Discover Revolutionary and Civil War Ancestors
There's something a bit special and awe-inspiring about having an ancestor who served in the American Revolution or Civil War — knowing that someone from whom you descend participated in the struggle to win the freedoms you enjoy today. Whether you agree with their reasons for fighting or the side for which they fought, it can be a real source of pride to have ancestors who were willing to fight and die for a cause they so strongly believed in. Learning about these ancestors and their beliefs can also help connect you to a very important part of this nation's history in a way that almost nothing else can.
The American Revolution
Whether you're interested in joining a lineage society such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or Sons of the American Revolution, or just want to learn more about possible Revolutionary ancestors, a good place to start your online search is the Genealogical Research System of the Daughters of the American Revolution (
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will furnish, upon request and at no charge to the applicant, a government headstone or marker for the grave of any eligible deceased veteran in any city around the world, including those buried in private cemeteries. Learn more about the eligibility requirements and how to apply for a military marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs (
Next, check out Footnote (
A few other excellent online databases for Revolutionary-era research include:
American Genealogical-Biographical Index (
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation (
Many Revolutionary War soldiers fought in the state militia, and their records will usually be found among the appropriate state's records, not in the National Archives. Various state archives, historical societies, and other organizations have posted some of their state Revolutionary War records online. Examples include Pennsylvania Revolutionary War Military Abstract Card File Indexes (
A discussion of American Revolution research wouldn't be complete without a reminder that there was another side to the war. You may have ancestors who were Loyalists, or Tories — colonists who remained loyal subjects of the British crown and actively worked to promote the interest of Great Britain during the American Revolution. After the war ended, many of these Loyalists were driven from their homes by local officials or neighbors, and almost all moved on to resettle in Canada, England, Jamaica, and other British-held regions. The Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (
The Civil War
The Civil War marked the most tragic chapter of American history. As with the Revolutionary War, the conflict tore apart families, friendships, and even towns. These divided loyalties mean that you may find you have ancestors that fought on both sides.
If your ancestor was born between about 1805 and 1847, chances are good that he may have fought in the Civil War. Even men in their sixties and boys in their early teens participated. But where did he serve, and for which side? The three most valuable pieces of information necessary for researching a Civil War ancestor are the soldier's name, whether he served for the Confederate or Union Army, and the state from which the soldier served. With this information you can determine what types of records are available that might tell you about your ancestor and where he is located. Remember, there were two national governments in effect during those years — the federal government of the United States and the Confederate States of America. Combined with the massive destruction of property, especially in the South, this means that many of the existing records have been left fragmented and scattered among the National Archives, state archives, lineage societies, and other repositories. Plenty of excellent Civil War records do exist; they are just not all in one place. Therefore, the biggest hurdle in Civil War research is often in knowing where to look.
The first step in documenting your ancestor's Civil War service is to search service records and rosters for his name. The previously mentioned Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (
If you find your ancestor in either the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database or the American Civil War Research Database, you can often learn more by accessing his complete compiled military service record. These can be ordered online through the National Archives. Alternatively, Footnote has digitized these files and placed them online where you can access them a bit cheaper and a lot quicker!
Why aren't Confederate ancestors found in the National Archives?
Actually, the National Archives does hold the compiled military service records of Confederate officers and enlisted men, containing information taken from documents captured by Union forces and from Union prison and parole records. Because the Confederate States of America operated as a separate government, however, Confederate pensions and bounty land were authorized by the individual Confederate or border states and the records are generally found in the respective state archives.
Once you've confirmed your ancestor's Civil War service you can often learn further details about him in pension records. If he lived long enough, the chances are good that your Union Civil War ancestor applied for a pension. If not, his widow or dependents likely applied. These federal pension records are available from the National Archives and can be ordered online. As previously mentioned, both
The federal government did not offer pensions to Confederate soldiers until 1959, by which time the majority of Confederate veterans and their widows were deceased. Most Confederate states administered their own pension program, however. The veteran was eligible to apply for a pension to the state in which he lived, regardless of the unit in which he served. Generally, only indigent or disabled Confederate veterans, or their dependents, were eligible for pensions. The majority of these pension records can be found in the appropriate state archives, library, or historical society.
As with other genealogy records, a good search engine query such as [your state] “civil war” genealogy or [your state] “civil war” records will turn up a variety of useful databases and resources such as the Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861–1865 (