Sailors system. It is generally pretty complete but if you do not find an ancestor here do not despair. There are other possibilities.

Kentucky Muster Records
This is a blog post I made several years ago concerning the Allen County Indiana submission to a non-profit called I’m still not sure WHY they chose Kentucky over Indiana but…they have EVERY Union organization from Kentucky in this list of Muster Records. It is alittle difficult to navigate however and that is why I wrote this article. I have mentioned “Muster records” a few times in this ever expanding tome…perhaps it is time to explain it. Civil War “Muster Records” were recorded at defined 2 month intervals of an organizations existence. These intervals were not the same for every organization and for the Confederate Cavalry they are sometimes so spotty as to be useless for any kind of indepth research into an organization. During the war, the muster records included the name, rank, and “remarks” of a given soldier. They were compiled on a large piece of paper with each soldier being listed as a single row. After the war these records were reviewed and individual soldier information was extracted into piles of “cards” that we know today as “Muster Records” for individual soldiers. While the wartime muster records were a means to identify where soldiers were (or were not if they had gone absent without leave), POST war “Muster Records” may contain a WEALTH of information on the life of the soldier and not necessarily specific to his military career. You may find letters written by or for the soldier requesting leave to attend to family matters…which may be the only way you will find that someone had died back home. Again…these men did not live in a vacuum. Their family lives continued while they were serving the Civil War and sometimes these muster records gives you an insight into that family life.

The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion
Also known as the “ORs”(pronounced OH-Ar-s). This is a remarkable collection of 125 someodd volumes containing every available official and unofficial correspondence made by military leaders from Company commanders all the way up to the Presidents of the contending armies and sometimes other Nations. Cornell Univeristy has been scanning the pages of these volumes and indexing them for searching for many years and they deserve MUCH gratitude for this effort. In Section B of my “Before I rant” rant, I talked about learning more about the organization your ancestor served in will help you learn more about what they endured during their service. THIS is where you can research that organization. Keep in mind that “54th Mass”, “fifty-fourth Mass”, and “Fifty-forth Mass” are three different things when searching in this system so be patient but thorough. Historians LIVE in the ORs when researching the American Civil War campaigns. It is a WEALTH of information ranging from where individual units were at any given time to what was going on in the minds of commanders. I cannot encourage researchers enough to spend sometime in the ORs. If there is a single DEFINITIVE PRIMARY SOURCE for the American Civil War….this is it.

And these are the links to Customs of Service for both Enlisted (NCOs and Soldiers) and Commissioned Officers. Invaluable reading to learn about how the military organizations operated and what the roles of the various ranks were.

Customs of Service – NCOs and Soldiers

Customs of Service – Officers



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