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

Treasures in a Random War of 1812 Pension File

Footnote.com recently released the first 1,400 images of the War of 1812 pension files, as part of its partnership with the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Archives. (You can read the full announcement here.) As promised, these images are free — no subscription required!

What’s so great about War of 1812 pension files? They can contain details not only of the veteran’s service, but his marriages, children, residences, and more. I decided to pick a random War of 1812 pension file and see what all I could glean from it.

Veteran: James Abbott of Ohio. You’ll notice on this page that many of the details contained in the file have been summarized. (No, I didn’t read this page and then choose him for my subject!) Even if the pension file you’re interested in has a summary page like this, read the entire file. You never know what else is in there (or what mistakes might have been made when that summary sheet was created).

Service: Captain Patrick Shaw’s Company, Ohio Militia. Enlisted 6 February 1813; discharged 6 August 1813. (page 6 and page 47). Drafted at Lebanon, Ohio (page 14)

Pension: Granted a pension of $8/month, 18 November 1871 (page 6), certificate number 8404 (page 2)

Bounty Land Warrant: 10713-160-55 (page 8 )

Residences:

  • Warren County, Ohio (page 21)
  • Miami County, Ohio (page 21)
  • Niles Township, Delaware County, Indiana “for 24 years” (stated 21 March 1871) (page 14); Moved to Delaware County, Indiana in 1846 (page 21)
  • Delaware County, Indiana (Granville post office), 25 March 1871 (page 6)

Born: circa 1794 (was 77 in 1781) (page 14) in Clermont County, Ohio (page 21)

Died: 14 October 1874 (page 8) at Delaware County, Indiana (page 21). See also page 52.

Physical Description (age 18): 5′ 9″, dark hair, blue eyes, light complexion (page 21)

Occupation: “Carpenter, and farming until within the last fifteen years he could not farm on account of age,” 21 March 1871 (page 14)

Widow: Rosa, received $8/month pension, certificate 13344 dated 19 December 1878 (page 5)

Marriages:

  • Rosa Keenan, near Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio, 19 June 1824, by Mahlon Roach, JP (page 21 and page 33)
  • According to Rosa, neither she nor James had been married previously (page 21)

Children:

  • Son William, age 44 (stated 27 March 1878) residing in Muncie, Indiana; his wife is F. Martha Abbott (page 22)

Witnesses:

  • John C. Matthews and William H. Stewart, both of Delaware County, who had known James for 20 years, 21 March 1871 (page 14 and page 15)
  • William and F. Martha Abbott (page 17)
  • Thomas J. Sample and William Abbott (page 21)
  • William H. Stewart and Amos L. Wilson, stating that James Abbott never aided in the rebellion (Civil War) (page 23)
  • Jacob F. Peterson and Henry Shaw, testified to death of James Abbott and that Rosa Abbott had not remarried (page 52)

Preserve the PensionsSee what a great resource War of 1812 pension files are?! These pension files, which had never even been microfilmed before, are being digitized thanks to the Preserve the Pensions project. This project seeks to raise $3.7 million to digitize and post online the 7.2 million pages of War of 1812 pension files.

You can help! Each dollar donated will digitize two images. Please visit the Preserve the Pensions page for more information. Preserve the Pensions is also on Facebook and on Twitter.

Digitizing War of 1812 Pension Files

From the 12 April 2011 press release by the Federation of Genealogical Societies and iArchives:

iArchives today announced a collaboration with the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) to digitize 180,000 pension applications, or an estimated 7.2 million pages of War of 1812 Pension Applications and Bounty Land Warrants. The collection will be available on iArchives’ military records website, Footnote.com, home of more than 72 million historical records.

The multi-year project will consist of scanning the pension files at the National Archives in Washington D.C. and creating a searchable index to the digital images. FGS has targeted the War of 1812 Pension Applications as a high priority project based on the value of the content for genealogists as well as the importance of preserving the fragile records.

“Our goal with any collaboration is to honor our nation’s heritage by preserving the records of our past,” said Patricia Oxley, President of FGS. “In the specific case of the War of 1812 pension records, there is an added priority due to their frail state where not acting may mean sacrificing these for future generations.”

With the burden of proof on the applicant to qualify for a pension, those applying proved participation in the war by including dozens of vividly descriptive pages.  Details recorded include military battle stories, service dates, mentions of fellow soldiers, family relations, marriages, widows’ maiden names and many other clues significant to researchers. The breadth of information allows the pension files to tell the richest story of that time period.

