USING WARTIME RECORDS TO RESEARCH YOUR
By Brian A. Brown
There are numerous resources available to research your ancestor’s service in the Union armed forces. The same problem that bedevils Confederate researchers will also trouble you – you have to identify the “right” ancestor from among multiple candidates with the same or similar names.
If you have not done so already, read the essay on researching Union ancestors using post-war records. In particular, note that you have to have some basic genealogical facts (such as birthplace, approximate age, and likely place of wartime residence) to identify the right ancestor, and to identify in which military unit (or units) he served. Hopefully, some of the research resources described in the essay on post-war Union records will pay off, and you will identify the right person, and know in which unit(s) he served.
Wartime Union records can be divided into several categories. Because record keeping is different for each of these categories, I will address each group separately.
The first, and by far the largest, share of Union troops served in “volunteer” units. These units were described by state: “The 36th Illinois Infantry Regiment” or “The 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment.” Lumped in with the volunteers are several miscellaneous categories which are not affiliated with any state, such as “United States Colored Troops,” “United States Volunteers” (Confederate prisoners who volunteered to go west to fight Indians); and “United States Veteran Volunteers.” All of these units share one characteristic in common – they all have compiled military service records (“CMSR’s”). The other two categories of Union troops are soldiers who served in the Regular US Army (units with only the letters “US” in the designation, such as the 12th US Infantry), and sailors and marines in the Navy and Marine Corps. No CMSRs were created for anyone in these latter categories. I will describe research into the Regular Army, the Navy, and the Marines later in the essay.
What is a CMSR? Starting in the 1880′s, the U.S. government realized that it would have to deal with a steadily increasing flow of pension applications from Union veterans. Researching a veteran’s service record (to verify eligibility for a pension) meant digging through stacks of “muster rolls,” which were lists of soldiers prepared every second month by each military unit, plus literally tons of other documents. To streamline this process, the government began an ambitious program of recopying muster roll entries pertaining to individual soldiers onto cards, then filing the cards, and other documents relating to that one soldier, into envelopes. The envelopes, each one relating to the service history of one soldier, would be filed in alphabetical order by military unit. In other words, all soldiers in the 36th Illinois would have their records filed as a set, in alphabetical order.
Keep in mind that if a soldier served in two or more military units, he will have multiple CMSR’s – and there is no guarantee that any CMSR will reveal any evidence about the existence of other CMSR’s. Also, as noted previously, the government did not prepare CMSR’s for several categories of veterans – those who served in the U.S. Regular Army, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Marine Corps.
So, how do you locate and obtain your ancestor’s CMSR? The key is to identify the military unit in which your ancestor served. If you do not have that information already, you can begin by checking the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/index.html) which is an index of Union military personnel. If you don’t know in which regiment your ancestor served, now is a good time to read the essay on using post-war records to research your Union ancestor!
Civil War service records are frequently devoid of personal data. If you are lucky, your ancestor’s CMSR might reveal:
- His place of birth;
- His age at enlistment (younger and older soldiers frequently lied a bit, so use this information with caution)
- His place of residence (which can be cautiously inferred from his place of enlistment – there was no requirement you had to live where you enlisted);
- His occupation;
- His physical description.
Usually, you will not obtain information about a soldier’s family in his CMSR. There are two exceptions: Union soldiers (except in the hectic first months of the war) usually filed out and signed “enlistment papers” when they enlisted. If a soldier was a minor, a parent or guardian would usually sign the enlistment papers to show consent for enlistment. Second, one will sometimes find “hospital bed cards” in a soldier’s CMSR, which will occasionally reveal the name and address of a next-of-kin.
CMSR’s can be obtained from the National Archives. The current price is $25.00 per file (and, as mentioned previously, a soldier may have several files!). Also, it takes several months for the National Archives to respond. If you are fortunate enough to visit the National Archives, copying the file yourself is a definite option, which will be much cheaper. If you order online, go to www.archives.gov and follow the instructions for ordering service records.
