Finding Great-Granddad in the Civil War

by Darl L. Stephenson, Email: darlsteph@earthlink.net

Many people who attempt to find out about their ancestor’s record in the Civil War start with only the vaguest information, often with only the ancestor’s name. In many cases, this is often enough to start an exciting search and find out much about the ancestor’s service. If you know where great-granddad or great-great uncle is buried, a trip to the cemetery may provide additional information. If he received a veteran’s marker, his regiment will probably be on it. In my case, my great-grandfather’s tombstone was not a government marker and had no military information on it. However, he was buried in the same graveyard with other members of the family who served, so I was able to get possible units from those. As it turned out, he served in the same regiment as several other members of the family.


Even with the most rudimentary information, you can start at the National Archives in Washington D.C., especially for soldiers who served in the Federal Army. You can order forms for obtaining records from the National Archives by going to www.nara.gov. Go to “The Research Room” and look for how to obtain military records. The Archives has index lists of servicemen in the Union Army arranged alphabetically and by state. Also, for federal soldiers, there are pension index lists arranged alphabetically (T-288 index). If you cannot find your federal relative on this index, do not despair, if you already know his regiment. There is an organizational index (T-289) that is organized by state, regiment, company, and then alphabetically by name. Sometimes a soldier will be listed on one index and not the other. Although, it is rare, it is something researchers must be aware of. Also, the microfilm index card for one index may not be readable but will be legible on the other index.

For your West Virginia ancestor who served in the Confederate Army, the National Archives has military records only. Confederate military records are much less complete than the Union records. Many were destroyed and Confederate record keeping got worse as the war progressed.

Since pensions were issued by the individual former Confederate states, pension records are held by those states. For western Virginians this will primarily be Virginia, but they also served in other southern states units such as Kentucky. Unfortunately, for those of us with West Virginia ancestors who served in Virginia units, a veteran had to live in Virginia in order to claim a pension. If your veteran or other claimant lived in Virginia, the Library of Virginia may have a pension file on him. The library is accessible on line at www.lva.lib.va.us. Go to the Digital Library and look under military history to find out about ordering pension records. The libraries database of pension applications can be searched electronically.

African-Americans, much to their surprise, may find out that they had an ancestor who received a Confederate pension. Virginia gave pensions to African-Americans who had served the Confederacy, as laborers, cooks, teamsters, herdsman and body servants to white officers.

The military records held by the National Archives are officially called “Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR).” This is because they are a compilation of the original enrollment, muster rolls, returns, descriptive lists, morning reports and other records which were compiled by clerks to support the pension system. The entries are written on cards and are not the original records. The compiled service record may contain original records such as enlistment papers, casualty sheets, and other records which pertained only to that soldier.

For West Virginia soldiers, there are some quirks in the way the National Archives has arranged the records that relatives should know about if they want their ancestor’s complete record. The West Virginia records as well as some other northern states and all Confederate states are on microfilm. Larger states such as Ohio are still hard-copy paper records. For many West Virginia units, the compiled service records do not contain all the pertinent information. Separate microfilm rolls contain “miscellaneous abstracts of records.” that often have the carded description of the soldier and his returns. The returns are especially important since they list duties that the soldier may have had away from his regiment such as scouting, pioneer duty, provost marshal etc. Another microfilm file has “personal papers” which are often the microfilmed copies of enlistment papers, requests for furloughs, transportation requests and other records. If you order military records by mail, the Archives will probably only send you the basic “compiled military service record” and you may not learn important information about Great Granddad.

If Great-Granddad turned out not to have been the best soldier in the regiment or company, he may have a court-martial record that is contained in another separate file. Also, the Archives has a separate file called “carded medical records” that detail the times a soldier was sick or in hospital. Some of this information may be duplicated on the compiled military service records but not necessarily and you must make a separate request of the Archives for the carded medical records.

With all this information compiled and catalogued, you may think you have just about everything there is to know about your sterling soldier boy. Hold on, the Archives still has more. In some cases, it may be worthwhile to actually check the original regimental books such as the descriptive books and morning reports as well as original muster rolls, returns and papers. These are available, when they exist, by ordering them from the archivists in room 403 and having them pulled for you to read in the main reading room. In the case of my Great-Great Uncle Salathiel Donahue, who died at Andersonville, an original casualty list provided me the information that he was “severely wounded in the face.” The carded records merely had that he was “wounded and left in the hands of the enemy.”

