Researching your Civil War ancestor

As a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), I thought I would take time to talk about genealogy, specifically relating to the Civil War. There are many great resources available to those seeking to find their Civil War ancestor, but you must know the easy way to start. I will share with you the example of my research on my Civil War ancestor, my great-great-great grandfather, Robert Alexander Montgomery.

My search began out of innocent curiosity. I had been interested in joining SUVCW for some time and figured that I would end up being an Associate member (member with no descendant serving the Union cause in the Civil War). I had an possible ancestor on my dad’s side, Private Philip Eglehoff (spelling sometimes varies between records), who was killed at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads in Tennessee (the battle occurred on Dec. 31, 1862 and he died of wounds on Jan. 01, 1863). The problem with trying to use Philip as my ancestor for membership was that I can prove his service to the Union, but can not prove his relation to myself. I am still searching out how I am related to Philip Eglehoff and will someday explore Sauerwein connections to the war.

I was looking at records on my mother’s maternal side of the family one day and noticed the date of birth (1845) for Robert Montgomery and that he was born in Pennsylvania and when I saw that he was sixteen in 1861, I knew that there may be a possibility of him serving in the Union army during the war. I decided to go online and check available sources on Pennsylvania Civil War veterans and hit the jackpot. I found via the online Pennsylvania State Archives that Robert Montgomery enlisted in Company G, 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment at age 16.

With this online knowledge, I took the next step and sent in a request form to the National Archives for his service record and, once I paid the $18 (this fee has increased to my knowledge), I had his service record, which I promptly sent a copy of along with my application for membership in SUVCW. Unlike Philip Eglehoff, I had records proving my lineage, but needed to prove service. I found my ancestor and now want to help you find yours.

There are two ways to start: one for those with family tree records and another for those with neither record, but a name. For those with family records proving lineage, all you need to do is prove that a relative served in the war. First, go online and search for Civil War veteran databases for the state that your ancestor likely served from, in terms of units, or look the name up on the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website. Many states have great online tools for searching for a veteran who served in that state. Pennsylvania State Archives has digitized their veterans’ index cards, which allow for printing, Illinois provides listings through the Secretary of State’s office, and independent sites provide digital copies of various state adjutant general reports, which are very helpful resources that provide demographic data on Civil War soldiers in a particular state.

Once you have information on your ancestor(s) via the online records (you can also search local historical archives if you desire, but distance may necessitate online searching, as it did for my case), you may want to obtain two sets of records from the National Archives (you may have to request through a state archive depending). The two sets of records provide different information and cost different amounts. The cheaper set of records is the service record, which will usually provide a discharge certificate, mustering records, and any other pertinent service information. The service record is the easier of the two to acquire as well, as some veterans do not have a pension record if they were killed during the war and left no survivors. A service record will run you $25.00.

The National Archives website states the following about pension records:

Pension Records

Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls) which is also available online at Ancestry.com (for a fee).

The pension file will often contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the CMSR, and it may contain much medical information if he lived for a number of years afterwards. For example, in his pension file, Seth Combs of Company C, 2d Ohio Cavalry, reported: “…my left eye was injured while tearing down a building…and in pulling off a board a splinter or piece struck my eye and injured it badly…it was hurt while in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Va. about Christmas 1864–a comrade who stood by me name Jim Beach is dead.” In another affidavit, Seth said he “also got the Rheumatism while on duty as a dispatch bearer on detached duty.”

To obtain a widow’s pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier’s minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier’s marriage and proof of the children’s birth.

A pension record will cost $75.00, but it may be worth the money if you are looking for more family record detail. Once you have either of these records, you are finished and can either keep searching further back, or for other Civil War ancestors, or, you can relax and take pride in your research.

For those of you that do not have a name or family records, your search will be a bit more difficult, as before you can begin the steps described above, you will need to find a name, unit information, and other relevant information to provide the Archive staff member that will research your request something to work with. That information will be placed on the request form available from the Archives (or you can order records online). To find this information, particularly name, birth year, and birthplace, you will either need to speak with older relatives (this is the best bet to find names and start your journey, as they may remember the ancestor in question from childhood), or visit your local archives, or archive of where your family resided for most of its history.