“The most popular database on Footnote.com today is the Revolutionary War Pensions which is very similar content,” said Brian Hansen, General Manager at Footnote.com. “Our users have been asking for the War of 1812 pension records for some time, and I expect this collection to be very popular based on the rich war time detail it contains.  We are pleased to make these records available for free on Footnote.com as a result of FGS fundraising efforts to subsidize the production cost.” [emphasis added — ajc]

FGS is proud to be leading the national fundraising to support this project and is actively seeking donations from genealogical and historical societies, patriotic and military heritage societies, as well as interested corporations and individuals.  iArchives is providing a dollar-for-dollar match of each donation through a provision of services. To learn more and contribute to the project, visitwww.fgs.org/1812.


Page from War of 1812 Pension of Henry Lightner, Pennsylvania. Image at ACPL Genealogy Center.

That’s pretty exciting stuff! I’ve used War of 1812 pension files and they can be fabulous resources. There are two things I’d like to point out:

  1. Did you catch that part about the images will be free on Footnote? Free. As in you won’t need to pay to see them.
  2. FGS is raising funds to pay for the production.

According to the “Preserve the Pensions” page on the FGS website, each dollar raised will digitize two images.

That’s already a good deal, but you can make each dollar of your donation digitize four images! How? Donate through the Indiana Genealogical Society. IGS will match donations between now and June 30, 2011 (up to a total of $10,000). So if you donate $10 through IGS, they’ll match it — making the total donation to Preserve the Pensions $20. Donate $100 and IGS will match it, for a total donation of $200.

Working together — it’s a wonderful thing!

Presenting Civil War topics at Allen County

I am thrilled to be the featured speaker at the ACPL Genealogy Center’s Military Symposium this year. With the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Civil War, this year’s symposium will revolve around Civil War topics. I will present one of the lectures on Friday and all four on Saturday.

The symposium is sponsored by the Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana, Inc.

On Friday, October 8:

  • 2:30-3:30: “Using Military Records for Genealogical Research” by Curt Witcher
  • 4:00-5:00: “The Last Full Measure: Military Burials” (I have some cool examples that I’m very excited about!)

On Saturday, October 9:

  • 9:30-10:30: “Researching Your Civil War Ancestor Online”
  • 11:00-12:00: “State and Local Records for Civil War Research”
  • 1:30-2:30: “After Mustering Out: Researching Civil War Veterans”
  • 3:00-4:00: “For Benefit of the Soldier: Civil War Fraternal Organizations”

All of the sessions will be in meeting room A-B at the Allen County Public Library, 900 Library Plaza, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Cost is $25. Make checks payable to ACGSI and send to:

Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana
PO Box 12003
Fort Wayne, IN 46862

For more information, visit the Genealogy Center’s programs page or call (260) 421-1225. I look forward to seeing you there!

Celebrating the 2nd War for Independence

While celebrating Independence Day this weekend, think about not only the American Revolution but also the 2nd War for Independence: the War of 1812.

Although England agreed to withdraw her troops as a condition of the Treaty of Paris (ending the American Revolution), British troops remained in territory claimed by the United States. Most were positioned near and around the Great Lakes, in places such as Detroit and present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh was successful in forging a pan-Indian confederation which worked with the British against the Americans. War was finally declared in 1812.

Ohio was key in the War of 1812. Not only was it the site of the pivotal American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, but she also supplied numerous troops to aid the U.S. effort.

Surprisingly, the National Archives has never microfilmed the War of 1812 pension files. They are among the most-often requested records, with approximately 3,000 of them requested every year.

Preserve the PensionsRecently, the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) announced a program — Preserve the Pensions! — which seeks to raise $3.7 million to digitize these 7.2 million pages. The files have been prepared and the digital cameras are ready to roll. The only thing the National Archives needs is the funding.

You can help. Each dollar donated to Preserve the Pensions will digitize two pages of War of 1812 pension files. Further, FGS has reached an agreement with the National Archives so that the digitized images will be freely available on the Internet — not “trapped” in a website that you need to pay for.

So as you’re celebrating Independence Day, celebrate both of the wars for Independence and consider making a tax-deductible donation to Preserve the Pensions.