Civil War Records: Basic Research Sources
|Paper copies of Civil War pension records can now be requested online.|
Table of Contents
- Union Records
- Confederate Records
- Discussion of Basic Records
Over 2.8 million men (and a few hundred women) served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. This page briefly describes resources for researching the military service of individual Civil War soldiers in "Volunteer" Army units.
Regular Army: For information about researching the military service of persons in the Regular Army, see Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, 3rd edition (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000), Chapter 4, Records of the Regular Army.
Union Navy or Confederate Navy: For information about researching the service of persons in the Union Navy or Confederate Navy, see Lee D. Bacon, "Civil War and Later Navy Personnel Records at the National Archives, 1861-1924," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 1995). An index to service by African-American sailors is available online at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website.
For Union army soldiers, there are three major records in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that provide information on military service: (1) compiled military service record (CMSR); (2) pension application file; and (3) records reproduced in microfilm publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations (225 rolls).
For Confederate army soldiers, there are two major records in NARA that provide information on military service: (1) compiled military service record (CMSR) and (2) records reproduced in microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). Records relating to Confederate soldiers are typically less complete than those relating to Union soldiers because many Confederate records did not survive the war.
NARA does not have pension files for Confederate soldiers. Pensions were granted to Confederate veterans and their widows and minor children by the States of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia; these records are in the state archives or equivalent agency.
Researchers should visit public libraries to find books and periodicals about Civil War battles, strategies, uniforms, and the political and social context of the times. Useful publications include:
- U.S. War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1900. Reprint, Gettysburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971-72. Includes battle reports and correspondence of Union and Confederate regiments.
- U.S. Naval War Records Office. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. 30 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1874-1922. Reprint, Gettysburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971.
- Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. Des Moines, IA: Dyer Publishing Co., 1908. Reprint, Dayton, OH: National Historical Society, 1979. Lists battles and campaigns for Union regiments and also gives the composition of corps and armies, i.e., such as the Army of the Potomac. Take note, however, that regimental battle lists cannot be considered proof that any particular soldier fought in various battles since different companies in the regiment may have had different assignments, or an individual soldier may have been absent due to sickness, desertion, temporary assignment to other duties, or other causes.
- Dornbusch, Charles E. Military Bibliography of the Civil War. 4 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1971-87. A guide to published Union and Confederate unit histories.
- Hewett, Janet B., et al. Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 51 vols. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1994-97.
- Sifakis, Stewart. Compendium of the Confederate Armies. 11 vols. New York: Facts on File, 1992-97.
- Long, Everette B. Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861-1865. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
- Randall, James, and David Donald. Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: Heath, 1961.
- Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961-65.
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War. 3 vols. New York, NY: Random House, 1958-74.
- Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
- Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
- Basler, Roy P., ed. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Periodicals such as Civil War History, Civil War Times Illustrated, and Blue and Gray are also informative. These magazines are often found in public libraries.
Each volunteer soldier has one Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) for each regiment in which he served. An index is available online at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website or on microfilm at selected NARA facilities and large genealogical research libraries. The CMSR contains basic information about the soldier's military career, and it is the first source the researcher should consult. The CMSR is an envelope (a jacket) containing one or more cards. These cards typically indicate that the soldier was present or absent during a certain period of time. Other cards may indicate the date of enlistment and discharge, amount of bounty paid him, and other information such as wounds received during battle or hospitalization for injury or illness. The soldier's place of birth may be indicated; if foreign born, only the country of birth is stated. The CMSR may contain an internal jacket for so-called "personal papers" of various kinds. These may include a copy of the soldier's enlistment paper, papers relating to his capture and release as a prisoner of war, or a statement that he had no personal property with him when he died. Note, however, that the CMSR rarely indicates battles in which a soldier fought; that information must be derived from other sources.
A CMSR is as complete as the surviving records of an individual soldier or his unit. The War Department compiled the CMSRs from the original muster rolls and other records some years after the war to permit more rapid and efficient checking of military and medical records in connection with claims for pensions and other veterans' benefits. The abstracts were so carefully prepared that it is rarely necessary to consult the original muster rolls and other records from which they were made. When the War Department created CMSRs at the turn of the century, information from company muster rolls, regimental returns, descriptive books, hospital rolls, and other records was copied verbatim onto cards. A separate card was prepared each time an individual name appeared on a document. These cards were all numbered on the back, and these numbers were entered onto the outside jacket containing the cards. The numbers on the jacket correspond with the numbers on the cards within the jacket. These numbers were used by the War Department only for control purposes while the CMSRs were being created; the numbers do not refer to other records regarding a veteran nor are they useful for reference purposes today.
Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls) which is also available online at Ancestry.com (for a fee).
The pension file will often contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the CMSR, and it may contain much medical information if he lived for a number of years afterwards. For example, in his pension file, Seth Combs of Company C, 2d Ohio Cavalry, reported: "...my left eye was injured while tearing down a building...and in pulling off a board a splinter or piece struck my eye and injured it badly...it was hurt while in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Va. about Christmas 1864--a comrade who stood by me name Jim Beach is dead." In another affidavit, Seth said he "also got the Rheumatism while on duty as a dispatch bearer on detached duty."
To obtain a widow's pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier's minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier's marriage and proof of the children's birth.
Sometimes, additional information about a soldier's war activities can be deduced from the compilations of the activities of each company known colloquially as the "record of events." These records, which were compiled from information on the original muster rolls and returns, are uneven in content; some give day-by-day narratives of a company's activities, while others simply note that the company was stationed at a certain place during the reporting period (usually 2-months). Although they rarely name individual soldiers, the descriptions of the activities and movements of the company can be used, in conjunction with the soldier's CMSR and pension file, to determine where the soldier was and what he was doing. As noted above, records of Union regiments are reproduced in microfilm publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations (225 rolls). , and records of Confederate regiments are reproduced in microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). These records are arranged by state, thereunder by regiment, and thereunder by company. These records are being published as Janet B. Hewett, et al., Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 51 vols. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1994-97).
This section shows how the information from the (1) CMSR, (2) pension file, and (3) "record of events" can be combined to more fully describe an average soldier's war experiences. The reconstructed histories of two brothers who served the Union in the 106th New York Infantry--William P. Western and Frederick Weston [sic]--are presented as examples.
Frederick Weston, Company G, 106th N.Y. Infantry
According to his CMSR, Frederick Weston [sic] enlisted August 4, 1862, at Stockholm, New York. He was a 21-year-old farmer born at Stockholm, and was 5 feet 10 inches tall and had grey eyes and black hair. His company mustered in on August 27, 1862, at Ogdensburg, New York. Frederick was listed as "present" on company muster rolls from his enrollment through June 1863. He died of typhoid fever at North Mountain, Virginia, June 3, 1863.
There is no pension file relating to Frederick because he was not married and did not have any minor children or aged parents dependant upon him for support.
The "record of events" cards in microfilm publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations, roll 130, provide much detail about his service. The company was raised by Captain Cogswell of Madrid, New York, by authority of Adjutant General Hillhouse under the President's call for 600,000 volunteers. They were mustered in August 27, 1862, by Lt. Caustin, 19th U.S. Infantry, who paid them the U.S. Bounty of $25; they were also paid the $50 State bounty. This company left Camp Wheeler, Ogdensburg, New York, August 28, 1862; arrived at Camp Jessie, New Creek, Virginia, September 2, 1862; left Camp Jessie, December 27, 1862; and arrived at Martinsburg, Virginia, December 28, 1862.
The company spent over 2 months at Martinsburg before marching with the rest of the regiment to North Mountain, Virginia, on March 6, 1863. They remained there until April 25, 1863, when they were ordered to take "the cars for Grafton one hundred and eighty miles west on the Baltimore & Ohio R. Road," which they reached on April 26. From Grafton, Virginia, they went by railroad to Webster, Virginia, and from there marched to Philippi, Virginia. "Meeting no enemy" the regiment countermarched back to Webster, arriving there on April 27. Learning that Grafton was in danger of a rebel attack, they marched back to Grafton the same day by way of Pruntytown. They remained at Grafton until May 18, when the company returned to North Mountain, at which it stayed until June 13, 1863. By then, of course, Frederick Weston had died.
