The subject of the American Civil War has probably produced more books, documentaries, movies, articles and conversations than any other armed conflict in which Americans engaged --- Vietnam included. From a strict genealogical standpoint, there is no need to address the causes of this war. Your main focus should be obtaining the military records for your ancestor. Have you found those records elusive? Maybe you've been looking in the wrong place. Ask yourself the following question:
Was it the Civil War or the War Between the States?
Whatever answer you chose, think back and ask yourself how your grandparents and great-grandparents would have answered this question. For the majority of the Confederacy, the answer would have been the "War Between the States." From the Confederate viewpoint, the States --- which had voted to join the Union --- had a perfect right to vote to secede from the Union. Since the Confederacy was composed of States fighting for State's rights, it was the "War Between the States." The Northern States; however, denied the right to secede and termed the conflict the "Civil War." Since the winners always get to write their own history, that is the term most often used by historians.
If you have found old letters or documents in your family records that refer to the War Between the States, chances are you need to be searching for Confederate records. If you have several male family members who lived in that time period, it's also highly likely that you'll probably wind up searching for Union records, too, --- often in the same family. Brother fighting brother was a literal truth.
Although you can bounce around the Internet and find literally thousands of web pages with data on Civil War soldiers, nothing there will document your family tree as well as a copy of your ancestors service records. Once again, we head to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), or your nearest Family History Center (FHC) operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints.
Union records have been microfilmed are indexed by state and military unit. You must know the state or unit in which your ancestor served in order to obtain records. There is an exception, however. There is a separate index for black (Americans of African heritage) troops. Called the "United States Colored Troops," (USCT), these records cover all black from every state involved in the war. Ask for microfilm M589 and be prepared to sit for a while. There are 98 rolls of film in the set.
The indexes themselves are also organized by state. If your ancestor moved from one state to another during the war, you may have to check the indexes for more than one state. Once you have found your ancestor on an index, the records themselves are only available through NARA.
If you can afford a trip to Washington, D.C., an often overlooked source of invaluable data may be available on your Union ancestor. The country's first draft was issued by Abraham Lincoln and ran from 1863 to 1865. People age 22 to 45 were targeted, as well as new immigrants who planned to become naturalized citizens. Three sets of records were created and maintained, but none are on microfilm:
- Consolidated lists (name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, etc.);
- Descriptive Rolls (personal description, exact place of birth, military unit)
- Alien Case Files (Aliens who served from 1861 to 1864, includes description and usually country of citizenship and how long the person had been in the United States.)
Confederate records are also held by NARA and constitute what has been termed as the "consolidated" or "compiled" Index to Confederate Soldiers. The indexes themselves are NARA microfilm publication M1290 and covers 535 rolls of microfilm for 14 states and Arizona Territory. NARA also compiled histories for the various military units including the Confederate navy. (M861)
There are also some grave-site records held by NARA in Register M918 and Record Group 92. In addition, there may be records on your ancestor at state level. Many states had militia units that weren't officially "mustered in" to the Confederate Army. Check your state archives for source materials. I also recommend contacting the local chapters of the Daughters/Sons of the Confederacy.
In 1993, NARA, the National Park Service, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the Genealogical Society of Utah began a massive volunteer project. The goal was to create the "Civil War Soldiers System Database." As of September 2004, the database, (CWSS), contains more than 6 million names. Maintained by the National Park Service, you can visit the online data base at:
There is a great search engine that makes finding those names a "walk in the park." If you find your ancestor, click on his name. You'll have instant access to the microfilm number and the roll number you will need to obtain that ancestor's records. Give thanks to thousands of volunteers who made this effort possible.
Other Articles in the Series:
- Military Records: American Revolution
- Military Records: Post-Revolutionary Wars, 1812-1858
- Military Records: Focus on Confederate Forces in the Civil War
- Military Records: Focus on Union Forces in the Civil War
- Military Records: Spanish American War 1898-1901
- Military Records: 1900s including WWI and WWII
- Military Records: Bounty Lands, Part 1
- Military Records: Bounty Lands, Part 2
- Military Records: Bounty Lands, Part 3
- Military Records: Loyalist Lands