There, you will find, depending on the facility, a potential wealth of documents from ship’s records, to marriage and birth records. The marriage and birth records are key, as they are going to be the base for your family tree. You may need to go online and request census records from the National Archives, as the census records will provide household information every ten years, including surname, spouse, and children (including name and ages). Once you have traced your lineage back to between 1800-1850 (you will need to go this far back to establish the possibility of Civil War service based on age, with a minimum age being 15 with an 1865 enlistment), start searching the online and other Civil War veteran databases with all possible names and then once you have found some, send in the requests to the appropriate archival sites to obtain records.

Now, you have the tools needed to research your Civil War ancestors. Go out and search, and include your kids or parents, as they will likely (especially the kids) have as much fun with this as you. Once you have the records proving lineage and service, you may then apply for membership in one of the hereditary organizations for descendants of Civil War veterans. The two more well-known groups are Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is for descendants of Union veterans, and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), for those with Confederate ancestry. If you are descended from an officer, you are also entitled to membership in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) for Union officers, or Military Order of the Stars and Bars for Confederate officers. Good luck to everyone searching their lineage and I hope that you find a Civil War veteran in your family, and if they were Union, then please consider joining the SUVCW.

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2 thoughts on “Researching your Civil War ancestor

  1. We know that my Great Grandfather>James A Goodwin was indeed in the 2nd Illinois Cavalry c company, but it is said that he had a medal of honor. How do we confirm that. Also, He and at least one brother supposedly stowed away as children and upon discovery were used as slaves on the ship. They came from Enland to ? They ended up in the south, I think Ky. They were then used as endentured slaves by their Uncle. When the war began James ran away to join the fight against slavery. We don’t know what happened to his brother/brothers but I have heard that one may have ended up in S. or N. Carolina. I think South. We have not been able to connect the family back to England. I was wondering if by chance the military records may have family information, such as who he lived with when he came to America or who his parents were. I have seen his citizenship certificate, there is nothing of his familial past there.
    Could you give me some sugestions as to where I might start? We would really like to find out what happened to the brother/brothers and who they came from. We were also thinking of having one of our Male Goodwins’ take the DNA testing to see if it matches any of the other lines. We wondering if he could have just made up a name when he came here?

  2. Aside from starting with Ancestry.com, which is kind of obvious, there are several different ways to answer your questions. With regard to his military service and possible Medal of Honor, first, check The Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, which is available online via Google Books (I downloaded a copy myself a year ago). This will have information relating to his mustering into the Union army, since it was an Illinois unit. Now, I just checked the official website for the MOH and could not find him listed among the Civil War recipients, so that is likely a dead end.

    As far as military records go, they do not usually cover family information, except for a place of birth or residence and those are only if he listed such when he signed up. A quick glance at a couple of sources I know listed him as a private, with the Adjutant General’s Report listing him as having mustered in 1864. Try to see if there is a pension file on him, as that would help you out. Use Ancestry.com or some other service to look at census records for his name, as that will provide you the framework to trace back. The census was conducted every 10 years, so be sure to check the following years especially (1840, 1850, and 1860). Go to this website and you will find a little more about him as well: http://www.ilsos.gov/genealogy/

    That link is to the Illinois online veteran’s database for Civil War veterans, I searched the roster of his unit until I found his name and clicked on the link, which provided me some descriptive information (that he was 20 when he joined up), which means check the 1850 and 1860 census records and you should find him. Overall, to find any information relating to parentage, etc., you will need to obtain a pension record, if one is available for him and/or start with looking at the census records. Depending on where you live, try to find a library that is in the NARA system, as you will have access to Ancestry.com free (the only costs would be copying at the library and any other fees that the library has in place). I hope this helps you out and good luck on your search.

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