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Researching Your Civil War Ancestry

Use online resources to learn if your family had roots on the Union or Confederate side

If your family was living in the United States in the 1860s, chances are good that you're related to someone who served in the Civil War.

See also: What's your family story?

Perhaps your great- or great-great-grandfather was among the 2.1 million men mustered in the Union Army or the 800,000 to 900,000 men who were on the Confederate side. Or maybe a great-aunt served as a scout, nurse or spy. She may even have been among the several hundred females who, disguised as men, actually fought on the ground.

Discovering Civil War Ancestors

Civil War officers of 3rd Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery at Fort Totten, Washington in 1865. — Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection

The Civil War touched the life of every citizen. The Union enlisted nearly 180,000 black soldiers. African Americans also served with Confederate forces as laborers and servants — and a handful even served as soldiers at the end of the war. Native Americans were involved in the western theater for the Union and defended Southern lands with the Confederacy.

If you're interested in learning about ancestors who served in the Civil War, you have plenty of ways to find out. Here are some resources to help you get started:

Census Records

Although regiments are not specified, federal and state census records may verify your ancestor's Civil War service. The 1910 and 1930 U.S. Federal censuses indicate if a person was an Army or Navy veteran of Union or Confederate units. Some state census records also note the designation: The 1894 Michigan census, for example, includes a notation for "US or Conf" veterans and their widows. 

You can also check the 1890 Veterans Census. This "Special Schedule" listed Union veterans and their widows. Enlistment and discharge information on soldiers, sailors, and Marines are provided. 

Census records may be accessed free of charge at FamilySearch.org.

Provost Marshal Records

Even if census records can't verify your ancestor as a Civil War soldier, Provost Marshal Records, held by regional National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) branches, may assist with your search. These War Department records, created to identify men eligible to serve in the war effort, were used to enroll men for the draft, enlist volunteers and to arrest deserters based on physical descriptions recorded in the files. If your able-bodied ancestor did not serve, the reason he was not required to do so may be noted.

Records of 27 states and seven territories are available for research. Five Confederate states did not participate, but these records should not be mistaken as Union only. The Southern states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas generated Provost Marshal files. For information about accessing these records, visit Archives.gov/research.

Online Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System

Not everyone enlisted in his residing state. But without knowing what regiment your ancestor served in, you won't be able to check muster-in rolls or pension files. The National Parks Service Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS), a work in progress, can help you. This database links soldiers' names to regiments and battles for Union and Confederate units. Visit ITD.NPS.gov/cwss.

5 best bets to start your Civil War research »

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