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?

Posted: January 5, 2016.

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