When I’m out talking about my book, The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War, I am often asked how someone should go about doing research on an ancestor that may have served in the Civil War. Sometimes that comes up because folks have conflicting or misinterpreted information they have found online (such as not realizing that there was a 1st Florida Cavalry in both the Union and Confederate Armies) and sometimes because they are new and find it difficult to deal with the incredible variation of name spellings that can make finding an ancestor a challenge. Or they’ve inherited information on an ancestor and would like to actually find proof and understand the totality of experience better. It can be challenging, so I hope in the next two posts to help you develop a plan to find your ancestor and develop a rich understanding of his experience in the war. There will be a summary at the end of both posts for those who don’t like to read much.
Anyone who has done genealogical research knows that primary records are not completely accurate and spelling was a creative endeavor. With the first, while they may not be perfect they can be compared to other records to sort through the discrepancies. Be sure to document all of the sources and how they may conflict. Believe me, I understand how hard that can be when you are in the glow of finding an ancestor, but you will regret not doing it while you have all of the resources in front of you. I speak from painful experience here. Don’t skimp on this and don’t take someone else’s word as to the facts. Even if they are family. Do your own research, analysis and documentation.
Spelling is a whole other issue. Folks back in the mid-19th century who may not have gone to school beyond the minimum may have been able to read and write but you may need to read it phonetically because that’s how they often spelled it. If you say it out loud, your ear may be able to hear what your brain is struggling with. This applies for both trying to read a badly misspelled name and for alternative name searches.
Before you start pouring through military indexes do your research on where they were in 1860. Census and land records are the most useful and be sure to make a note on neighbors in both. That may be helpful if you wind up with more than one listing with the same name, from the same general area, since men from a community sometimes enlisted together. Also, complete research on the entire family. Siblings are important to know for a variety of genealogical reasons. Brothers may have joined together, as well as brothers-in-law. All of these are important because muster roll records were not consistent in what they recorded. Some have ages and birth information, some don’t. Some have full names, some may only have initials. The more information you have on the family and community, the better chance you will have to weed through the options. And if your ancestor was in northwest Florida (or southeastern Alabama) remember to check in both Confederate and Union indexes. The 1st Florida Union Cavalry fielded 704 men from the panhandle and southeastern Alabama during the war and a good number of those men served in the Confederate Army before joining the Union.
Which brings me to indexes online. These are wonderful resources. Some are part of pay sites such as Ancestry, some are free and comprehensive and some are the work of interested descendants and may only cover a company in one regiment. The information will vary significantly depending on the source of the index, and the quality will as well. Usually you will find the name as listed in the muster roll, enlistment and discharge/desertion dates, maybe the age at enlistment, and maybe the county where they were enlisted. The problems with using these exclusively can only be known if you actually go to the muster roll for the name you’ve found you think is your ancestor and go card by card. A couple of examples might be helpful here.
Desertion rates were really high in the Confederacy beginning in 1863. An index may not provide any information on a date the man left the service because it isn’t recorded. But if you go to the actual muster roll and go through the cards you might see that he was present through the quarter ending 31 December 1863 and then he is listed as having deserted (with no date) on the next quarter card ending 31 March 1864. Or worse, the cards just end and no reference is made to what happened to him. While you might not have an exact desertion date, because they may not have known or failed to record it, you will know he deserted (or possibly died) sometime between 1 January 1864 and 31 March 1864, or in the 1st quarter that is missing in the records. While you are perusing the cards you can record any other information contained on any of the cards that might be pertinent in determining if this is your ancestor. There can be wonderful tidbits among the cards that never make indexes. I’ve also seen examples of desertion dates being recorded but when I went to the cards I found they returned (either voluntarily or by force) at a later date and stayed or deserted again. So, use the indexes to make a list of all the possibilities for your ancestor and then actually go to the muster roll to weed through them. It will also help you put together a timeline that will identify possible battles and events he experienced.
Which brings me to accessing the actual cards. The best online source, in my opinion, is Fold3.com. While they don’t have every Civil War regiment available yet, they are adding regularly and some of the other resources can be helpful. It is a pay site, however, local libraries are adding this to their online resources available. I know that Santa Rosa County libraries have it available and I believe Baker Block Museum in Baker is looking to add it if they haven’t already. I am not sure about Escambia, Walton, Holmes or any of the other northwest Florida counties. Call and ask them and find out if you have to go to the library or whether you can access from your home with a library card.
Hopefully, you now have one set of muster roll cards for your ancestor. Now the fun begins. Join me in two weeks for the rest of the story.
- Find your ancestor in the 1860 census. Fill in his siblings and in-laws and make a note of men around your ancestor who were likely an age to join or be drafted (ages 13-70 with most between 18-55).
- Search online indexes for any possible matches in the general area where your ancestor lived.
- Research those units and determine if any recruited or drafted around where your ancestor lived. This will likely narrow your possibilities but don’t discard the others just yet.
- Go through the muster roll cards for any men who passed through 2 and 3 above and record info. If the entry is just initials for given name, look for matches from men from his extended family or community. Look for exact matches for age, birth place, county of residence, etc, and if you find any; rejoice!
- If your ancestor was in the Florida panhandle or southeastern Alabama and his Confederate record just ends, be sure to check to see if he joined the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers or whether his regiment was consolidated with another one that may have additional records.
- Hopefully, this yields you one excellent match. If you have more than one, go back through the cards and really focus on every little detail and again look for men from the family and community to help narrow it further.
- The flag at the top is the 1861 State Flag of Florida, commissioned by an act of the Florida Assembly in February 1861 to provide for a uniform flag for the State. See more info at Florida Memory.
- Confederate Research Sources: A Guide to Archive Collections, 2nd edition; by James C. Neagles, Ancestry Inc.
- How to Do Civil War Research; by Richard A. Sauers, Da Capo Press.
- The Civil War Research Guide; by Stephen McManus, Donald Thompson, Thomas Churchill, Stackpole Books.
- Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor: A Complete Guide to Tracking Down Your Ancestors’ Civil War Adventures, North and South; by Bertram Hawthorne Groene, John F. Blair Publisher.