Putting Detail to Your Ancestor’s Service in the Civil War

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season of peace, joy, family, giving and eating. We celebrate Christmas in our household and it was full of talking, laughing, eating and playing. My Mom is helping me plan and design a memorial, quilted wall-hanging for my 7 direct ancestors and I will add one of my collateral ancestors to give me 8 blocks. I’m considering doing two to get a bit closer to memorializing all of the ancestors I’ve identified who fought in the War but sometimes it is best to focus and not get ahead of myself. I am not the fastest quilter and this time I’m planning to machine quilt which will be a new experience for me. New can be a challenge so I plan to take it slow and practice before getting down to the final wall-hanging.

But the talking and planning have reminded me of how much detail I have put to my ancestors who served and how often I am asked how in the world I know so much detail. Some of it is luck because sometimes, especially late in the War, documentation became incredibly thin. But some is working both the genealogy and the history of the War to put together as accurate a picture of each of their experiences as I can at this point in time. I will do my best to share the methods of that journey so you can hopefully replicate it for your ancestors.


Alabama Troops in Pensacola 1861-62

First Things First

Find a good index of men who served in the War and search on his full name, his initials, and just his last name (use Soundex and also search for alternate spellings of both names). Make a list of the names that come up that seem like a possibility. Now you need to like at the compiled service records for each and eliminate those that can’t be your ancestor. Do that by looking at the details on the cards. Age, where he joined, if a relative also joined the same unit, a death date if your ancestor lived to a ripe old age is a good elimination point. Take all of these points together to sort through this phase. Look for anything that would confirm you have the right set of cards or the wrong set. This is important because not every John Smith in Santa Rosa County, FL joined a regiment that formed in Santa Rosa or even in Florida and sometimes they were recorded as J. E. and not John or Smyth instead of Smith. Just using an index, depending on the information included in it, may lead you to wrong assumptions. The best online place to review compiled service records is www.fold3.com. The best offline place is the State Archives in Tallahassee but some local libraries and university libraries have some of the microfilms or subscribe to Fold3 so you can access without joining yourself. At Fold3 you can download the individual cards and study them in detail at your leisure. If you have a number for research, it is a good short-term investment.

Besides using the cards to determine if you have the right man, the compiled service records can give you a fair amount of detail on his record with the military. Every set is somewhat different but you can often find details on sickness while in the service, wounds, battles in which they were engaged, whether they went AWOL and whether they came back and whether they were in multiple regiments. This last is important in Confederate service because the Confederacy was constantly consolidating regiments as the War progressed. This information will be in the small print at the bottom of the card. Sometimes records will appear in both regiments so if there was a consolidation, and there were quite a few in Florida regiments, it is worth looking in both regiments. For instance, the 15th Confederate Cavalry was a consolidation of a number of regiments and many of the men have records in both their original unit and in the 15th Confederate.


Next Step

I would recommend after you settle on one that you believe is your ancestor that you keep a good record of the above process because when you get to some of the upcoming steps you may still find you have the wrong records. I have a nice collection of those T-shirts. I’m always threatening to have one made that says, “I’ve been wrong a few times and I’m learning to recover.” If you aren’t willing to accept that you made the wrong assumption or followed the wrong rabbit trail, you will never have the best family tree possible. If you haven’t settled on one best choice, you will need to research all of them in hopes of finding something that helps you include or exclude.

I would suggest the next move is trying to locate a pension for one or all of your remaining possibles. Remember the National Archives only holds the pensions for U.S. soldiers. Confederate men filed for pensions through the states they were living in at the time they filed. So, if your ancestor fought in the Confederate Florida regiment and then moved to Coffee Co, AL to live with one of his children in his old age, you should really check both states for a pension. If his wife outlived him, look for a widow’s pension. Read every page once you find one. There can be all kinds of details in these records. An index is NOT enough. Many states now have the entire set of pages online. Florida Memory has Florida Confederate pensions and Alabama’s are on Ancestry and FamilySearch. Some of the detail in these may provide information beyond his military record.

1st FL hdcvrAn example from my own research may help illuminate this point. My ancestor who served in the 1st Florida Union Cavalry died just before the war ended. His wife filed for a widow’s pension and received it. I sent to the National Archives for a copy and in really reading and transcribing it I snapped to something in the document that cleared up a family mystery. Her first child wasn’t her husband’s. The child was with her mother in 1850, before she married her husband, but there had always been some in the family who wanted to believe that the first child was his and then they married. But the federal application asked “How many children did you have with the serviceman” and she listed all but her first child. That is pretty clear.

If you are lucky you will find a set of compiled service records with a pension that complements and matches it. The names match, where they enlisted makes sense either through where they lived at the time (including surrounding counties) or where their family was located, and how and when they left service makes sense. Again if they are listed as dying in service but you’ve found them in the census after the war or all their children were born after the war, you might reconsider your choice.  Any conflicts should be resolved or you draft an explanation of why you have made the decision you made.  What sources and data did you use to reach your decision?

Create a Detailed Timeline

Now create a timeline of all you know about your ancestor. Start at birth and move through death. Focus on their service and extract every little detail that can be dated specifically or with a date range. If the card indicates they were present during the Battle of Fredericksburg, put the dates of the battle down. Now you turn to history for help. There are so many excellent books that cover specific battles and many that cover the history of a regiment or the brigade or division the regiment was in. Locate an online, searchable copy of the Official Records and determine the structure the regiment was in throughout the war. Record those movements in the Army they were in on your timeline. This will help you in researching the regiment in history books. Sometimes there may not be a book written on your ancestor’s regiment but there may be one for another regiment in your ancestor’s brigade. Besides history books, look for diaries written by men in the same regiment, brigade or division to get some details on how the average men experienced the war.


Never stop adding detail and don’t forget to look for pictures that present a location or battle your ancestor was in. I don’t believe the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) will ever lose its appeal. It was such a profound, pivotal moment in our history. People are still trying to understand, put ourselves in their shoes, and try to figure out how and why it happened and what we should learn from it. Beginning to put details to your ancestor’s experiences makes the entire war come alive. If you have a child in school, learning American history, I can think of no better way to help them grasp the war and its meaning.

This will be my last Genealogy Thursday post. Starting in January I will be going back to blog posts every other Monday. I will mix up my posts between history and genealogy. My next post will be 31 December and then every two weeks after that.

Until Next Time


One thought on “Putting Detail to Your Ancestor’s Service in the Civil War

  1. Pingback: Using Newspapers in Researching Ancestors During the Civil War | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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