How to Find Your Ancestor’s Civil War Unit

If you're one of the millions of Americans who descends from a Civil War veteran, you have a wide variety of records to explore about that ancestor. Knowing what unit he served in is key to getting into those records and making sure you have the right person. Here's how you can find your Civil War ancestor's unit. 

(If you're not sure if your ancestor served in the Civil War—or any war, for that matter—check out these 3 clues for discovering military service.)

1. His Obituary

Obituaries can be a great source of biographical information, including details of military service. While some obits just refer to being in the military, many will spell out the regiment, like this one for John S. Evans, who died in Minneapolis in 1904. 

John Evans Civil War veteran obituary

Minneapolis (Minnesota) Journal, May 11, 1904, page 6. Image courtesy Chronicling America, Library of Congress. 

2. County Histories

Look in the histories of the counties where your ancestor lived, especially those published in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when he or one of his children could have been the one giving the information. 

Even if your ancestor doesn't have a biography in that county history, look for a section about the military history of the county. Most will list the units that were formed in the area. That's important because most men served in units that were raised locally. Learning which regiments were from that area will help you focus your search.  

3. Tombstones

It isn't just government-issued tombstones that can list a person's regiment. Here is William Bevan's tombstone in Oak Grove Cemetery in Delaware, Ohio. It lists that he was a member of Company C, 121st Regiment O.V.I. (Ohio Volunteer Infantry). For good measure, it also has the insignia of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of honorably discharged Union Veterans. 

4. 1890 Civil War Veterans Census

Although most of the 1890 federal census was destroyed, about half of a special schedule of Union Civil War veterans and widows survived. If your ancestor lived in a state that falls alphabetically from Kentucky through Wyoming (sorry, Illinois and Indiana), look him up. This schedule is available on Ancestry and FamilySearch. (You can learn more about this special 1890 census schedule here.) 

5. Pensions and Pension Indexes

If you think your ancestor fought for the Union, his pension record should be on the list of records you need to get. They are awesome, but obtaining them from the National Archives can be pricey. You want to make sure that the file you're ordering is for your guy. (They don't offer refunds if it isn't.)

Fortunately, there are two indexes that can help. The first is General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, which is available on Ancestry and on FamilySearch. (Thanks, Marian, for pointing out that FamilySearch now has these images!) It includes the name of the widow if she also applied for a pension. While it doesn't give a ton of biographical information, it does give us information that can help us narrow down if it's the right person.

Benjamin Ammons card, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. Image courtesy

On Benjamin Ammons' index card, we see that his widow was named Barbara. If the Benjamin Ammons you're looking for had a widow named Elizabeth, you could probably rule this one out. (Or at least not order this file from the National Archives right away.)

The other index is the "Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900," which is available on Fold3. (An index to this set is available on FamilySearch, but the images are not.) It typically doesn't list the widow's name, but it often lists the date and place of death of the veteran. Again, this gives us a necessary clue to narrow down the right person. 

If you have a Confederate ancestor, you should explore if your ancestor or his widow received a Confederate pension. They were granted by the former Confederate states, plus Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Many of these are available on FamilySearch. They will usually contain enough biographical information to tell if it's your ancestor or just someone with the same name. 


Approximately 3.2 million men (and a few women) fought in the Civil War. It's important to identify their unit so that we can access their records and make sure that it's the right person. 

How to Find Your Ancestor's Civil War Unit

5 Sources for Civil War Unit Histories

Civil War soldiersBroadening your researching into your Civil War ancestor beyond the pension records and service records can reveal new insight into the time he served. Unit histories can help you pinpoint where he was, what battles he fought in, what those battles were like, and other information that helps build context. Here are 5 sources for Civil War unit histories.  Continue reading

What Did Your Civil War Ancestor Look Like?

If you weren’t lucky enough to have inherited your Civil War ancestor’s photo, there are still ways to find what he looked like — or at least get a physical description. Here are 4 sources you should look for.

1. Compiled Military Service Record

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

James Malone, 6th West Virginia Infantry, Compiled Military Service Record. Image from Fold3. (Click to enlarge.)

The Compiled Military Service Record recaps the person’s time while they were in the service (Union or Confederate). They are usually several pages long, mostly the person’s entries on the company’s bi-monthly muster rolls. There can also be pages that include a physical description, including something called a Descriptive Roll, which is just like it sounds — a roll of the members of the regiment and their physical descriptions.

From James V. Malone’s Compiled Military Service Record, we learn that he had gray eyes, sandy hair, a fair complexion and was 5′ 8″ tall.

If your ancestor was discharged due to disability (injury or sickness), his CMSR might contain a copy of the Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability for Discharge, which usually contains a physical description. Thomas Duff was discharged from the 7th Kentucky Infantry; he was described as 5′ 7 1/2″ tall, dark complexion, black eyes, and dark hair.

