Tracing your Civil War roots - Making the search easier

September 11, 1997

Tracing your Civil War roots

Making the search easier


Staff Writer

Tracing your ancestors can give personal meaning to your study of the Civil War.

Knowing the person's name and military unit can make your search easier, said John Hare, a Springfield, Va., resident who has researched five of his ancestors who served in the war.

Other vital information you can uncover includes date and place of birth, names of parents, dates of marriages, names of spouses and children, occupation, place and date of death and place of burial.

Here are some tips for beginning your search:

Read some books on genealogy.

JaNeen M. Smith, executive director of National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., recommends "In Search of Confederate Ancestors: The Guide" by J.H. Segars and "A User's Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War" by Alan C. and Barbara A. Aimone.


Hare suggests "Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor" by Bertram Hawthorne Groene and "Generations," the companion volume to the PBS series of the same name.

Check with family sources.

Interview older family members, asking them to share their stories. Family Bibles and gravestones also can yield valuable information.

But don't trust family legends, Hare said.

"It's helpful to have family stories to fall back on, but a lot of times they lead to blind alleys because they are wrong," he said.

Contact the National Archives.

Compiled Service Records and pension records include important information about your Civil War ancestor, said Trevor Plante, an archivist with the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Copies of those files can be obtained from the National Archives.

Plante encourages those tracing their roots to visit in person at the main building at the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania avenues.

If that is not possible, write to the archives or call 1-202-501-5390 and ask for a Form 80 so you can request information.

If records are sent by mail, Compiled Service Records and pension files each cost $10, Plante said. If you go to the archives, the only cost is for photocopying.

The National Archives receives between 1,500 and 2,000 Form 80s a week, and 80 to 85 percent are from people seeking their Civil War ancestors, Plante said. In addition, each week the archives gets 250 to 300 pieces of written correspondence related to the Civil War, Plante said.

Another good source of information is the Official Records, a 180-volume set of reports and correspondence published throughout the war, Plante said. The records also are available on CD-ROM.

· Check other published sources and records.

Visit public libraries for published genealogies, census records and marriage records. Courthouses, state archives and historical societies also are sources of information.

Recognize the possibility for errors, as even official records can be incorrect, Hare said.

The Internet also can be a good resource, Smith said. A search for "Civil War" or "American Civil War" brings up hundreds of possibilities.

· Write everything down.

Searching for ancestors can be tedious and frustrating, and it's important to keep good records so you don't have to look up the same information again, Hare said.

· Don't be discouraged.

Not everyone who served in the war was a general or an officer, Hare said.

Hare said many people start out with the hope that they were related to generals Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant. He said he can't count how many people have told him that one of their ancestors served with Col. John S. Mosby.

"If Mosby had had all those troops, he could have won the war in a week," Hare said.

Every time a question is answered, some new ones arise, Hare said.

"There's always some new mystery to solve, and that keeps you going," Hare said.

Write to the National Archives at the following addresses:

- For textual information prior to World War II:

Reference Branch (NWDT1)

National Archives

Washington, D.C. 20408

- For maps:

Cartographic and Architectural Branch (NWDNC)

National Archives

8601 Adelphi Road

College Park, Md. 20740-6001

- For photographs:

Still Pictures Branch (NWDNS)

National Archives

8601 Adelphi Road

College Park, Md. 20740-6001

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