Have you ever wondered if you have a Civil War soldier in your family tree? Or maybe you know that great-great Grandpa Joe fought in the war and you’d like to honor him this Memorial Day. If you have deep roots in the United States, odds are good that you have an ancestor that served. Nothing brings history to life more than a personal connection, a realization that your family, your ancestor, lived and participated in long ago events. The following tips will help you search online records while we’re (still!) staying safe at home.
— Was your ancestor the correct age to serve? Look through your family tree for men born between 1831 and 1846 as the majority who served were between the ages of 18 and 30. I’ve found records that show soldiers as young as 10 or as old as 70! Although these occasions were rare, widening the birth year search can be fruitful.
— Where did your ancestor live at the start of the war, around 1861? Check the 1860 or 1870 U.S. Census for the soldier and his family. You can access these records for free at familysearch.org. Although every state had men who for fought the Union and men who fought for the Confederacy, this information can give you a reference point to begin your search. You can find a list of predominantly Union and Confederate states online if you’re unsure.
— Now that you have your soldier's name, age and county/city and state, begin your search at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. (www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm) This free National Park Service site has information on more than 6 million soldiers, including 18,000 African-American sailors and 29,000 Native Americans who served in the Civil War. You will learn which side they fought for, their unit/regiment and function during the war (such as cavalry or infantry) as well as the movements of your soldier’s regiment. Selected lists of prisoner-of-war records are also available.
— Once you have determined that your ancestor served, obtaining a copy of the pension record is the next step. To confirm your soldier filed for a pension, begin by finding them in the appropriate Pension Index. For Union soldiers, begin your search at the United States Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861-1917 (www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1471019). Pension records for Confederates are not available from the National Archives. These records are located in the state archive where they applied for their pension. Family Search’s Wiki page is a great source on where to find original Confederate pension records. Check it out at www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Confederate_Pension_Records .
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Amazingly, many diaries and journals of the Civil War era have survived. A Google search shows a number of government and university sites with free access to these treasures. The National Park Service gives a glimpse into the lives of soldiers and eyewitnesses of the Battle of Antietam (NPS.gov) and in the University of Notre Dame Rare Books Collection (rarebooks.nd.edu) you will find “Manuscripts of the American Civil War,” just to name a few.
Sadly, many Civil War veterans were buried unidentified. In 1862, National Cemeteries were established for casualties of the Civil War, while all honorably discharged veterans became eligible for burial in a national cemetery in 1873. For those who were identified, the Veterans Administration Gravesite Locator (gravelocater.cem.va.gov) lists information about veterans buried in national and state veterans cemeteries, as well as in private cemeteries if the government issued an official grave marker.
Chances are good that each of us has a connection to someone who fought and died while serving our country. This month, let’s remember those who gave their lives. Take a flag to the cemetery, do some research and learn about their lives, or just take a moment while at your cookout to recognize why we get to enjoy a long weekend.
Freelance writer Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and the Association of Professional Genealogists. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.