Good news! There are a number of alternatives to the cost and delay involved in ordering from the National Archives. First, CMSR’s for Union soldiers from a number of states have been microfilmed. If a record has been microfilmed, it can be rented at any LDS Family History Center for about $5.00 per roll of film. It can also be obtained at www.fold3.com, which has an annual fee, but which has free trials, and monthly fees starting at about $11.95 per month. Also, state archives for the states in question will have copies of the National Archives microfilm for their own states. Second, for many states, there exist bodies of records compiled by the state government during the war, which have records of the service of Union soldiers from that particular state, and which are separate and apart from the records held by the National Archives. One can, by consulting these state-maintained records, frequently obtain the equivalent of the CMSR, for much less cost or (sometimes) for free. Note that former Confederate states typically have purchased the CMSR for their Union soldiers, but usually possess no alternative state-level records for Union soldiers.
One “for pay” alternative is www.civilwardata.org. You can get a 7 day visitor’s pass for $10. The website includes published state roster data on almost all Union volunteers. Coverage depends on what information was published in the state’s roster or adjutant general’s report – you don’t get as much detail as you might get in a CMSR, but you do get the basic facts. On the Civil War Data homepage, click on the option for “database status”, then scroll down to determine what information is typically found in an entry for your state-of-interest. Civil War Data also has a pithy history on each Union military unit.
Here is a list of state records (and several non-state types of records). Many state archives provide inexpensive alternatives to ordering the CMSR, especially when the CMSR is not available on microfilm. If the word “microfilmed” appears, it means that the CMSR is available from the National Archives, from the LDS library, from fold3.com, or from the state archives in question.
ARIZONA Basically, ordering service records from the National Archives is your only option.
CALIFORNIA A summary of service records can be found in the published California roster (LDS library film #6118432). It is also available online, for free, in digitalized format, at familysearch.org. (Click on the link for “catalog” then search for the author’s name, Richard Orton). The published roster gives no personal data, and just a very brief synopsis of service records – the only other option is to order from the National Archives.
COLORADO. The LDS Family History library has a four roll collection of microfilms, containing an alphabetical card index to all Colorado volunteers. Each card gives name, rank, age, organization, when and where enrolled, by whom enrolled, when and where mustered, by whom mustered, and other information. The first roll is on microfilm #1862946, et seq.
CONNECTICUT. The LDS has filmed the published roster of Connecticut volunteers (film #6082893) plus it is available for free on familysearch.org. Search for the topic
“Connecticut – military records- Civil War” for an entry titled “Record of service of Connecticut men in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of the Rebellion.” As is true of many rosters, it gives little genealogical data (name, place of residence, and key service dates). The only other option is to order service records from the National Archives.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA. There is no option other than to order the CMSR from the National Archives.
ILLINOIS The Illinois on-line archives has wonderful resources, including very detailed information about Illinois volunteers. Go to:
http://www.sos.state.il.us/departments/archives/databases.html And it’s free!
INDIANA The LDS Family History library has a 44 microfilm roll collection of alphabetical cards summarizing the service history of Indiana volunteers. The first roll is # 1543599. Each card provides name of soldier, his military unit, date of enlistment, date of mustering in, where mustered and by whom, age, physical description, nativity, and occupation. In addition, a free index is available from http://indianadigitalarchives.org/ which provides very basic information about each soldier from Indiana.
IOWA. The published Iowa roster is available on film from the LDS Family History Library. The first roll of film is #987646 – it is also available on microfiche, which may be a bit cheaper. The roster gives name, unit, service dates, plus age and place of birth.
KANSAS. The Kansas State Archives has an online, searchable database titled “Kansas State Adjutant General’s report, 1861-1865.” It is hard to find on the www.kshs.org web page – you may have to google it. It provides only name, residence, military unit, and whether the Kansas archives have a copy of the enlistment papers on file. Short of visiting the archives in Topeka, or ordering the CMSR from the National Archives, the main other resource is www.civilwardata.com, which has basic information on all Union volunteers from Kansas.
