USING POST – WAR RECORDS TO RESEARCH YOUR
By Brian A. Brown
If you are trying to research a Union ancestor, you face the same initial problem that a Confederate researcher encounters: There are a lot of individuals with the same or similar names. Thus, before beginning research into a Union ancestor, you should do some basic genealogy to learn about your Civil War ancestor. Here is a list of useful facts to know – you don’t need all of this information, but the more you know the easier your task will be! Most of these facts can be ascertained from finding you ancestor in just one or two censuses (or, hopefully, Aunt Matilda will have done some genealogy already).
– His name. A middle initial is very helpful;
– Place of birth (at least a state or nation of birth);
– Approximate year of birth;
– Place of residence at the time of the Civil War (at least know which state – if you can identify a specific town or county, even better).
– Place(s) – at least states – of post-war residence;
– Name of wife.
– At least approximate year of death (exact date works better);
– Place (at least state) of death.
I am going to assume that I am researching a Union soldier who was born in Illinois but was probably living in Iowa at the time of the war. He was named Charles Johnson. I know he lived postwar in Nebraska, and died about 1920 in Washington State. His wife was Ellen. I will use this hypothetical individual to explore the various research strategies and resources to pursue a Union veteran.
The first thing I notice was that he was “probably” living in Iowa. Even if you are sure he was living in Iowa, there was no rule that prohibited him from going home to Illinois (or anyplace else) to enlist. Start with the assumption that he was going to enlist in Iowa, but be alert for the possibility he enlisted elsewhere.
You can start by compiling a master list of “Charles Johnsons” is to search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, found online at http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/. Click on the button for “soldiers” and type “Charles Johnson”, Union and Iowa in the appropriate blanks. There were 18 Charles Johnsons from Iowa and 975 Charles Johnsons enlisted in all the Union forces. I decide to focus on the 18 from Iowa, so I make a list of their units. Unfortunately, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System provides no information about individuals – other than name and military unit. I will have to use other resources to eliminate suspects. I will keep in mind, for the moment, that there are 957 other Charles Johnsons, and just focus on the 18 from Iowa.
The first place to look is a free on-line database of Union veteran’s graves, created by the Sons of Union Veterans. You can find it at http://www.suvcwdb.org/home/search.php?action=search You can search by not only name, but you can add state of burial, state of service, etc. Try different combinations with Charles Johnson (i.e. look for all Charles Johnsons buried in Washington State, then look for all Charles Johnsons who served in Iowa units, regardless of place of burial). An entry will typically provide name, military unit(s) in which he served, name of cemetery, usually date of death, sometimes date of birth. Sometimes other information is included. If I find his entry – wonderful! But, if not, I want to take some notes before moving on. Even if the Charles Johnsons that I found were not the right guy, I take a few notes so I will not find myself later researching the wrong person. For example, on my notepad I write “Charles Johnson, died 6/12/14 in Colorado – wrong state and date of death – this guy served in Company G, 12th Iowa Infantry.” Later on, when my research turns up a Charles Johnson in the 12th Iowa Infantry, I will not be misled or distracted.
The next place I would want to go is the alphabetical index to Union Civil War pensions. Its formal name is “T288 – General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 “. It is available at the National Archives, at the Arkansas History Commission, through the LDS microfilm rental program, or on www.ancestry.com where it is called Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. (IMPORTANT: I have described the various online research sources, such as Ancestry, Fold3.com, and Familysearch, in my research essays on Confederate sources – to avoid redundancy, I will not repeat this information – please look at the essays on Confederate research for further information on how to access these online resources). The alphabetical index is, well, alphabetical. Each card provides a veteran’s name, any alias he might have used, a list of the military units in which he served, his date of application for an invalid (disabled) pension, his application number, his certificate number and usually the state where he was living when he applied. If a widow applied for a widow’s pension, the card will provide her name, her state of residence at the time of the application, a date, her application number, and her certificate number. Even if I don’t find the right Charles Johnson, I am going to take notes and (hopefully) eliminate some suspects. Keep in mind that Charles Johnson could be listed in this pension index either with or without a middle initial – so be sure to look for his name listed both ways.