William P. Western, Company D, 106th N.Y. Infantry
According to his CMSR, William enlisted July 29, 1862, at DeKalb, New York. He was a 26-year-old farmer born in Stockholm, New York, and was 5 feet 8 inches tall and had gray eyes and brown hair. His company mustered in August 27, 1862, at Ogdensburg, New York. Although William was listed as "present" on company muster rolls from his enrollment through June 1864, he was taken prisoner and paroled at Fairmont, Virginia, April 29, 1863. He went from there to Camp Parole, Annapolis, Maryland, and did not return to regular duty until October 31, 1863. He became sick from "chronic diarrhoea" and "remittant fever," and on July 3, 1864, he was sent to the U.S. Army Hospital, 6th Army Corps, at City Point, Virginia. Subsequently, he was sent to Finley General Hospital, Washington, D.C. William's CMSR indicates some confusion as to whether he deserted while on furlough from the hospital, or whether he died at Richville, New York, November 23, 1864, or at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 1, 1864. During his military service, he received $95 in clothing, $27 in advanced bounty, and all his pay through August 31, 1864. He was to have been charged $1.27 for a "painted blanket" and $23.96 for transportation.
The pension application submitted by William's widow eliminates the confusion about his death. According to affidavits, Finley General Hospital gave William a furlough on September 14, 1864, permitting him to return to St. Lawrence County, New York, for 1 month. On his way home, William visited Dr. Carroll C. Bates at Potsdam, New York. Dr. Bates visited William at his father's house on September 29 and on October 3 and 5. The doctor planned to visit William again on October 7, but did not because William had died. Albert Dewey and Joseph N. Griswold laid out William's remains for burial. The pension file also includes the dates of William's marriage to Ulisa Daniels, her subsequent marriage to Patrick Curn, and the birth of William's daughter, Rosena.
The "record of events" cards in M594, roll 130, provide additional detail about William's service. Company D's movements from enlistment to April 27, 1863, were identical to those for Company G, except that they were reported to have had a skirmish with the enemy at Philippi on April 26. They returned to Grafton on April 27. On April 28, Companies D and F were ordered to march to Fairmont, Virginia, to guard a railroad bridge over the Monongahela River. The next day they were attacked by Confederates whom they fought from 1:30 a.m. until noon, when "very suddenly the command was surrendered and immediately paroled." Their casualties were one killed and one wounded.
The men who were captured were "out of action" for 6 months until they were formally exchanged; the remainder of the company continued fighting the war. Eventually, William and the other men returned to duty:
The balance of this company consisting of Capt. Alvah W. Briggs, Lieut. Gilbert, W. Hathaway & 54 enlisted men were taken prisoner in an engagement at Fairmont, Va., April 29, 1863 and are now [May through October 1863] in Parole Camp at Annapolis, Md. ... having been duly exchanged returned to duty Oct. 31, 1863. Rejoined the Regt near Warrenton Junction, Va., on the 6th of Nov. 1863, moved with the Regt to Kellys Ford, crossed the Rappahannock same day. 3d Corps captured 400 prisoners. On the 7th Nov. drove the enemy beyond Brandy Station where we went into Camp. On the 26th Nov. 1863, left Camp and with the Army of the Potomac moved toward the Rapidan which was crossed at Jacobs Ford same day. On the 27th 3rd Corps attacked the enemy near Locust Grove. Battle lasted until night. On the 28th moved forward toward Mine Run where the enemy was found in force. On the 31st commenced to fall back toward the Rapidan which was recrossed at Culpeper Ford Dec. 2d 1863. Returned to the Old Camp [Dec. 3] since which time have built winter quarters.
Company D saw little activity during its winter quarters at Brandy Station, Virginia. On February 6, 1864, it received orders to reconnaissance to the Rapidan River, but then returned to camp the next day and did "nothing but heavy picket duty since." On March 28, 1864, the Regiment was transferred from the 3d Brigade, 3d Division, 3d Army Corps to the 1st Brigade, 3d Division, 6th Army Corps. Company D remained in Camp near Brandy Station until May 4, 1864, "and have since participated in all the movements and Battles of said Division and Corps." The company and the regiment "participated in the engagements on the left of Petersburg" and on July 6 left for Maryland and took part in the engagement at Monocacy, July 9, 1864. By then, of course, William had already been sent to the hospital on July 3, never to return to duty again.
