Considering Union Civil War veterans

Here’s another entry I wrote for the Encyclopedia of the Veteran in America on Union Civil War veterans. You may ask why I do not mention much on the GAR. Well, that is because there is an entry dedicated to that organization and I was unable to request it in time. I hope you enjoy this one and will consider emailing the editor Dr. William Pencak, as there may still be some entries available to write.

Union Civil War veterans

The Civil War, in addition to being the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, created the largest single group of veterans for eighty years. Over two million men served in the military of the Union, leaving a population of veterans who survived of well over one and a half million at a time when the population of the United States was around 35 million.

Union veterans of the Civil War were as powerful a force on the nation after the war, as the Greatest Generation was after World War II. In terms of percentage of population, Union veterans of the Civil War accounted for roughly ten percent of the population of the North during the war, while World War II veterans (approximately sixteen million) accounted for twelve percent of the population based upon the 1940 census. The contributions of Union veterans to post-Civil War America are immense and include several presidents of the late nineteenth century. They created a political and social legacy that remains with the United States today.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Union veterans were fearful of returning home. According to historian Larry Logue, the veterans were concerned that the war had changed them too much. Civilians also were apprehensive about veterans returning home for the same reasons that veterans were not excited to return. The fears of civilians of returning soldiers were founded in the fact that some veterans rioted in cities like New York.

In addition to issues relating to returning home, veterans faced elevated levels of drug and alcohol addiction. Drug addiction was linked to medical personnel dispensing morphine in greater amounts to ease suffering patients. The increased incidence of giving morphine created conditions where soldiers were at increased risk for developing an addiction to the drug.

Other social problems faced by veterans were higher unemployment immediately after the war, as the market was flooded by so many men seeking work. Eventually jobs became plentiful, with many moving West and South and taking agriculture related work. In addition, some states experienced higher divorce rates among veterans.

Not all was negative immediately after the war, as many veterans returned home, married, and began their lives again. Many states reported increased marriages with the return of the men. Overall, the experiences of Union Civil War veterans revolved around several key areas: the experience of African American veterans, social organizations, political activism, and cultural contributions. Political activism was one of the largest areas of influence where veterans made their presence known

Political Activism of Union Veterans

Union veterans were a politically active group in the late nineteenth century. They effectively lobbied for various programs to aid veterans and their families. The political allegiances of veterans changed from before the war. Before and during the war, Union soldiers represented many differing political parties, including Whigs, Know Nothings, and Democrats. However, the war united Union veterans strongly and changed their politics, as they became a solidly Republican group. This change led to dominance in national politics by the Republicans, which included the election of several Union veterans to the presidency, including Grant, Harrison, and McKinley to name a few.

One of the more important aspects of the political activism of Union veterans was their ability to lobby for causes important to them. Such was the case with the issue of pensions for disabilities. The pension system was initially very cumbersome, with many veterans unaware that they qualified. In 1879, likely due to the presence of veterans in the government, as well as their lobbying abilities, the pension system was reformed. The new system allowed more eligible veterans to obtain pensions for their service. Another area where veterans were politically active was in the creation and reform of soldiers’ homes. Some veterans resented the discipline within these homes and on at least two separate occasions led protest for better conditions.

Overall, the political activism of Civil War veterans was significant. Veterans served as a lobbying group for their interests. They transformed late nineteenth century politics, ensuring Republican dominance for much of that time. They also paved the way for their comrades to achieve the presidency several times in the post-war period.

Social Organizations

One consequence of the increased political activity of veterans was the increased interest in social organizations for them. The largest of the organizations available to veterans was the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR (see Grand Army of the Republic). Many veterans never joined the GAR, but those that did enjoyed membership in an organization that combined military traditions with the rituals of fraternal organizations such as the Masons. The GAR was an active group in terms of lobbying and political activity during the 1880s. It also changed its rituals to increase it accessibility by citizens seeking to know more about the war.

Other veterans’ groups existed in conjunction with the GAR, but these were more exclusive. Some veterans joined the Union Veteran Legion or the Service Pension Association. The Union Veteran Legion restricted membership to those who served at least two years, or were wounded, while the Service Pension Association was primarily a lobbying group. With increased pension activity in the 1880s and onward, interest in veterans’ groups rose, with membership in the GAR peaking around 400,000. With so many involved in these organizations, the cultural contributions of Union veterans became apparent.

Contributions of Union veterans to American society and culture

There are three major contributions made by Union veterans to American society and culture that remained long after the last veteran’s death. Increased patriotism, battlefield commemoration and preservation, and the Memorial Day holiday are all legacies of Union Civil War veterans and their efforts.