Pension records can contain a wealth of information, not just about the soldier, but also about his family. There are several different kinds of pension records. “Invalid” pensions were given for wounds, sickness, or accidents that caused a soldier to have a “disability.” These pension records are important because they have the required testimony of officers, surgeons, and the soldier’s comrades. Sometimes these statements can be quite compelling, but often involve more mundane infirmities such as rheumatism or hemorrhoids. Even these health problems were valid reasons for receiving a pension and not just a result of old age. Soldiers suffered from sleeping on the ground in the cold and often suffered their entire lives because of chronic diarrhea. Widow’s pensions often contain valuable genealogical information. The widow had to prove she had no other form of support other than her dead husband. She also had to show she supported her children by providing evidence of their names and ages. Sometimes even original wedding certificates are contained in these records. If your ancestor’s pension included both “invalid” and the widow’s pension, you should have a wealth of information on your relative. Pension records of northern soldiers of African descent may contain information not available elsewhere. Even if the soldier was a former slave and illiterate, the pension affidavits copied down by examiners will often have valuable genealogical information.

The pensions filed by mothers and fathers of deceased soldiers are some of the most interesting in the National Archives. The mother or father had to prove that the soldier supported them during the war. One way in which this was accomplished was to furnish the pension authorities with letters written home by their son with statements such as “I’ll send you $15.00 when we get paid.” These pension files often contain several letters written at different times by the soldier. Sometimes the mother or father might even furnish a condolence letter written by the soldier’s commander, chaplain or other officers. The families thought that they would get these valuable mementoes back, but they became part of the official record. This must have been heart-wrenching for the families, but for the researcher of the Civil War, these mothers’ and fathers’ pensions are greatly overlooked sources of first hand accounts. For a high casualty regiment such as the 9th West Virginia Infantry, these files can contain dozens of letters about that regiment. If your ancestor’s pension record was referred to Congress for any reason, there may be separate records in the National Archives filed with Record Group 233, The Committee on Invalid Pensions, Accompanying Records. These files are arranged by Congressional number, such as 52nd Congress and then alphabetically by name. The researcher must have some idea which congress to look under to find these records. Usually the regular pension file will have some records, such as a letter to a Congressman, that will give a clue.

Individual state archives also have rosters available and other records. Local northern newspapers may have soldier’s letters printed that tell about the unit’s activities. The best papers for these soldier letters are Republican, pro-Lincoln, pro-war newspapers. Democratic, anti-Lincoln, anti-war newspapers, commonly known as Copperhead newspapers rarely have good soldier letters and they may be from the most disaffected soldiers in the regiment. Of course, southern newspapers printed soldier letters also, but these may be much harder to find on West Virginia Confederate soldiers since southern newspapers could not openly operate in areas controlled by the Union. Even Copperhead newspapers were sometimes shut down because they were considered subversive.

County histories may also contain rosters and stories about Civil War units and individuals, especially officers who lived in the region. Local libraries may also be a source of manuscripts and other documents donated by family members. Very few West Virginia units had published regimental histories written. This is unfortunate for those seeking to know more about the units in which their relatives served. Brief regimental histories of Federal regiments are contained in Frederick Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion and Theodore Lang’s Loyal West Virginia 1861-1865. Both of these reference books are available in reprint editions. The Virginia regimental history series published by H.E. Howard, Inc. of Lynchburg, Va. provides accounts of Confederate units that served from West Virginia. These books also contain rosters that contain the soldier’s military record as well as supplemental information such as family members and postwar life if available.

If you believe you had an ancestor who served in a Virginia unit containing Western Virginians, you can check Jack L. Dickinson’s Tattered Uniforms and Bright Bayonets. This book can be ordered on interlibrary loan. Broadfoot publishing company also has a multi-volume set of Confederate rosters. You would need to find a library that has this set of books.

I will gladly answer questions by contacting me at darlsteph@earthlink.net. I am also available to do research for fee. Just give me an email with your request and I will let you know my rates. An experienced private researcher can often save the searcher time and money to find what they want from archives and libraries. The writer wishes you a successful search for your Union or Confederate soldier.

Useful Records and Microfilm records at the National Archives:

RG-233 Accompanying Papers of the Committee on Invalid Pensions
M-253 Consolidated Index to Service Records
M-861 Confederate Troop Movements
M-1003 Amnesty papers
M-594 Union Troop Movements
M-598 Confederate POWs
M-1303 Andersonville POWs
M-1523 Union Soldiers Executed
M-1845 Headstone Applications

Article courtesy of Darl L. Stephenson.
Copyright 2000. Darl L. Stephenson. All rights reserved.