Posted by Ancestry Team on November 6, 2014 in Collections, Research

Whether you call it the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Secession, the War of Northern Aggression, or even “the Late Unpleasantness,” if you have ancestors who lived in the United States between 1861 and 1865, they were probably impacted in some way by the Civil War.

Finding the Right Service

Approximately 2.75 million men (and a few women) fought in the American Civil War. Chances are pretty good that there was more than one man who served who had the same name as your ancestor. So how do you tell which one is yours? (And keep in mind that not everyone served.)

What clues do you already have? Letters and diaries, if you’re fortunate enough to have them from your ancestor, can contain invaluable information about their service.  But if you’re not among the lucky ones who have letters and diaries, try looking at tombstones and obituaries. County histories published in the late 1800s and early 1900s often list the men from their area who served, along with their regiment.

Civil War Records

Government bureaucracy had really taken hold by the time of the Civil War. While it probably infuriated a lot of the soldiers (and, later, the veterans), it makes for some great records for us family historians to use. Here are some collections on Ancestry that can help you determine if that’s the person you’re looking for.

U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865.  This is an index to the compiled service records for both Union and Confederate soldiers. While the index itself doesn’t provide a great deal of biographical information, taking the unit information and researching that can be enlightening. Use this data along with county histories or unit/regimental histories (many are online). Units were often formed locally – finding where a unit was formed can help you narrow down the possibilities for your ancestor.

U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. The information in each record varies, but can have enough biographical detail to help you determine if the person is your ancestor or just someone with the same name.

U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. Important note: this index is only for those who served in the Union. However, the detail can help those who have Yankee ancestors. The name of the widow is often included. Here we see Henry Brown who served in Company G, 9th Indiana Infantry and had a widow named Hannah. If your Henry Brown had a widow named Edith, this probably isn’t your man. Another clue – the date of application for the veteran and the widow. This Henry applied 8 September 1892; Hannah applied 10 October 1914. Do those dates match with what you know about your Henry?


Various Confederate pension collections. Although the federal government didn’t issue pensions to Confederate veterans (except for a handful issued specially in the 20th century), several states did. The key is that eligibility was based on where you were living, not where you served from. Ancestry has several collections of Confederate pension files, many of which include digital images of the file itself. One such collection is Alabama, Texas and Virginia, Confederate Pensions, 1884-1958. To find others, do a search in the Card Catalog for “Confederate” in the title.

1890 Veterans Schedules.  This is one of my favorite Civil War resources. Although the vast majority of the 1890 U.S. census was destroyed, about half of the schedule for Union veterans and their widows survived (approximately half of Kentucky through Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia). The records include the man’s regiment or ship. If you have an idea where your ancestor was living in 1890 and it was one of the areas covered, definitely take a look. Bonus: although it was supposed to be just for Union veterans, there are some Confederates listed as well.

state-mapConfederate researchers, your task can be a little tougher, since the records tend to be on a state-by-state basis, rather than part of the records of the federal government. To see what collections might be applicable to your search, go to the search page and scroll to the map at the bottom. Click on the state you’re interested in and then scroll down to the section on Military records.

Petersburg, Virginia. Engineers at H.Q., Army of the Potomac. From the Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000.
Petersburg, Virginia. Engineers at H.Q., Army of the Potomac. From the Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000.

This post is part of our Veterans Day series highlighting American service members that helped shape our great country. Follow the series each day from November 5-11, 2014.


  1. Roberta Leatherwood

    Photograph (formal of 5 CIVIL WAR men) posted by Ancestry on Facebook yesterday 11/06 or today 11/07; can the subjects be identified? The gentleman on the left end looks very much like my great-grandfather.

  2. Pat Fox

    my wife has run into a problem, the grave of her great great grandfather has him listed as another Southern solider with the same name, the records are switched. Trying to get that changed, this has caused her not to get recognition for his service through the UDC. The other one was a deserter.

  3. AltonAnthony

    Pat, there may be a chance other family served with your wife’s gggrandfather. A lot of family members joined together and that may get her in, until your get the others straight. Happy hunting! Thanks Amy, for the hint’s. I have mini armies on both sides and my main problem is matching their records with similar names.

  4. Stacy M

    The General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 is NOT merely a ‘Civil War’ index, and naming it as such helps to conceal from researchers the fact that veterans will be found there who fought in the Late Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War (named on the index ‘War with Spain”), and the Philippine Insurrection.

    Re-naming it a Civil War index is nothing more than a marketing decision, and a misleading one.

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