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Civil War Records and Genealogy

Lineage Lessons

Don't assume that your ancestor's record showing “deserted” means that he was a “coward.” There were many reasons for desertion: loyalty to the other side, going home for a few days because of sickness in the family and then returning, and more. He may even have been improperly listed as a deserter when he fell into the hands of the opposing army.

The Civil War tore families apart. Brother fought against brother. Families were divided, and many never did heal their differences. Feelings run deep to this day. Be aware of this as you query your family about their Civil War connections. Be sensitive. In one file, a Tennessean, who was faced with a decision of whether to stay with the Union or join the Confederacy, moved to Arkansas to join a Union force there. His wife, whose family was staunchly of southern sympathies, refused to accompany him. Under these circumstances, often the soldier later took a new wife in his chosen state—in this case without benefit of a divorce from the former wife, who still refused to live with him. The files are full of sad tales. Don't be surprised at what you may find. Remember the times in which these families lived.

It also is not unusual to find records of the same soldier serving on both sides. The 19-year-old who went into town to run some errands for his family was spotted by southern (or northern) recruiters and forced to enter the service. At his first opportunity, he deserted and joined the opposing side, where his sympathies lay. If your ancestor was from a border state such as Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, or Missouri, you may find dual records for him.

He Wore Gray

Start your search for the Confederate soldier with National Archives micropublication M253, Consolidated Index to Compiled Service Records of the Confederate Soldiers. Consisting of 535 rolls, this is arranged alphabetically by surname. When you locate the surname in the index, take down all the listed information.

Next, return to the Catalog. Look for the micropublication number for the Confederate Compiled Service Records of the state from which your ancestor served. The state rolls are arranged by regiment, unit, and so on, and last by surname. It should be fairly easy to determine the correct roll. You can then view on the microfilm the entire file for your Confederate ancestor.

Tree Tips

Some states have microfilmed their Confederate pension application files. The state repository can advise you. Be sure to check their indexes for the widow's name, too; she may be the applicant. Or there may be two files: one for the soldier and a later one for the widow.

The Confederate Pension Records

In the years after the war, a number of states granted pensions to veterans of the Confederacy. These were not federal pensions and are not in the National Archives. These pensions were granted by the states to the Confederate soldiers who resided in their states at the time of their pension application. A soldier who served from Louisiana, but who lived later in Texas, filed for his pension from Texas. Some states have published indexes to their Confederate pensions. Typically, the indexes are available at the state archives or state historical society of the states granting the pension. Those same repositories usually hold the originals as well, so you can order a photocopy.

He Wore Blue

There is no consolidated index to the Compiled Military Service Record files for those who served with the Union. Indexes exist state by state only. In the Catalog, look for the state from which your ancestor served; next look for your ancestor's name in that state's list for the proper film number. Copy all information shown for your ancestor—unit, regiment, or anything else, exactly as it appears. That will lead you to either his original record (still in textual form) or to a series of microfilm that contains the file. If you do not find your ancestor but feel sure that he served, then check the surrounding states.

After you have located your ancestor and copied the information from the index, determine through the Catalog if the actual files have been microfilmed. Some of the Union service record files have been filmed, but others (depending upon the state from which the man served) are only available in their original form. You will have to view any unfilmed file personally, by ordering it online or by mail as previously described. Follow the Archives' instructions for submission of the form. If you order the file online, you can arrange for payment at the same time. For the fee schedule, go to www.archives.gov/research/order/fees.html.

If He Got a Pension

The chances are good that if he lived long enough, your Union Civil War ancestor applied for a federal pension. Five acts between 1862 and 1907 provided pensions based on Union service. The earlier acts provided for those who were disabled or killed. A widow, children, or a parent who could prove that an unmarried son contributed significantly to his or her support may have applied soon after the death of a soldier in service.

Tree Tips

When using the index, if you don't find the soldier under the name you expect, try variations. Benjamin Franklin Jackson may be listed as Benjamin, Benjamin Franklin, B. F., Frank, or Franklin. If he was known by his middle name, the names or initials may be reversed, such as Franklin B. or F. B.

To locate a Union pension file, consult National Archives micropublication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1881-1934. This index includes service for the Civil War and, in some instances, earlier war service by a Civil War veteran. Other entries in the same film series relate to service in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, and those who enlisted in the regular Army, Navy, and Marines before World War I. The index is arranged by surname, and then by state from which the soldier served. Be sure to take down all the information: You will need this whether ordering the file by mail or viewing it in person at the National Archives.

To order the pension file, use the same procedure as described for ordering Revolutionary War pension files. You can do it by mail on Form NATF-85, or online.

Some of the Civil War Union pension files are in the custody of the Veterans Administration. If that is the case, the National Archives will respond to your request by sending you the appropriate VA office address to which you must write.

Though you can get a Civil War Pension file with only a few pages for a smaller fee, don't take that route. Get the full file, using the fee schedule already mentioned. Otherwise you are likely to miss important information. The Civil War pension files are routinely 40, 50, 100 pages, or even more. If you get the shorter version, you save some money but may miss crucial clues. Perhaps other researchers of the family will chip in for the cost. The files are not copyrighted, so after you have them, they can be photocopied and distributed to those relatives who may have helped finance the cost.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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