MAINE There is a huge, free online set of Maine muster rolls at www.familysearch.org. Click on the button for “catalog” at the home page, then look in the catalog under “Maine – military records”, Look for an entry titled “Civil War Military Rolls, Maine Volunteers, 1861-1866.” Click on this entry. Click on the option to view online (you will have to sign in with familysearch.org, but registering and creating an account is free.) You will need to know which unit your ancestor served in – and be prepared to dig a bit – the records contain thousands of pages of muster rolls and other original documents, arranged by unit. Find your ancestor’s regiment and company, and start browsing!
MASSACHUSETTS The published Massachusetts roster is on 8 microfilm rolls, starting with LDS film number 237370. The better resource is probably civilwardata.org, which has the information from the published roster on-line. Typically, besides providing service data, an entry includes place of residence, age, and occupation.
MICHIGAN. The LDS library has a sixteen microfilm roll set of descriptive books (starts with film # 915346). The first couple of rolls are an index – skip it and use the free online index at the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System). The last couple of rolls include volunteers from Michigan who enlisted in units from other states. A published roster is available on six rolls of film (starting with #915948 ) but the descriptive books offer more complete information, and should be used if available.
MINNESOTA. There is a published roster, which the LDS has on film roll #1036220.
NEW HAMPSHIRE. The best resource for New Hampshire research is to consult the published state roster. It provides fairly good remarks about events in a soldier’s service record, plus age, residence and (sometimes) residence in the 1890′s, when the roster was prepared. It is available from the LDS (microfilm #1697872). The LDS has an alphabetical card index to New Hampshire’s volunteers (the first microfilm number is #1001781). Civilwardata.com has information taken from the aforesaid roster online.
NEW JERSEY. There is a published roster which gives very little other than names and dates of service – see LDS microfilm number 6045830. The better source is a set of descriptive books, on 8 rolls of film starting with #579854. Note that roll #579861 is a continuation of this series, but is indexed separately.
NEW MEXICO. Microfilmed
NEW YORK. New York has several good resources. First, on Ancestry.com, there are “New York Muster Roll Abstracts 1861-1900″, which contains a summary of information found in the service records of New York volunteers. Be alert for multiple entries on the same individual. Next, there are the “New York Town Clerk’s Registers of Men Who Served in the Civil War”, which is also on Ancestry. The registers are not complete – records for some cities are missing, and many who enlisted early in the war are not mentioned. But if you find your ancestor in the Town Clerk’s Registers, you are likely to find such things as his place and date of birth (or at least age), parent’s names, mother’s maiden name (!), occupation, and key information about his service history. The other good source for New York is civilwardata.com, mentioned above, which summarizes published roster data (i.e. it gives basic service dates plus age for each New York volunteer).
NORTH CAROLINA. Microfilmed.
NORTH DAKOTA. Microfilmed. South Dakota and North Dakota records are combined into a single set of CMSRs for the “Dakota Territory.”
OHIO. Ohio has published a reasonably good roster. The Arkansas History Commission has a complete set, plus it can be ordered from the LDS library on film (the first roll number is 924017) or on microfiche. In addition, the LDS has filmed a huge collection of muster-in and muster-out rolls (and other assorted rolls) for all Ohio regiments. For three year regiments, the collection is 365 rolls of film, starting with roll 212908. For three month regiments, there is a separate nine roll set, starting with roll #213031. Coverage in either set is variable – some regiments are much better documented than others.
PENNSYLVANIA. The best source is a free on-line card index which usually provides a wealth of information. Go to http://www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us/ The cards are alphabetical, but be sure to look for the name both with and without a middle initial.
RHODE ISLAND. Enlistment papers for soldiers in some regiments, starting in 1862, are available on microfilm starting with film number 2033186. Descriptive rolls of Rhode Island troops are on seven microfilm rolls starting with film number 1976214.
SOUTH CAROLINA. There were no white Union military units organized from South Carolina. For black military units, see the remarks about U.S. Colored Troops, below.
SOUTH DAKOTA Microfilmed. South Dakota and North Dakota records are combined into a single set of CMSRs for the “Dakota Territory.”
UTAH. Microfilmed. (The CMSR’s for Utah, while they have been filmed, are very fragmentary and provide little useful information).
VERMONT. The best source is the absolutely wonderful website www.vermontcivilwar.org, which contains summaries of the service of Union soldiers from Vermont, plus mountains of other information.