As illustrated by these examples, one soldier's experience may be different from others in the same regiment. William Western was absent from April 29 to October 31, 1863, while his brother Frederick Weston [sic] remained in the thick of military activity from April 29 until he died July 3, 1863. The researcher can build a detailed description of a soldier's contribution to the Union or Confederate cause using the soldier's military service and pension records, and the "record of events" for the soldier's company, regiment, and field and staff officers.
A Word of Caution!
Do not assume that a particular individual participated in a battle if (1) his unit was at the battle and (2) the person appears likely to have been with that unit. In the War Department's view, and from a strict adherence to objective information in existing evidence, such an assumption cannot ordinarily be made. Thus, the descriptions of William P. Western's and Frederick Weston's military careers are crafted both upon evidence and upon assumptions, with no guarantee that the assumptions are correct.
No roll call was recorded just before a unit entered battle. As noted above, there are a variety of reasons why a particular individual may not have been present at that time: different companies in the regiment may have had different assignments, or an individual soldier may have been absent due to sickness, desertion, temporary assignment to other duties, or other causes. Muster rolls--which were ordinarily compiled to cover a 2-month period--are generally accurate for the day on which the roll was filled out, but often not for all of the period covered. If a person left the ranks some time during those 2 months and then returned, that absence may not show on the roll. This is especially true for Confederate rolls.
Some records provide very strong evidence that someone was at a battle, but a muster roll with the word "present" is not among them. The strong evidence includes:
- Postcards or testimony, found in pension files, wherein the veteran names the battles in which he participated, in response to a specific question from the Pension Office.
- Some Union CMSRs, notably for Colorado, that specifically record presence at a battle. Such information was recorded during the war--although how this was done is unknown.
- Some Confederate CMSRs, notably for Louisiana, Mississippi, and some Alabama units, that include a list of battles at which the soldier was present. These lists were drawn up during the war, but the procedure by which this was done is unknown.
- Mention of a person's presence at a battle in the Official Records.
- Records showing death, wounds, or capture at battle.
- Mention of participation in battle in a regimental history.
- Mention of an individual in the "record of events."
- Other records, such as a receipt for a horse killed in action.
It is very tempting to list persons present at a battle, but the available evidence will ordinarily not make that possible. Nevertheless, attempts have been made. A good example is the Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg, PA. There, the State wished to record all Pennsylvanians present at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The State decided to use the May-June 1863 muster rolls as evidence, since they list men present on June 30. This is a fortuitous date. Since the battle began the next day and the men were under order on pain of death to remain with their assigned units, one can reasonably assume that most men recorded as present June 30 were at the battle. Nevertheless, the U.S. War Department did not recognize that assumption. In fact, controversies over the inclusion of specific names on the Pennsylvania memorial continue to this day.
You may do research in Civil War military service and pension files in person at the National Archives Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. Begin your research in the Microfilm Reading Room. Staff is available there to answer your questions.
All microfilmed records may be examined during regular research room hours; no prior arrangement is necessary.
Requests for records that have not been microfilmed, such as the pension files and most Union CMSRs, must be submitted on appropriate forms between 8:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. The request forms and the microfilmed indexes are all available in the Microfilm Reading Room. Pension files and other original records are not "pulled" from the stacks after 3:30 p.m. or on Saturday, but can be viewed during all regular research hours if the pull request was submitted during the weekday hours noted in the previous sentence.
Please be aware that these are very popular records. NARA strives to make the records readily available to all researchers on an equal basis. In order to provide timely, equal access, NARA limits the number of original records which you may request for any scheduled records pull. The limit is four original files for each researcher for each pull during a business day up to 24 files in a given day. Because of the number of requests for original records, we are unable to provide advance service on these records. Please do not ask us to verify if we have a file in advance of your arrival or ask us for expedited service.
Researchers coming from a distance may wish to call in advance of their visit (1) to verify research room hours and (2) to have any additional questions answered. The Consultant's Office can be reached at 202-501-5400.
Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected microfilmed Civil War compiled military service records and other microfilmed military records; call to verify their availability.
Military Service Records: Paper copies of Civil War military service records can be requested by mail using an NATF Form 86 for each soldier (Volunteer Army or Regular Army). You can obtain the NATF Form 86 by providing your name and mailing address to www.archives.gov/contact/inquire-form.html. Be sure to specify the correct form number and the number of forms you need.
