Discovering Your Civil War Past: Part IV

Welcome back to our next installment of this exciting, interactive blog series on discovering your Civil War ancestry or how to better research individual soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.  By now I hope you have had an opportunity for those following this series to do research on your soldiers and catch-up on said research.

We covered a lot of ground so far, from identifying a name and unit, to exploring that individual’s service and pensions records, as well as their unit histories.  The next steps are to further delve into those unit histories to see if they will provide any further specific information on the soldier that you are researching or assist in providing you a better understanding of what that soldier experienced with their particular unit during any time period of the war.

Unit histories break down into two distinct eras.  The first are those that are written during the postwar years by veterans of those specific units.  Although they may be mired with postwar rhetoric, biases, and some foggy war memories, this period of unit histories period a wealth of information.  Many include rosters, images, battle or campaign narratives, interviews or essays by other veterans from the unit, and so much more.  There are two ways in which to see if the unit your are looking for has one of these postwar histories.  The first is a simple Google search of the unit name with the keywords “regimental history” after it in the search box.  Before careful of the results.  Some links will take you to reenacting pages or other non-credited sources.  The second way to find out whether or not a postwar history was written, and more accurate, is to use C.E. Dornbusch’ Military Bibliography of the Civil War.  The work comes in several volumes, listed below.  Most public libraries should have one or several of these volumes, as well as university libraries.  I have not seen these available for free online, however, if you have, please share in the comments below!

  • Vol. I: lists the regimental publications and personal narratives for the Union Army and the dates mustered in and mustered out.
  • Vol. II: regimental publications and personal narratives for units of both armies from the Confederate, border and western states.
  • Vol III: general references, campaigns and battles.
  • Vol. IV: regimental publications and personal narratives, brief Union and Confederate biographies. Indexes.

The next unit histories fall into the more modern era.  These histories are often either ones that were written by historians or authors on units that never had one, or by historians/authors who wished to reexamine a particular unit’s role during the war.  Although some of these sources are very good, others, however, are not.  These, again, can be found through a quick Google search, or, because they are newer, a quick Amazon search.  Either way, if it proves to be a good narrative or not, what these modern unit histories contain that the ones written during the immediate postwar era do not, are footnotes or endnotes.  These citations will provide answers to where they got their information or sources, including special collections and repositories. Following these leads can take a researcher to collections that may contain more information on your soldier’s  unit or your soldier specifically.

Returning to my research into my ancestor’s Civil War past, it serves as an example of the aforementioned. Despite a significant role in numerous campaigns in both the Western and Eastern theaters, the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry did not receive a regimental history by one of its veterans. It was well over 100 years before these men’s stories were told. Although their history by William Gavin was published on a limited basis, and fetches a high sum as an out-of-print book today, what is contained within is well worth the price. Gavin identified numerous repositories that contained material on the 100th Pennsylvania. I was then able to schedule research appointments with those repositories, or contact them via phone or email and have research copied and mailed for a nominal fee.

Stay tuned for our next installment, researching battles and battlefields. Also, let us know what regimental histories you find on your soldier’s unit(s) in the comments below.


2 Responses to Discovering Your Civil War Past: Part IV

  1. What a timely article! This week I’m working on finding some details on the forming of the 1st Minnesota and the 2nd Virginia and their role at First Manassas (Bull Run). Thanks for the advice.

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