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.

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.