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Bringing Your Civil War Ancestor to Life

There is much more to learning about your Civil War ancestor than just ordering his military file. These resources will help you understand your ancestor's everyday life.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 888 (approx.)
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In my own personal family history project of getting to know more about my 4th great grandmother's brother, John W Bell (1824-1864) who was a Captain in the 32nd Alabama Infantry, I have accessed many sources. I have looked at Civil War web sites; I wrote to the National Archives and obtained his military file; I found some of his letters in a manuscript collection through the Louisiana State Library; and I have contacted descendents and received genealogical information. All this information is useful in reconstructing his life, but to really understand his life one has to do some social history work as well. In a previous article I talked about putting flesh on your ancestor's bones (October 13, 2005), in this article I want to focus on how you can get an understanding for what life was like for your Civil War ancestor.

There's no doubt that a good place to start any type of research is at the bookstore or a library. One book series that I think can be helpful to any genealogists is the Everyday Life series. These books, published by Writer's Digest, are geared towards writer's who are writing period pieces and need to know more about life in another era. This series can help you understand everything from life in the 1800's, to the Middle Ages to living with the American Indians. For your research on the Civil War, you should check out the book, Everyday Life During the Civil War, edited by Michael J Varhola and David Borcherding. From this book you can learn what food people ate; what life for the everyday soldier was like; and what slang words were around in the 1800's. Another in the series, Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900,  edited by Candy Vyvey Moulton, David Borcherding, and Christine K. Doyle can also be beneficial if your Civil War ancestor was living in the West. This book details the westward trails, entertainment Wild West style, marriage, and tools.

A book that I thought was helpful in learning more about the everyday life of the confederate soldier, but may seem unorthodox to many is, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. In this book, Tony Horwitz rekindles his childhood love for the American Civil War by visiting Southern states and researching the ways that the Civil War is still such a fresh memory for our Southern neighbors. The section of this book that will be helpful to your research is where he describes the ways in which Civil War reenactors, one of which is featured on the cover of the book, seek to make their reenactment as authentic as possible. The descriptions of sleeping in the mud, eating spoiled meat and wearing clothes that haven't been washed in several battles are all good reminders of what life was like for our Confederate ancestors especially towards the end of the war when supplies were limited and morale was down.

Speaking of reenactors, if you haven't been to a reenactors' event, I would highly recommend it. If watching a Civil War battle isn't for you, there are other events, including living history encampments where they set up what a camp would have looked like to ladies' tea socials. These events can allow you to check out the clothes, the activities, and the gear that your ancestor's life would have included. Reneactors stage events at museums, living history parks, and to commemorate holidays and events. I have also seen reenacted battles on the History Channel. Check out www.sutler.net for a schedule of events in your area.

Some reenactor websites to visit include, www.cwreenactors.com, www.sutler.net, and my personal favorite, Fanny and Vera's Helpful Hints and Timely Tips for Civil War Reenactors (www.shasta.com/suesgoodco/newcivilains/index.htm). Fanny and Vera provide help with everything you need to better understand everyday Civil War life. So much is covered here including men and women's Civil War attire, even with some patterns for you to sew to articles on money, and women's roles in the Civil War and meal times. One of my favorite parts of this website is the pictures of women's shoes. Many of them look like shoes you would find at your neighborhood Payless Shoe Store but some made my feet hurt just looking at them! They also have a great bibliography to help you better understand life during the Civil War, not just the soldiers but also about the civilians and women.

One website that can help bring the Civil War alive is the American Civil War Homepage at http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/warweb.html. This website has great links including links to Civil War era music, maps, cartoons, archives, and photographs. They also have links that are useful for any genealogist, one example being a link to the 1890 Veterans Census for Northern Virginia.

These are just a few ideas that will help you bring your Civil War ancestor from a name and date to a three dimensional person whom you can better understand. These resources are good for not only increasing your knowledge about your Civil War soldier but also about your civilian and women ancestors who lived during the Civil War. The great thing about genealogy is it provides us more than just seeking out some birth and death dates but it provides us the opportunity to get to know those who came before us.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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