Union veterans were a catalyst for increased patriotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Groups like the GAR provided patriotic instruction in many communities. Also, as they reached old age, many veterans were looked upon to keep the patriotic traditions of the communities they lived in. In addition, this increased patriotism led to increased appreciation for the veterans, especially with new veterans joining the population from both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Within this increased patriotism arose movements by Union veterans to establish Flag Day as a holiday and urge the use of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Union veterans sought to make the flag a cherished icon and were largely supportive of the Spanish-American War.

In addition to increased patriotism, Union veterans contributed to the beginning of battlefield commemoration and preservation efforts. One of the best examples was Dan Sickles’s efforts in the Congress to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield. In addition to the preservation efforts, veterans sought to commemorate their service through battlefield reunions. Several “Blue-Gray Reunions” occurred at battlefields, which allowed the men on both sides to share their common experience and reconcile differences.

Perhaps the largest contribution made by Union veterans was the establishment of Memorial Day. Memorial Day was conceived by GAR member John Logan (see Logan, John). In 1868, Logan issued General Order No. 11 calling for the GAR posts in communities across the country to adorn the graves of fallen comrades and honor them with appropriate services. Annual commemoration of Memorial Day in the United States is one of the largest cultural contributions that veterans made to the nation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Union veterans were concerned about the legacy they would leave behind. With contributions made through increased patriotic education, battlefield commemoration and preservation, and the Memorial Day holiday, veterans made great social and cultural contributions to America. Their legacy is preserved through every visit made to a Civil War battlefield park and every community observance of Memorial Day.

African American Union veterans

While many of the above experiences related to white veterans and were largely positive, the experience of African American veterans can not be ignored. African American veterans experienced adversity and hardship. Even though African Americans contributed to the Union cause, their inclusion in the Grand Review of the army was limited. Further, immediately after the war, African American soldiers were assigned to duty in the South, while whites were allowed to go home. They faced harsh treatment from both Southerners and their white officers, which led them to mutiny. The mutinies were put down, but served as an early introduction to political activism on the part of African Americans.

After their de-mobilization, African Americans faced the same difficulties as some white veterans, but with increased intensity. For instance, African Americans faced a much higher unemployment level than their white counterparts, and also faced competition from local African Americans for jobs. In addition to increased unemployment, African Americans faced attacks from whites, which included a severe incident where a Memphis mob killed forty-six soldiers. African American veterans faced poor treatment in the North as well.

A few African Americans joined the GAR, but faced discrimination. They were prevented from being post officers because of racism, or were forced to join separate posts where high populations of African American veterans lived. In the South, posts were initially prevented from chartering and then allowed, but only allowed under the condition of separate departments. Though, the national organization rejected this racism, it could not change the situation.


Union Civil War veterans were a major force for social, political, and cultural change in post-Civil War America. Their political activism led to Republican political dominance for most of the next fifty years after the war. In addition, veterans led the way for a reformed pension process that allowed many more veterans to receive compensation from the government.

Veterans also became active in social organizations that served to bring them together to remember their experiences with fellow soldiers. Organizations like the GAR, Union Veteran Legion, and Service Pension Association flourished in the late nineteenth century. These groups pressed for veterans’ political interests and provided a social outlet for them.

Veterans contributed greatly to post-war society and culture. They were the keepers and instructors in patriotic education and advocated for Flag Day, as well as being supporters of the Spanish-American War. Also, Union veterans were instrumental in beginning efforts to preserve and commemorate the fields upon which they fought, which led to the eventual establishment of battlefield parks. Finally, it was through the efforts of Civil War veteran John Logan and others that the Memorial Day holiday was established.

Unfortunately, African Americans faced harsh treatment by whites despite their fighting for the Union. From being denied greater participation in the Grand Review to being forced to serve in the Reconstruction South, African Americans were denied the initial rightful recognition due them. They also faced violence from whites and greater difficulties seeking jobs. Their experience is a sad, but important part of the overall story of Union veterans.

Union veterans were the vanguard of the veterans’ movement in America. Their political activism was copied by future organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Likewise, the organization of Union veterans into social groups like the GAR began the large-scale involvement of future veterans in their respective groups. Veterans and their groups since the Civil War have continued to serve as patriotic instructors in their communities and press for ceremonial occasions to honor their sacrifices. Fortunately, unlike their Civil War ancestors, African American veterans have turned the initial negative story into a positive, as they have now received the recognition due them. The modern veterans’ movement is a fitting legacy to the efforts and contributions of Union Civil War veterans.


Logue, Larry. To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1996.

Encyclopedia of the Veteran in America, Edited by William A. Pencak. Forthcoming 2009 by Praeger. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.

Not to be reproduced without written permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

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 (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.