Researching Civil War Ancestors, Part I: Did Any of Your Ancestors Fight?

Painting of the Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh. Is your ancestor in this picture?

(This post is the first in a multi-part series that will outline how to research your Civil War ancestors.)

No war in US history caused more American deaths than the Civil War. Hardly a family survived it without being touched by it in a profound and painful way. I have a number of ancestors who fought in the Civil War on both sides (and one who died in it; more on him later). If your family immigrated to the United States prior to the 1850s, you probably do, too. And it has never been easier to find out about them–the battles in which they fought, the sufferings they endured, and the wounds they received–than it is today.

The first thing to do when trying to discover more about your Civil War ancestors is to narrow down which of them is most likely to have fought based on their age, gender, and where they lived. Almost all Civil War soldiers were male, though some women did sneak into units disguised as men. Most (though not all!) of them also had been living in the United States for some time before the war. I have run across many immigrant men on family trees who did not serve in the war, as this was not uncommon. Lastly, men serving were usually between the ages of 15 and 35 (though occasionally you see some a bit younger or somewhat older). The War began in 1861, which would mean that to find your Civil War ancestor, you want to scan your tree for men born between 1826 and 1846 and who lived in the US during and immediately preceding the Civil War.

Photo of Unknown Civil War Soldiers. Are you related to them?

When I scan my tree for people fitting this profile, I run across the following:

  • Robert Humphries Tucker, b. 1843 in South Carolina
  • Sanford Redman, b. 1831 in South Carolina
  • David Johnson, b. 1835 in Kentucky
  • Lemuel Jefferson Adamson, b. 1829 in Tennessee
  • Newell Elijah Gile, b. 1840 in Ohio
  • Steadman Gray, b. 1836 in Indiana
  • Andrew John Dewitt, b. 1826 in Ohio
  • John Wesley Andrew, b. 1843 in Indiana
  • Rice B. Bryan, b. 1826 in Pennsylvania

Go ahead and look at your own tree to develop a list of ancestors who may have served in the Civil War. Some of them you may have heard stories about already, some of them you may know nothing about. Through my own research, I have learned that at least six of the men listed above served. I have learned the wounds they suffered and the battles they fought in. Even found a few battles in which my ancestors fought each other, little knowing that they would someday share a great-great grandson!

I will show you how you can discover these things for yourself about your own ancestors. For Part 2 of this series, look for a guide to finding out for certain whether your ancestor was a Civil War soldier using freely-available military records.



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