Discovering Your Civil War Past: Part II

Welcome back to the next post in our Discovering Your Civil War Past.  It was great to see the diversity in all of your Civil War ancestry, from different branches of services to different armies and theaters, as well as different causes.  This week we will begin to flesh out more of your individual ancestor’s Civil War service.

A big and important early step in researching your Civil War ancestor, or a Civil War soldier that you want to know more about, is by obtaining a series of several different important records.  “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).  Service records will provide rich details on their enlistment, battles they participated in, promotions, wounds or illnesses, and discharges.”  “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 publicationM861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). PDF formatRecords 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.”

The NARA website does an excellent job at providing detailed information as to what each of these records may contain.  “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.

Pension Records

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 (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.

Record of Events

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). PDF format, and records of Confederate regiments are reproduced in microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). PDF format 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).”

Now getting your hands on these records will cost you some money and time.  It is faster and cheaper to go and have these records pulled in person at the National Archives; however over the past decade NARA has given you several other options to obtain them.  Decades ago the only other option was to fill out a form, send it in with your money, and wait up to six weeks.  Although this option is still available, you can now order these records online.  Follow this link to find out further details on how to order these records from NARA:

The National Archives is not the only source for these records, however.  Over the past several years, since it’s purchase by and re-branded as, this website has compiled millions of military service records of American servicemen from the American Revolution on-ward.  Their digitization work is top-notch and the amount of what they have completed so far is astounding.  However, despite their great work, not everything is on there yet and NARA still remains the complete source for these records.  For a minimal yearly subscription, though, is a must resource for Civil War scholars and genealogists alike.

In the comments below, let us know what service records you are looking to pursue; or, if you have already ordered yours share your thoughts on what you found or the process of ordering them.

Next week will begin to explore how to find out what your ancestor did in and with their respective units.


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