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Researching Women Ancestors During the American Civil War

Although many records exist for the men who fought in the Civil War, very little exists to document the lives of our female ancestors, who, for the most part, took over for the men on the home front. Follwoing are some ideas to guide your research.


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My ancestors who fought in the Civil War fascinate me. Although I have never been interested in the political and military details of war, I am interested in the lives of the everyday men and women whose lives were forever changed during this time period. I am overwhelmed and humbled by how hard their lives were and the hardships they faced. Although many records exist for the men who fought in the Civil War, very little exists to document the lives of our female ancestors, who, for the most part, took over for the men on the home front.

When researching a female ancestor whose husband fought in the Civil War, don't forget to look for pension applications. For Union veterans, those pension applications would be at the National Archives, and can be ordered through its web site, Requesting Copies of Older (pre-WWI) Military Service Records.

For Confederate veterans and their families, pensions were given on the state level. Each state had different rules about who could receive the pension. For more information, it's a good idea to check out the web site of the state archive or library for the Southern state for which your confederate ancestor fought. Following are some examples of Confederate pension record indexes and information available online.

Pension files can be a goldmine of information, especially when researching female ancestors. They can provide marriage dates, health information about the widow and the veteran, or the widow's death information. In one pension for a great aunt, the family sent the receipt from the funeral, as a way to prove her death to the government and thus stopping the payment of the pension.

Women can often be found on land deeds that have been purchased with their husbands. When the husband dies, you can trace his widow as she eventually sells the land or when it is willed to family members or others. Land deeds and grants can be found in county courthouses and through the Family History Library Catalog. Conduct a place search for your state of interest, and click on the upper right hand button entitled "View Related Places," for information on counties within the state; then click on the link for "Land and Property" to see what land deeds have been microfilmed.

Types of church records vary according to congregation. The Mormons kept all kinds of records, including church census records, emigration information, and membership rolls. The Baptists and some other Christian denominations provided parishioners a "letter" to take with them to a new congregation, as a sort of introduction. Some Christian denominations recorded marriages, funerals and christenings, while others kept detailed meeting notes. Congregations may have utilized membership directories that listed member's names throughout the history of that particular congregation. It can be very important to research your ancestor's religion, and then gather as much information as you can about their life within that religion. Once you know the name of your ancestor's religion, there are a few places to find out what is available through your that religious organization.

First, if that church is still in the area where you ancestor lived, call them and see what records are available. If they do not have archived records, ask if they have been donated to a church archive or other historical group. Second, see if you can locate a web site for that denomination. Some church web sites will provide addresses and information about sending off for records of previous members. Third, check out local genealogy societies, libraries, and historical societies for records. Don't forget to search the Family History Library Catalog: conduct both a place search and a keyword search for the name of the church or denomination. This will help you see what records are available both on the local level that you are researching and for the denomination as a whole.

Sometimes, when it becomes difficult to find documents pertaining to our ancestors, it can be helpful to learn more about the time period and what our ancestor's life may have been like. This can help bring your ancestors to "life" and better understand their world.

Duke University has a Civil War Women web site that includes primary sources on the Internet. You can look at letters, pictures, and diaries penned by women who lived during the Civil War years (1861-1865). One of the many collections you can read at this web site is the letters of Rose O'Neal Greenhow who was a Confederate spy. One of the letters included in this collection is her letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis about her meeting with General Robert E Lee.

The online exhibit, Hearts at Home: Southern Women in the Civil War is an exhibit of the special collections of the University of Virginia Library, which includes letters, photographs, and artifacts document different aspects of women's lives during the war years. Subjects include women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, spies, religion, and music. Each subject has scanned images that you can read and click on to enlarge.

The Family Search web site has over 76 books on the topic of women and the Civil War. Some of these deal with women who worked as spies during the Civil War, while others have to do with women's lives back on the home front. One interesting title is, Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice by Thomas P Lowery. This title is not on microfilm. To use it, you can either ask your local library if it is available elsewhere by interlibrary loan, review it in Salt Lake City at the Family History Library, or ask for a photocopy of the index, for a particular name. through the Library's photocopy service. You can download a copy of this request form.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

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

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