Researching A Civil War Ancestor in National Archives Records
Over 2.8 million men (and a few hundred women) served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. This page briefly describes resources for researching the military service of individual Civil War soldiers.
For Union army soldiers, there are three major records in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that provide information on military service: (1) compiled military service record (CMSR); (2) pension application file; and (3) records reproduced in microfilm publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations (225 rolls).
For Confederate army soldiers, there are two major records in NARA that provide information on military service: (1) compiled military service record (CMSR) and (2) records reproduced in microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). Records relating to Confederate soldiers are typically less complete than those relating to Union soldiers because many Confederate records did not survive the war.
NARA does not have pension files for Confederate soldiers. Pensions were granted to Confederate veterans and their widows and minor children by the States of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia; these records are in the state archives or equivalent agency.
Discussion of the Basic Records
Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR)
Each volunteer soldier has one Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) for each regiment in which he served. The CMSR contains basic information about the soldier's military career, and it is the first source the researcher should consult. The CMSR is an envelope (a jacket) containing one or more cards. These cards typically indicate that the soldier was present or absent during a certain period of time. Other cards may indicate the date of enlistment and discharge, amount of bounty paid him, and other information such as wounds received during battle or hospitalization for injury or illness. The soldier's place of birth may be indicated; if foreign born, only the country of birth is stated. The CMSR may contain an internal jacket for so-called "personal papers" of various kinds. These may include a copy of the soldier's enlistment paper, papers relating to his capture and release as a prisoner of war, or a statement that he had no personal property with him when he died. Note, however, that the CMSR rarely indicates battles in which a soldier fought; that information must be derived from other sources.
A CMSR is as complete as the surviving records of an individual soldier or his unit. The War Department compiled the CMSRs from the original muster rolls and other records some years after the war to permit more rapid and efficient checking of military and medical records in connection with claims for pensions and other veterans' benefits. The abstracts were so carefully prepared that it is rarely necessary to consult the original muster rolls and other records from which they were made. When the War Department created CMSRs at the turn of the century, information from company muster rolls, regimental returns, descriptive books, hospital rolls, and other records was copied verbatim onto cards. A separate card was prepared each time an individual name appeared on a document. These cards were all numbered on the back, and these numbers were entered onto the outside jacket containing the cards. The numbers on the jacket correspond with the numbers on the cards within the jacket. These numbers were used by the War Department only for control purposes while the CMSRs were being created; the numbers do not refer to other records regarding a veteran nor are they useful for reference purposes today.
Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls).
The pension file will often contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the CMSR, and it may contain much medical information if he lived for a number of years afterwards. For example, in his pension file, Seth Combs of Company C, 2d Ohio Cavalry, reported: "...my left eye was injured while tearing down a building...and in pulling off a board a splinter or piece struck my eye and injured it badly...it was hurt while in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Va. about Christmas 1864--a comrade who stood by me name Jim Beach is dead." In another affidavit, Seth said he "also got the Rheumatism while on duty as a dispatch bearer on detached duty."
To obtain a widow's pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier's minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier's marriage and proof of the children's birth.
Record of Events
Sometimes, additional information about a soldier's war activities can be deduced from the compilations of the activities of each company known colloquially as the "record of events." These records, which were compiled from information on the original muster rolls and returns, are uneven in content; some give day-by-day narratives of a company's activities, while others simply note that the company was stationed at a certain place during the reporting period (usually 2-months). Although they rarely name individual soldiers, the descriptions of the activities and movements of the company can be used, in conjunction with the soldier's CMSR and pension file, to determine where the soldier was and what he was doing. As noted above, records of Union regiments are reproduced in microfilm publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations (225 rolls), and records of Confederate regiments are reproduced in microfilm publication M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations (74 rolls). These records are arranged by state, thereunder by regiment, and thereunder by company. These records are being published as Janet B. Hewett, et al., Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 51 vols. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1994-97).
To obtain Civil War military service and pension records by mail
Paper copies of Civil War military service and pension records can be ordered by mail using one NATF Form 80 for each soldier and each type of file. You can obtain the NATF Form 80 by providing your name and mailing address to email@example.com. Be sure to specify "Form 80" and the number of forms you need.
You can also obtain the NATF Form 80 by writing to: National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWDT1, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.