Still can’t find him? I would next try the 1890 veterans’ census. It only exists for some states (basically, states falling alphabetically between Kentucky and Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia). The rest of it has been lost or destroyed. This census provides the veteran’s name, military unit, dates of service and usually a statement of any disability that he incurred. If the veteran died before 1890, his widow’s name is listed. Obviously, if there are indications that the veteran (or his widow) was living in a state for which the 1890 veterans’ census schedules no longer survive, this step can be skipped, although it might still be useful to consult the 1890 veterans census if only to eliminate other suspects. The 1890 veterans census is now well-indexed, and is available at the Arkansas History Commission, at www.Ancestry.com (with a very good index), or through the LDS microfilm rental program.
Another much under-utilized resource is the records of the National Homes For Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 which are available on Ancestry.com. These records contain information about Union Civil War veterans (and veterans from other periods of US history) who entered a network of veterans’ home sponsored by the federal government. Each entry provides a statement of the veterans’ military service (in which unit or units he served, and what dates); a statement of any disability (not necessarily service related); physical description; biographical information (place of birth, age, occupation, place of post-war residence and next-of-kin); his pension number; and his history in the home. Keep in mind that a veteran may have entered several different homes, and that there may be several different records (one for each home) pertaining to a single veteran. Veterans tended to come and go from these homes – each record gives the dates of admission, to which homes he was admitted, his dates of discharge (usually described with the abbreviation “O.R.” which means he was discharged from the home at his “own request”). If the veteran died in the home, the date and cause of his death will be stated, burial information may be provided (each home has an associated national cemetery) and the disposition of his personal effects (usually sent to a relative, whose name, address and relationship is frequently disclosed). Once again, take notes of any soldier you find named “Charles Johnson”, even if only to eliminate a suspect!
There is one other national-coverage set of records which is available on http://www.fold3.com/. These records are only described as the “Civil War Pension Index” or as “the Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index”. This is a different pension index from the one described previously – its technical name is the “Organizational Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900″. The index cards were originally not in alphabetical order, but were in order by military unit – all the soldiers in Company A of the 36th Illinois Infantry Regiment are grouped together. In Fold3, of course, thanks to the wonders of computer technology, one can search these cards by name or by military unit. The cards lack much of the information found in the alphabetical index described above (i.e no name is stated for the soldier’s widow, nor does the card identify the state from which the veteran submitted his pension application) but this index does have a few advantages. First, the cards usually state the place and date of a veteran’s death. This can be incredibly useful in identifying the right “Charles Johnson”. Second, if one cannot find a pension in the alphabetical index, the frequent culprit will be a misspelled or misindexed name. The organizational index allows you to search by military unit, and look at all members of Company A of the 36th Illinois. If “Charles Johnson” is misspelled as “Charles Johnsen”, you should nevertheless be able to find him in the organizational index, then use the new spelling information to recheck the alphabetical index.
Next, consider whether state archives would have resources. No state in the former Confederate states extended benefits to former Union soldiers, but a number of states outside the Confederacy did do so. The state in which to research is the state (or states) of your ancestor’s post-war residence. Here is a sample of some of the more useful resources which are presently available on-line:
Illinois: The excellent online archives site for Illinois has a constantly growing number of databases, including an index of veterans admitted to the Illinois State Veterans’ Home (the actual applications for admission, and other documents, are available at the Illinois State Archives).
Indiana: Another good online database, provided by the Indiana State Archives, includes an index to its state veterans’ home. Actual home applications can be obtained from the archives.
Iowa: An index to veterans’ burials is on-line at Ancestry.com. The 1895 state census included information about Civil War service, and it is also available at Ancestry.com.
Kansas: State censuses, taken in 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915 and 1925, listed the military unit in which a veteran served. These are available on-line at Ancestry.com.
Nebraska: There is a directory of veterans who resided in Nebraska in 1891, available online at Ancestry.com.
Pennsylvania: Ancestry.com has a huge collection of Pennsylvania Veterans Burial Cards (i.e. veterans who were buried in Pennsylvania) on line. The York County Historical Society has a free online (and highly detailed) database of Civil War soldiers with ties to York County.
Vermont: What can I say? www.Vermontcivilwar.org is the most superb state-level resource on the internet, with literally tons of information.