Pension Records: Paper copies of Civil War pension records can be requested online or requested by mail using an NATF Form 85 for each soldier (Volunteer Army or Regular Army, Union Navy or Marine Corps). You can obtain the NATF Form 85 by providing your name and mailing address to www.archives.gov/contact/inquire-form.html. Be sure to specify the correct form number and the number of forms you need.
You can also obtain the NATF Forms 85 and Form 86 by writing to:
National Archives and Records Administration,
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW,
Washington, DC 20408-0001.
Important! There are no compiled service records for Navy or Marine Corps personnel. Do not used NATF Form 86. Instead, contact Old Military and Civil Records (NWCTB), National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.
NARA's holdings include Civil War photographs taken by Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and George N. Barnard, as well as Civil War maps, plans, engineering drawings, diagrams, blueprints, and sketches of forts. These can be accessed online through the National Archives Catalog. Some of the photos have been compiled into a Pictures of the Civil War leaflet, also available online.
Civil War photographs can also be found in these and other institutions:
The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a patriotic society, founded in 1866, composed of Civil War veterans who had honorably served in the Union Army. This society was dissolved in 1956, with the death of its last surviving member. Since the G.A.R. was a private veterans organization, not a part of the Federal Government, its archives are not among the records in NARA custody.
Selected facilities with G.A.R. materials include:
Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library
4278 Griscom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19124
New England Civil War Museum/Thomas J. O'Connell Library
14 Park Place
Vernon, CT 06066
And, for online research links, see the Grand Army of the Republic and Related Research Links page maintained by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
For information about military service and other Civil War-era military records available as National Archives microfilm publications, consult:
Listings for the Record Groups (RGs) listed below in Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996. Available online or for purchase.
- RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration
- RG 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General
- RG 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917
- RG 109, War Department Collection of Confederate Records
- RG 110, Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau (Civil War)
- RG 249, Records of the Commissary General of Prisoners
For detailed information about other records relating to the Civil War, consult:
- Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration. Revised 1985. Available for purchase.
- Munden, Kenneth W., and Henry Putney Beers. The Union: A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War. National Archives and Records Administration. 1962. Reprint, 1986. Available for purchase.
- Beers, Henry Putney. The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Confederate States of America. National Archives and Records Administration. 1968. Reprint, 1986. Available for purchase.
- A Guide to Civil War Maps in the National Archives. National Archives and Records Administration. 1964. Reprint, 1986. Available for purchase.
- Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. 3 vols. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration. 1995. Available online or for purchase.
Many articles about the Civil War era and its records have been published in Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives, which is available for $16 for an annual subscription (4 issues per year). Back issues of Prologue are frequently available on microfilm at public and university libraries. The following is a chronological list of articles about the Civil War published from 1988 through 2003:
Pilgrim, Michael E. "A Different View on the War: The Civil War Diary of Richard M. Venable." 28 (Winter 1996): 263-269.
Honey, Michael K. "The War Within the Confederacy: White Unionists of North Carolina." 26 (Special Issue, 1994): 55-71.
Davis, Robert Scott Jr., "The Curious Civil War Career of James George Brown, Spy." 26 (Spring 1994): 17-31.
Lash, Jeffrey N. "Civil War Irony: Confederate Commanders and the Destruction of Southern Railways." 25 (Spring 1993): 35-47.
Yockelson, Mitchell. "The Great Reunion: The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Gettysburg." 24 (Summer 1992): 188-192.
Plowman, Robert J. "An Untapped Source: Civil War Prize Case Files, 1861-65." 21 (Fall 1989): 197-205.
Burton, Shirley, and Kellee Green, "Defining Disloyalty: Treason, Espionage, and Sedition Prosecutions, 1861-1946." 21 (Fall 1989): 215-221.
Berlin, Ira, et al., "'To Canvass the Nation': The War for Union Becomes a War for Freedom." 20 (Winter 1988): 227-247.
This essay is adapted from Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "What Battles Did My Civil War Ancestor Fight In? [2 parts]." The Record, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov. 1995): 20, 25, and Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jan. 1996): 20, 28.
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