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. 

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(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. 

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 Ancestry.com.

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. 

Conclusion

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. 

Identify your ancestor's #CivilWar unit and you'll be able to discover more records about him. Here's how. #genealogy #familyhistory #militaryhistory #ancestry

14 thoughts on “How to Find Your Ancestor’s Civil War Unit

  1. Great pray Amy. I don’t know I had a Civil War ancestor until someone posted his tombstone on Find A Grave.

    I was indexing GAR records and they have the units. I haven’t filled up to see if the indexes are live on FamilySearch yet.

    My other thought would be to check the In United Daughters of the Confederacy. I’m not sure how but I just visited with a local chapter and they have me wanting to learn more about their research efforts

    • That’s a website that’s near and dear to my heart, as I helped coordinate the Ohio portion of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give enough information to tell apart men with the same name. It’ll tell you the men with that name who served, but there isn’t enough detail to be able to tell which (if any) is your ancestor.

  2. For people without Ancestry or Fold3 subscriptions, it’s useful to know that the images of pension file index cards are available for free on FamilySearch.org, too.

    Sometimes the cards point to a lot more than just the unit and the pension file, showing that the soldier had moved to another state after the war, indicating a “died-by” date when his widow applied, or listing minor children who might not appear together in a census, because the soldier’s death caused them to move in with other relatives. Even when I know a man’s unit information, I always look for the pension file index card and take the time to analyze it.

    • Thank you for pointing out that the General Index images are now available on FamilySearch. I will make that correction above. However, the organizational index cards that are on Fold3 are not on FamilySearch. (FamilySearch has the searchable index, but not the images.)

  3. Searching the Gen’l Index, I have found that my 2nd Great Grandfather, Michael Ralph, was a U.S. Marine. He was an Irish immigrant who came over just before the Civil War and enlisted. Further searches on Ancestry “Marine Corps Muster Rolls” revealed he served on the USS Constellation (currently docked in Baltimore) when it captured the slave ship Delicia. He later transferred to the U.S. Steamer San Jacinto, and was serving aboard during the capture of the slave ships Storm King and Bonito

  4. What records would you look to determine that your ancestor did not serve in the Civil War? In a newspaper article he is listed as being drafted, however, I have not found any record of him serving and it was possible to pay someone to take your place.

    • You’re exactly right about being drafted does not necessarily mean that he served. It’s hard to prove a negative, but there are several records I would look at. Does his obituary list any service or that his funeral was conducted by a military organization like the GAR or the UCV? If he was a supposedly a Union veteran and lived in a state Kentucky-Wyoming in 1890, look for him on the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Widows. Also look for him on the 1910 federal census and look for something written in column 30. (Here’s more about what to look for there.) Consider symbols on his tombstone and any flag holders. Does the county where he’s buried have a Graves Registration file? (Graves Registration was started in the 1930s as a WPA project and lists where the veterans in the county are buried.) You could also contact the state archives to see if they have the draft records. Many of the ones that I’ve seen indicate whether a person provided a substitute.

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