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

Thomas Duff, 7th Kentucky Infantry, Certificate of Disability. Image from Fold3. (Click to enlarge.)

Some Compiled Military Service Records are available on Fold3. If the state your ancestor served from has only the index available there (like Ohio or Indiana), you’ll have to contact the National Archives and order a copy from them.

2. Pension Files

Besides some awesome biographical information that they often contain, Civil War pension files often contain a physical description of the veteran. There can be transcripts of the regiment’s descriptive rolls and copies of the surgeon’s certificate of disability. There can also be the records of a physician’s examination. These were done when the veteran needed to prove that his disability was substantial and that it was related to his service.

Be warned. Some of these physician’s records can be… shall we say…. detailed. You might learn things about your ancestor’s physical condition and his anatomy that you really didn’t want to know. (That awkward moment when you’re reading a pension file and discover your ancestor had syphilis….  I haven’t read that in any of my ancestor’s files, but have seen it in others. Yeah, that’s awkward…. )

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

Charles Bailey, 5th Wisconsin Infantry, Surgeon’s Certificate from pension file. Image from The Genealogy Center.

3. Descriptive Rolls

Although the Compiled Military Service Record and the pension file might contain an entry from the regiment’s descriptive roll, I would recommend looking for the original. (And if it wasn’t included in the CMSR or the pension file, you should go and find it.) These records are often held at the state archives (either the original or on microfilm). They’re arranged by regiment and company, so you will need to know that information about your ancestor before you use them.

Illinois included information from the descriptive rolls in their online Civil War database. Kansas has digitized theirs and put them online.

4. Photographs

Just because you don’t have a copy of his photo doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist! Search on Google, the catalogs of historical societies, the Library of Congress, etc. to look for photos of your ancestor. You’ll never know unless you look.

What other sources have you found for a description of your Civil War ancestor?

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description. "Brothers Captain John M. Raines of Co. C, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Private Thomas ("Thadde") Raines of Co. E, 5th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, in uniform." Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Brothers Captain John M. Raines of Co. C, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Private Thomas (“Thadde”) Raines of Co. E, 5th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, in uniform.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What Did Your Civil War Ancestor Look Like

Using the 1890 Civil War Veterans Census

Yes, you read the title correctly. The 1890 census. The one that was almost entirely destroyed. Although the vast majority of the population schedule is gone forever, there is a part that mostly survived: the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Their Widows (AKA “the 1890 Civil War Veterans Census.”)

About the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans

This census schedule was taken at the same time as the “regular” part of the census (the population schedule that we normally use.) The good news is that it didn’t sustain nearly the damage that the 1890 population schedule did. The bad news is that it didn’t survive completely unscathed. Schedules survive for about half of Kentucky through Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia. There are also a handful of pages for California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, and Kansas. The images are available on Ancestry and FamilySearch.

1890 Civil War Veterans Census, Bourbon County, KentuckyWhat It Contains

The record itself is on one page, but it is in two parts: the top half of the page and the bottom half. The top half of the page includes the veteran’s name (and the name of his widow, if applicable), his regiment or ship, and the dates he served. The bottom half lists his post office, disability incurred in the service, and remarks. Let’s take a closer look. Here is part of the top half of the page in Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky:

1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Their Widows, Bourbon County, Kentucky

1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Their Widows, Bourbon County, Kentucky. (Click to enlarge.)

Line #5 shows John Throckmorton, a 1st Lieutenant in the 5th Vol. Cavalry. (Whether this was the 5th Kentucky Cavalry or the 5th US Cavalry is unclear.) On line #6, we have Fannie Naugle, widow of Frank Naugle of the 4th Ohio Cavalry. (Note that she’s living in Kentucky, but her husband served in an Ohio unit.) Line #7 shows Samuel Stephens, who served in both the 10th Kentucky Infantry and the 40th Kentucky Infantry. Line #11 is an oops. The schedule was just supposed to include Union veterans and widows, but James Fee’s name was crossed out later with the note “Con Sol” — Confederate Soldier. Tip: Even if your ancestor was a Confederate, it doesn’t hurt to take a look in this schedule! 1890-bouron-co-ky-bottom Use the line numbers to match up the two halves of the record. John Throckmorton from line 5 was shot in the left elbow and thrown from a horse. Samuel Stephens on line 7 was “ruptured in right side” and “drawing a pension.”

Why You Should Take a Look

With the destruction of the 1890 population schedule, we need to examine every record we can to fill in the gap between 1880 and 1900. These schedules put our ancestors in a specific place at a specific time. Plus, they give us great leads for further research. Using the 1890 Civil War Veterans Census