A new adventure and tracing Civil War soldiers

Well, I have exciting news to share with you all. I began my new job on June 5 with the North Dakota State Archives, with my title being Reference Specialist. I am overjoyed at the chance to work again in archives, as it allows me to use my skills in a more intimate way to help people in their research. Much of what I will do consists of handling questions from researchers about our collections and trying to answer them by providing the patrons with the appropriate documents, photographs, or other materials. So far a number of these requests have come from genealogists, which I suspect will be the majority.

I want to use one example that links to the Civil War to illustrate how you can trace Civil War soldiers. A gentleman called the other day seeking information on a man buried in Slope County, North Dakota that locals say was in the Civil War in order to try and get a veterans marker for the individual. The only information I had to go on was the name as well as the birth and death years.

I worked with the gentleman over the phone and checked a couple databases on Ancestry.com, as well as a couple items from our holdings. Unfortunately, I was unable to track down records that would be needed to verify service and eligibility for a veterans marker, in this case either the service record, or pension file.

When beginning to trace a Civil War soldier, there are several things to keep in mind. One, record keeping at that time was nothing like today. Births, if recorded, were usually done in a family Bible, with the only usual methods at that time of knowing a person was born from a governmental standpoint being the federal census and applicable state censuses. Having the birth and death dates, as well as the state the person resided in at the time of the war will be helpful in navigating database searches to find your particular soldier.

Once you have this information, there are two important databases within Ancestry.com (the databases are also on FamilySearch.org, but may be under a slightly different name) that you will begin searching. The first is “U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865.” This database compiles basic information on the soldier (Name, rank, unit, state of residence, muster in date, etc.), but does have limitations, as names can be misspelled and it is not complete. That said, it is a useful starting point to eventually ordering a service record from the National Archives.

The other database is “U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934” is much more important in genealogical terms. It contains scans of the original index file cards for federal pensions issued to veterans, their spouses, or minor children. They are important because you will need the number to assist the staff at the National Archives in getting your particular pension file to prove service, but that file also has affidavits from friends and relatives, which can offer unique glimpses into that soldier’s post-war life. Getting the original service-related documents will be crucial to proving service and eligibility for things like a veterans marker if a Civil War soldier does not have one.

Other records you can also search to prove service are the various reports of the adjutant generals for the several states, many of which are now on Google books and in the public domain. These books contain the historical information of the units raised in a given state, as well as the muster rolls for the units. In addition, published regimental histories often contain said rolls too. Finally, archival facilities around the country house manuscript collections that contain diaries, letters, and memoirs on the war that are at varying levels of accessibility to researchers.

In the case of the phone call, the information on the deceased was limited, which made searching difficult. Further, the birth year recorded for him in our cemetery book for Slope County indicated that the person in question would have been at best sixteen in 1865. While young people certainly served in the war in significant numbers, lacking information about a possible unit stymied the search.

This brings me to an important point on researching Civil War soldiers as part of doing local history. In the case of my reference call, the caller indicated that locals claimed the deceased was a Civil War veteran. In practicing local history, one can sometimes find that what a community believes and what is fact are two different things. Now in this case, I am not saying that the individual did not possibly serve in the war, but that based on the information I had available to me, the likelihood was not as high. In recent years, there have been numerous cases of what is known as “stolen valor” where persons claim to be decorated veterans, when in reality, they either didn’t serve, or had military careers that did not involve direct combat or the earning of decorations for valor. It it possible that this person claimed to be a Civil War veteran? Maybe, but, just as with the initial question of did he serve, there is no direct, hard evidence to say for certain.

To summarize, researching Civil War soldiers can be a fun and rewarding experience, as you not only dive into an individual soldier’s record, but can then seek out the history of their regiment, which lists significant battles and events the unit participated in. Further, you can also read mention of significant deeds that some soldiers did. Examining the war from the experiences of the ordinary soldier has been popular for a number of years thus far (heck, my master’s thesis dealt with that subject) as we can relate better to the average person than the lofty people of a society.

I want to leave you with a couple helpful links to get you started on the journey of tracing a Civil War soldier.

Until next time, happy researching.

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