Washington: The online records of the state archives include scanned applications for admission to the state veterans’ home, which are absolutely full of biographical information.
Another free, online resource is www.familysearch.org. Click in the lower left hand corner of the introductory screen to browse records “by location”, and click on “USA, Canada, and Mexico.” There are hundreds of resources, but click on the link, on the left under the word “collections” for “military records”. The most relevant resource currently online (and, I might point out, this collection is expanding rapidly) is the Index to “United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards”. Cards give name, pension certificate number, military unit, and record quarterly payments. Many cards indicated the date (or at least year) of a veterans’ death, and some indicate the name of a widow or other survivor. If I am still trying to locate the right Charles Johnson, this is a good resource to at least eliminate a few more suspects.
The LDS has numerous microfilmed resources available for rental from any LDS Family History Center (if you have not figured it out by this point – I will simply come out and say it: there are more resources available in regard to Union veterans than Confederate veterans). Here is a sample of some of the most useful resources (if you are looking in the LDS library catalog, look under Arkansas (or whatever state), then look at entries for military records to find these resources):
Iowa: The LDS library also has a 69 microfilm roll collection of GAR records (the Grand Army of the Republic was a veterans’ organization) which contains, for many individuals, extensive biographic information.
Kansas: The 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915, and 1925 state censuses had questions about military service. Of these, the LDS collection currently includes the 1895 census.
Maine: Burial records for veterans buried in Maine or on a 15 roll set of microfilms, which contain alphabetically arranged index cards – with lots of info.
Michigan – The “Historical Register of Inhabitants” provides a 10 roll summary of veterans (and their wives) who lived in the state veterans’ home. The applications for admission themselves are in a separate 75 roll collection of microfilms. There is a separate 90 microfilm roll of “Record of Posts”, providing information Michigan residents who were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, including an index.
Minnesota: State censuses for 1885, 1895 and 1905 indicate whether an individual had served in the Union military forces.
Ohio- there is an 8 microfilm roll of admission records to the Ohio State Soldiers and Sailors Home, plus an alphabetical 92 roll card index to veterans buried in Ohio (which includes considerable biographical information).
Rhode Island – The 1905 state census inquired whether a person had served in the Civil War.
United States – Under the heading “United States”, and various “miliary records” subheadings, one can find the various pension indexes mentioned above, plus records of the U S veterans homes (these are the same pension home records that ancestry.com has, but they are not indexed).
Wisconsin – The 1885 state census included information about Civil War service.
Finally, the ultimate resource that researchers usually order is the U.S. pension, which the veteran or his widow may have received. As may already be clear, there are lots of records and resources available that will allow you to construct a detailed picture of your ancestor’s life and his service history, without ordering the pension. U.S. pensions are expensive. The National Archives will send you 8 pages from his pension file for $25.00 – they try to select 8 pages with good genealogical information. Unfortunately, if you ordre just the $25.00 version, you will spend the rest of your life worrying about what you missed. If you order the whole file, it costs $75.00 for the first 100 pages, plus 65 cents for each extra page. Go to the National Archives’ web page (www.archives.gov) where one can either download NATF Form 85, or submit an online order. Be prepared to wait quite a while for the pension to be copied and delivered to you.
There are other options to obtain the pension file. A VERY SMALL percentage of widow’s pension applications (currently around 2%) are now available on http://www.fold3.com/. There are some private genealogical companies that will copy your ancestor’s file in the National Archives for you. They are not much cheaper, but they are faster than the National Archives. Obviously, if you happen to be in Washington DC and have a little time, you can visit the National Archives and order the file yourself.
The point of this is that one can usually identify the “right” Charles Johnson, and put together a fairly comprehensive history of a Civil War soldier’s life and service history using on-line resources without spending a lot of money. While many of the resources referenced above (such as Ancestry and Fold3.com) may be somewhat pricey, it is usually possible to find a friend who subscribes, or join the local genealogical society, and to get access that way. Both Ancestry and Fold3.com will sometimes offer special deals, introductory offers, etc. which can prove useful. If you are deeply into genealogy, a subscription to one or both of these resources may be a good investment, but if you only want to spend an hour or two looking it your great-grandfather’s Civil War record, there are reasonably priced alternatives.