The U.S. Civil War ended on May 13th, 1865 – but the numerous records created by the War Between the States still provide a glimpse into the lives of those who served.
If you had family in the US in the mid-19th century than there is a very good likelihood that some of your own ancestors served in this pivotal conflict. In this article we’ve outlined several free online databases that will help you discover their stories.
Before searching for a Civil War ancestor in the following free record collections, ask yourself:
–What do I know about the Civil War? Refreshing your memory can go a long way toward helping you find the records you need. We love this FAQ sheet for a quick breakdown.
–What age would my ancestor have been when the Civil War started in 1861? Would they have been too young or old to serve? It is good to know that a wide variety of men (and women) served. Some were ridiculously young, and others were much older than we would expect to see today.
–What was my ancestor’s full name (not a nickname)? You will need first, last and preferably the middle name (or at least the initial) to differentiate them from others with similar monikers.
–Are there common misspellings of the first name or surname I should search for (ie Anderson, Andersen or John, Jon)? Remember that it is very common to make mistakes when recording data, especially during a time in history when people were not all that concerned with spelling rules. Many people are also listed in military service databases by only their first initial or by a short version of a common name (ie J. Scott instead of James Scott or Wm. Jones instead of William Jones). Search for these as well.
–What state did my ancestor live in? Would they have fought for the North or the South? See this infographic from the National Archives for a map of which side states were on. This page from FamilySearch also has a helpful breakdown of state affiliations in addition to a wealth of other information.
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–Could I have had a female family member who served in some way? You might be surprised by how many did. Perhaps your great great grandmother was a nurse or a spy or your great aunt dressed in men’s clothing and fought alongside her brothers.
–Do I have any other information that could help me? Family stories, clues in census records (the 1910 census asked about service in the Civil War–third line from last) and other genealogy documents can hold clues that will help you in your journey. Check what you might have first and keep it handy.
Once you have some basic facts to start with, take a look at the sites below to start your research. Keep in mind that some of the these databases (including the first) are only indexes to much more detailed records. To access those you will need to follow the instructions provided on the website.
Places to Find Free Civil War Records
1. Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System from the National Park Service: This is the place to start, especially if you are unsure if your ancestor served. Here you will find an index of 6.3 million records from those who fought for both the Confederacy and the Union–including name, rank and the unit in which they served.
It helps here to know the state they may have come from, as well as which side they fought for. The search function (found under the Soldiers box on the main page) defaults to Union and, unless you select Confederacy, it will not search those records.
This site will also allow you to research African American sailors, cemeteries that hold Civil War veterans, prisoners and much more. The full service records are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration.
2. Civil War Record Databases from FamilySearch: FamilySearch provides access to a wide variety of Civil War databases on their website, all free of charge. Some of this information can be obtained from the National Park Service link above but other records can only easily be searched free of charge on their site.
Due to their current partnership with Ancestry.com, some of the records link off-site to Fold3 for actual scanned abstracts and additional original files.
Fold3 membership does usually provide a good value for those who will be doing research on military service members, so their rates may be worth checking out. But before signing up for a paid membership on Fold3 do be aware that the image you are paying to access may simply be a scanned file containing the same information as in the FamilySearch index. This record still valuable, and having originals is always recommended, but if you are trying to save money it may not be absolutely necessary. Also, many of the original Civil War service records have not yet been digitized. Read the description of any collection carefully before deciding if it is worth paying for.
3. Past Voices: We love this collection because it contains hundreds of actual letters from the Civil War era, including those to and from soldiers. The site is not the easiest to navigate though so you may want to get familiar with your browser’s “find” function if you are looking for a specific individual.
Here’s a short excerpt from a letter by James Carter Maine in 1864:
I think Wellington acted very foolish in taking the course he did. It would have been much better for him to have gone and reported himself like a man, and I have not the least doubt but that he would have been exempted. We have our quota and a surplus in Pembroke so we are clear of the draft.
You speak of your revolver and swords and the old musket that my Grandfather carried in the old Revolutionary War. It is more than one hundred years old, has been in two wars and is good for another. I think you and E. would fight a great battle, rather think you would take Richmond before soon if you was out there.
Brother Lewis is home on furlough sick from the effects of a sunstroke. He is some better. Allen Brown is also home on furlough sick from the same cause. He is getting quite smart again.
4. The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies: This must-read collection of primary source material from the Civil War can be accessed online through Ohio State University and a variety of other sources, including the Library of Congress. It contains a wealth of fascinating information, and many, many names.
According to OSU:
The reports contained in the Official Records are those of the principal leaders who fought the battles and then wrote their assessments days, weeks, and sometimes months later. The Official Records are thus the eyewitness accounts of the veterans themselves.
Impetus for publishing the Official Records came from Union General-in-Chief Henry Wager Halleck. Apparently overwhelmed by the task of writing his 1863 annual report to Congress, Halleck recommended to the Committee on Military Affairs the collection and publication of official documents and reports on all Civil War operations.
Officially titled, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, the Official Records are compiled in 127 volumes, plus a General Index and accompanying Atlas.
For even more records you might like to read about the 1890 Census of Union Veterans and Widows for how to access this often overlooked special schedule, or check out this how-to on using the Digital Public Library of America, which has numerous free Civil War records.
Image: “President Lincoln on battle-field of Antietam, October, 1862” Library of Congress
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