VIRGINIA. Microfilmed. Note that some sources classify regiments differently from the National Archives, and will group Union troops from Virginia with the West Virginia units.
WEST VIRGINIA. Microfilmed.
WASHINGTON (STATE). Alas, there are no good resources available, other than ordering the service records from the National Archives.
WISCONSIN. The LDS library has a set of 32 microfilm rolls (starting with roll #1311667) which contains two separate sets of “descriptive books” of Wisconsin volunteers. In other words, the first 10 or so rolls of film contain information about all Wisconsin volunteers, and the last 22 rolls also contain information – slightly different information – about the Wisconsin volunteers. The films are in order by military unit, so use the Civil War Solders & Sailors System, described above, as an index.
US COLORED TROOPS. Microfilmed. At this writing, they are not entirely online at Fold3.com, but this should be accomplished in the near future.
UNITED STATES VOLUNTEERS. These are Confederates who volunteered to join the Union forces to get out of prison camps, and were sent west to fight Indians. Microfilmed.
UNITED STATES REGULAR ARMY. These are the military units with the words “U.S.” in their designation – the 4th U.S. Infantry, for example. There are no compiled service records! The two sources are:
(a) the Registers of Enlistment. These are in rough chronological order, broken down into categories by the first initial of the surname. They provide name, enlistment date, description, age, occupation, place of birth, identify to which unit he was assigned, and contain remarks about subsequent events in a soldier’s career. Someone who re-enlisted will have a second entry in the Registers of Enlistment. The Registers are on Ancestry.com (searchable), they are free on familysearch.org (browse, but not search), and are available at the Arkansas History Commission on microfilm.
(b) The second source for regular army records are the monthly returns. The LDS has these on film, and Ancestry.com is starting to put them on line. There are separate sets of returns for each U.S. Army regiment, plus “post returns” for each station. The returns have to be scanned, which is a little tedious since they are sometimes hard to read. One would have to know, of course, which unit your ancestor was in and a range of dates in which he served. A soldier is only mentioned if he is absent, or has some significant change in his status.
UNITED STATES NAVY. There are no CMSR’s for the navy. The reports of “United States, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855-1891″ are on familysearch.org. Click on “browse by locations” at the bottom of the home page, then click the filter to show just military records. The Enlistment Rendezvous returns show date and place of enlistment, age, place of birth, occupation, and description. Finding out the identity of ships on which he served will frequently require checking his pension file. US Navy research is difficult.
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS There are no CMSR’s for the marines. Ancestry.com has USMC muster rolls from 1798 to 1940 online.
RESEARCHING THE REGIMENT
In order to really research your Union ancestor’s participation in the Civil War, you not only need to research his individual records, but also to learn what his regiment did during the war. For a Union ancestor, the best printed source is Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, which contains a thumbnail sketch of every Union military unit. The Arkansas History Commission has a copy, as do most larger libraries. Googling your ancestor’s regiment will frequently find information on the Internet, information often taken from the Compendium. Keep in mind that Dyer’s is like a travelogue, it shows places where the regiment was located on a particular date, and will not necessarily distinguish between camping at a particular location and fighting at a particular location. One of the appendices to Dyer’s huge work does, however, list battles in chronological order by state, and one can cross check your ancestor’s regiment’s movements against this list of battles.
Another good source is William Fox’s “Regimental Losses the American Civil War.” It is online at this point, plus the Arkansas History Commission has it (as do most large libraries). Fox provides a full page of information on each of 300 Union regiments that saw the most combat, plus provides at least some information on virtually all Union units.
Want to dig further? The Arkansas History Commission has the (huge) set of books known as the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” and the (huge) supplement to these records. Most larger libraries would have a set. Using the Official Records is a bit awkward – the index tells you only which volume to look in – one has to consult the volume index to find the right page. The Official Records contains military correspondence, orders, and battle reports. The supplement, published in the 1990′s, contains many more volumes of similar documents which were left out of the original Official Records, plus “records of events” of individual units. The records of events were copied from muster rolls and other documents prepared by your ancestor’s regiment, and can provide interesting details on the day-to-day activities of a unit.