Not sure if your ancestor served in the war, but want to find out? The more information you have better. The most important things to know are his full name and state of residence – before and after the war – if possible.
Step #1 - Identify his Regiment!
The all-important first step is to identify the soldier’s regiment. If not known, there are several resources that may help.
If you are able to visit a local branch of the National Archives and know his state of residence at the outbreak of the war, you can check the NARA compiled military service record indexes for a listing of soldiers. There is a comprehensive index by Confederate soldiers. Union soldiers are organized by state and then alphabetical by surname. The compiled service records for most Union soldiers are only available at the National Archives in DC, but the microfilmed indexes are available at most of the regional branches.
NOTE: Most professional researchers will do a name search for a minimal fee. In the case of multiple names, you can usually order a record search on a hourly cost basis. In this case, the researcher will review all possible records to see if they can make a match based on age, residence, etc. If pension files are available, they can for birth date, name of spouse and children, residence after the war, date and place of death, etc.
American Civil War Research Database
The American Civil War Database is another subscription service, but very reasonable at $25 per year. The database is still in process, but records are available for most states. One thing to keep in mind is that they often have information you won’t find on Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System or Ancestry.com such as age, residence, enlistment and discharge information. You can also search regimental rosters, and obtain copies of regimental histories. In addition, they have more than 17,000 soldier photographs and the collection is growing.
NOTE: Most of the service records are taken from state adjutant records and not from the indexes at the National Archives. It is possible to see a record on this database, but not be able to locate a compiled military service record at the National Archives, particularly if he served in a local or state unit that was not turned over to the Federal Government.
Ancestry.com Free Trial
Ancestry.com is a paid subscription, but well worth the cost if you are searching multiple names or want to search multiple records. One of the best features is the Civil War pension index, which was copied from the NARA pension indexes. You can search by soldier, name of widow, state filed, and keyword. The index will provide you with the information you need to order the records from the National Archives. Ancestry.com also offer a wealth of genealogical records including census, immigration, newspapers, and family trees.
NOTE: The pension index does not contain every pension record. Some of the records could not be copied for various reasons. The NARA indexes should be checked, even if you don’t find a listing in the Ancestry.com database.
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (Free)
If you are only searching for one or two soldiers and not interested in paying a subscription fee, I recommend starting your search with the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. This database allows you to search by name and state of service. It will give you a list of soldiers and their regiments. It will also provide brief regimental histories for most regiments. The military records are taken from the indexes at the National Archives and generally quite accurate. If there is a name listed, you should have no problem obtaining a copy of his compiled military service record.
NOTE: Unlike Ancestry.com, this is an exact search by name. So be sure to check any alternative spellings.
Fold3 - History Military Records
The web's premier collection of original US military records. Many documents never seen before on the Web made possible by their unique partnership with The National Archives and many others. This is a paid subscription, but they offer a 7 day free trial with unlimited access to all thier records.
1890 SPECIAL VETERAN CENSUS
Another source to consider is the 1890 Special Veteran Census. If you can find the veteran or his widow in these census schedules, it should list his regiment designation. Some of the indexes and a few records are available on line. For more information on available records, click here.
CIVIL WAR UNIT ROSTERS
Unit rosters are available from various published and online sources. The American Civil War Database has complete rosters for most units. These units can be searched alphabetically by company or regiment.
For the most complete list of online rosters, click here.
Hewett, Janet B., ed. The Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865. 16 Vol. Wilmington: Broadfoot Pub. Co., 1996.
Alphabetical list of Confederate soldiers and their units and companies.
Hewett, Janet B., ed. The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865. 33 Vol. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Pub. Co., 1997.
Arranged by state and then alphabetically by surname.
The Broadfoot rosters are available at many large reference and university libraries.
Step #2: Order his Military Records!
Once you’ve identified the soldier’s regiment, order his military records from the National Archives. Most service records for Union and Confederate service should be available. Be sure and order the pension file, if one exists. Pension files often contain a wealth of military and genealogical information. Union pensions can be obtained from the National Archives. Confederate pension records must be obtained from the appropriate state archives.
For more about these records and how to order them, follow these links.
Service Records – Confederate Soldiers & Sailors
Pension File Links – Confederate Soldiers & Sailors
Service Records – Union Soldiers & Sailors
Pension Files – Union Soldiers & Sailors
Can’t get to the Archives?
Step #3 - Consider Other Sources
National Archive Records
There are many other sources to consider when researching your Civil War soldier. Service records and pension files might provide some clues to other NARA records that might be available. Follow the links to learn more about other NARA collections.
Medals and Honors
Follow the links to learn more about these records and find out how you can search these collections.
Prints and Photographs
Regimental History Sources
New to archival research?
Check out this article from the National Archives
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