Tips for Identifying a Civil War Ancestor

Do you think you might have a Civil War ancestor? I quickly realized that I had none, as my dad’s family didn’t emigrate from Europe until c1890. My mom’s family line of Loyalists and Patriots were just a bit off in age to enlist or be drafted by the time the Civil War began. Living in Maine, they were far from the front lines and had no experiences with the day-to-day horrors of that war.

However, my husband has more than one ancestor who served in the Union Army, including John Stufflebean who died of dysentery in a Nashville hospital.

Because our surname is rare and John’s wife filed for a widow’s and children’s pension, learning about John’s military service was very easy. It’s not always that way, so here are some tips and resources to help identify your Civil War soldiers:

1. Search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. In addition to names, photos are even posted for some Civil War soldiers. There are added search links to cemeteries, battles, regiments, Medal of Honor recipients, prisoners, monuments and, a list of 18,000 (!!) African-American soldiers who served in the war.

2. Did you find more than one possible man/record that might be for your ancestor? Those pension records can be expensive, especially if the complete file is a long one and isn’t yet digitized on a (subscription) website.

Here are two things you can do, for free, before paying for info that might not pertain to your man. First, assuming you know the county of residence for your ancestor, look at a county history. A huge number of them were published in the 1880s when many veterans were still living. AND they often mentioned their service, whether Union or Confederate.  Many county histories have a section on military service/battles in the area which mention local men who served, even if your ancestor didn’t pay for a family entry in the biographical section. has a collection of Google-digitized books in the public domain and WorldCat is a second resource for locating both digital and hard copy books. FamilySearch is a third resource, although a (free) account is now required to view items.

If you didn’t find mention of your man in a county history, but found more than one man of the same name with service from the same state who could possibly be your relative, google the name of the regiment, militia, or whatever of each of those men. There are many regimental and battalion histories online, created by military buffs. Most men didn’t travel far from home to enlist or report for the draft. Did one of those potential Civil War ancestors in the database serve from the same county where your ancestor was living? Or was it a bordering county and close enough by for your ancestor to sign up there? If so, you have enough information to check out any potential pension files.

Don’t have a subscription to Fold3? Head over to your local Family History Center to visit the website and bring along a flash drive so you can save the files. Warning – those images have to be saved one at a time, not as one complete record, so if there are a lot of pages, you’ll be at it for a while. Another option is to wait for an offer of free access. Fold3 often has those days around Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day and sometimes around other holidays.

3. Have you located your ancestor’s grave? If not, head to findagrave immediately and look! Some families included military unit information on gravestone transcriptions even if their loved one was not buried in a military cemetery.

4. Check online trees of others who have included your ancestor. Don’t forget wiki trees online and FamilySearch. There might be a mention of military service.

Sometimes, it seems like those ancestors just don’t want to be found. If you are still unsure about possible Civil War service in your family, there are many websites that might have additional clues to be followed. I’ve included some of the major websites, but don’t overlook local and state archives and libraries or local genealogical and historical societies where your ancestor of interest lived/died. The local organization might just be the one with that elusive tidbit of proof!

Library of Congress Digital Collections

NARA – Note that many National Archives files and documents are not digitally available

Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library – Founded by Union veterans, the G.A.R. is no longer an active society. However, its holdings that survive are housed here.

Library of Virginia – LVA has a Civil War collection representing the Confederate Army. Begin with the Civil War Research Guide.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

African-American Civil War Soldiers

American Battlefield Trust – includes Civil War battlefields

FamilySearch Wiki – Civil War records Part 1 and Part 2 – Here you’ll find almost anything and everything you ever wanted to know about the Civil War with hundreds of links included.


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