3 Clues for Discovering Military Service

Digging into military records can yield an incredible amount of information about our ancestors. (My favorite is my 3rd-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension file. It showed that he married his second wife 12 days after she divorced her previous husband. Yeah, that.) While some records will spell out military service, there are times when we need to tease that fact out. Here are 3 clues to look for to discover your ancestor’s military service. 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

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.

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

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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 that 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…. )

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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?

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

State Soldiers Homes: A Different Place to Look

After I published “National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource,” a reader contacted me and said she couldn’t find her ancestor in the registers. Family lore said that he was in “the soldiers home,” but his name wasn’t in the collections on Ancestry or FamilySearch. Though the National Homes are great resources, they aren’t the only places where disabled veterans lived after the war. There were also state soldiers homes.

State Soldiers Homes vs. National Homes

Main Building, Michigan Soldiers Home

Michigan Soldiers Homes, Grand Rapids

Various states opened their own homes for their disabled and indigent veterans. Many of these opened after the Civil War, like the National Homes did. They functioned in the same way as the National Homes — providing housing and medical care for veterans who didn’t have the means to take care of themselves.

The political reasons for these were numerous. Some states didn’t have a National Home; their veterans would have had to go far from family and friends to get care. Others wanted more direct control over the services provided to their veterans. Southern states had an additional reason for opening their own homes: Confederate veterans couldn’t be admitted to National Homes.

The criteria for entering a state soldiers home varied from state to state. Most had a residency requirement of some sort. Some would allow the admission of veterans’ wives and widows. (They would be housed in different buildings.)

Records for State Soldiers Homes

Three types of records that are especially useful to genealogists are the admission registers, admission applications, and annual reports.

Admission registers were usually kept in ledger books and give a recap of the veteran’s stay(s) in that facility.

Admission applications are just that: applications for admission to the home. They usually involve a form of some sort, but can also include affidavits and supporting documentation of why he or she meets the criteria for admission.

Annual reports can be quite detailed. It isn’t unusual to find:

  • List of residents (or “inmates”) living there during the previous year
  • List of deaths during the previous year
  • Conditions at the home

The 1902 Annual Report of the Indiana State Soldiers’ Home lists everyone who was living in the home:

Indiana Soldiers Home, 1902

It also lists those who died the previous year:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Deaths, 1902

Curious about what they had to eat? They have sample menus:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Menu, 1902

Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know what “pickle pork” is.

Finding State Soldiers Home Records

There are several places to look for the records of state soldiers homes:

Google Books and Internet Archive are especially good for finding annual reports. You’ll have to play with the search terms, but doing a general search of <state soldiers home> such as indiana soldiers home is a good place to start.

Some states, such as Virginia, have put their soldier home records online. (You can search or browse the Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers’ Home Applications for Admission here.)

Also look in the Family History Library catalog to see what might be available on microfilm.

Do you have any ancestors who lived in a state veterans home?

National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource

In his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Bryan Cranston used a resource that I love: the register from a U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. These records are often overlooked in Civil War research, overshadowed by pension and service records. However, there are clues in these registers that we need to look at.

A History of the National Homes

The Civil War left countless men with injuries — physical, mental, emotional — that rendered them unable to live the life they had before the war. To care for these men (specifically, those who fought for the Union), Congress authorized the National Homes of Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1865. (They were originally called the National Asylums; “Asylum” was changed to “Home” in 1873.) Union veterans who could prove their disability were related to their service were eligible for admission. The requirements were loosened over time to allow veterans from other wars and those whose disabilities were not service-related.

Admission to the Homes were voluntary and veterans could choose which Home they wanted. Some opted for one in warmer areas, such as the Pacific Branch near Los Angeles. Some chose a home near he had children living. (Always research all of the children!)

The National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers included:

  • Eastern Branch, Togus Springs, Maine
  • Central Branch, Dayton, Ohio
  • Northwestern Branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Southern Branch, Hampton, Virginia
  • Western Branch, Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Pacific Branch, Sawtelle, California
  • Marion Branch, Marion, Indiana
  • Danville Branch, Danville, Illinois
  • Mountain Branch, Johnson City, Tennessee
  • Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Hot Springs, South Dakota
  • Bath Branch, Bath, New York
  • Roseburg Branch, Roseburg, Oregon
  • St. Petersburg Home, St. Petersburg, Florida
  • Biloxi Home, Biloxi, Mississippi
  • Tuskegee Home, Tuskegee, Alabama

The Records

The records that family historians will get the most out of are the registers. Here’s the entry for Joseph H. Cranston, Bryan Cranston’s great-great-grandfather:

Joseph H Cranston, Central Branch, U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Dayton, Ohio

Joseph H. Cranston, “United States National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21047-1681-71?cc=1916230 : accessed 25 August 2015), Dayton, Ohio > Register no. 10500-11999 > image 612 of 777; citing NARA microfilm publication T1749 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). Click to enlarge.

The Military History section at the top contains a recap of Joseph’s military service, including three different regiments that he served in during the Civil War. It also lists “varicose veins” as the kind of disability he had.


The Domestic History section is where we can find some good biographical details, which is certainly the case with Joseph Cranston. Here’s the first part of that section:


We learn his birthplace as County Armagh, Ireland. He was age 57 when he was admitted. After he left the service, he lived in Fostoria, Ohio and was a carpenter. The right-hand part of this section gives even more clues:


He claimed to be single. He lists his friend Nathan Hatfield of Fostoria as his nearest relative. (Joseph’s son would probably disagree with that distinction.)

The Home History section is where the National Home would list when and where the veteran was admitted. It isn’t unusual to find a veteran staying for short periods of time over several years or moving to a different home. Joseph, however, was admitted to the Central Branch Home in Dayton on 1 September 1883 and there he stayed.


The right-hand portion tells about Joseph’s death:


He died 4 March 1889 from inhaling gas. He’s buried in section H3, grave 2.

The General Remarks section can contain all sorts of comments about the veteran. Here’s what Joseph Cranston’s record has:


“Mar. 8th 1889. Appraised Personal Effects $0.25”

Something not in Joseph Cranston’s record is his physical description. This section was added to later registers.

Finding These Records

The registers of most of the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers are available on FamilySearch and on Ancestry. Some of the homes in these collections also have burial and/or death records. Note: neither site has the registers of the St. Petersburg, Biloxi, or Tuskegee homes. You will need to contact the National Archives for those records.

In addition to the National Homes, many states had their own soldiers/veterans homes. You can find out more about those in my post “State Soldiers Homes: A Different Place to Look.”