Monday, June 25, 2012

Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database - Part 1

After I wrote Tuesday's Tip - Use the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Site two weeks ago, reader Kathleen Nitsch emailed me and noted that "...But toward the end of your post, you said 'If they aren't included here, then they probably did not serve in the Civil War.' Perhaps I've misunderstood this comment, but I believe you've overestimated how comprehensive this index is if you're searching for Confederate soldiers and sailors."  During our email conversation, I asked Kathy if she could explain what she meant in an article about her studies of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database here on Genea-Musings.  She agreed, and there are two more articles coming in the pipeline.

The Sailors Index to the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database
Copyright (c) 2012, Kathleen Nitsch

When I read Randy’s blog post about the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database (CWSS), it struck me that he’s exactly right about its importance as a gateway to the records of your ancestor’s Civil War military service. It is always my first stop in researching a Civil War veteran. But with Confederate soldiers, the CWSS database is less than complete. When I mentioned this to Randy in an email, he invited me to explain what researchers need to know about searching this database for Confederate soldiers. First I said “yes” (how hard could it be, right?), then I realized that the Confederate soldiers aren’t the only group who might be hard to locate. Whether your ancestors were loyal to the Union or supported the Confederacy, you won’t get all you should out of the CWSS database unless you understand how it was constructed. 

Sure, I was right about the Rebel soldiers who were missing. But to understand why some soldiers and sailors aren’t included, you need to know more about the index itself and about the records that are linked to it. This basic knowledge will also help you find more of the information that is available for your Union soldiers. And it will even explain why many genealogists with ancestors in the Union and Confederate navies won’t find them in the Sailors Index. 

There’s too much information to cram into a single blog post, so I decided to start with the Sailors Index. Why? First, because it’s quite different from the much larger (and more familiar) Soldiers Index. One of the few things the two have in common is that both are hosted on the National Parks Service website. But I’ve also discovered such interesting stories tied to the Sailors database—and I never could resist an interesting story.

Exactly who is included in the Sailors database?

The Sailors database contains names of the approximately 18,000 African American sailors (including 11 women!) who have been identified in Union navy records at the U.S. National Archives (NARA). There are another 100,000 or so Union sailors whose records have not yet been searched and abstracted and no Confederate sailors are included in this database. 

The Soldiers database is huge (6.3 million records). Why is the Sailors database so small?

The problem stems from marked differences between army and navy records in the National Archives. The original records of the Union navy were not as well organized and analyzed as those for the army. In particular, although there were individual Compiled Military Service Records abstracted from army records for Union and Confederate soldiers, no individual service records had been created for Civil War sailors. Further complicating the situation, the naval records had not even been microfilmed. 

So how did they identify the 18,000 black sailors?

This first stage in a long-term project to compile a database of all Union and Confederate sailors was completed in 2000. Supported by funding from the U.S. Defense Department, the National Park Service partnered with Howard University to identify African American sailors who served in the Union navy during the Civil War. The researchers combed through a very large collection of original records, searching for every instance where a black sailor was mentioned by name. The resulting database was used to create the current version of the Sailors Index. Although it is anticipated that the records of all Union and Confederate naval personnel will eventually be added to the database, I haven’t seen a projected completion date. I’d guess it will be a while into the future before this labor-intensive task is accomplished.   

Since it’s incomplete, should I even bother searching this database? 

It depends. Who were your ancestors? It’s clear that many Union sailors (probably around 100,000) will not be found in the current database. And none of the names of Confederate sailors have been indexed. So for now (and, I suspect, for the immediate future) the Sailors Index can only give persons of African American descent a definitive answer to the question Was my ancestor a Union sailor during the Civil War? 

If your African American ancestor was a Union sailor, there’s an excellent chance that information on his service is included in the Sailors database. But I suspect there are genealogists with ancestors in the database who don’t realize they should be searching the Sailors Index. They might never consider that an ancestor who had been enslaved in a Confederate state at the outset of the war could somehow have managed to join the Union navy. But it did happen—in numbers which were significant. Over 7,800 black sailors in the Union navy were born in the Confederate states. 

Are you surprised? I sure was. 

It’s easy to overlook the fact that sailors were recruited from locations far away from the major Atlantic ports. The Union navy had riverine units deployed along the Mississippi and other inland waterways and many black sailors served as part of the original “brown-water navy.” You’ll find records of at least 2,000 enslaved African Americans from Mississippi River plantations who enlisted in the navy’s Mississippi Squadron. 

For each of those former slaves, their military records will likely be among the earliest documents in which they are recognized as persons rather than property. I do hope the descendants of George Adams (born around 1842 in Vicksburg, Mississippi) will find his entry in the Sailors database. Here’s what’s waiting for them:

Every researcher who finds an ancestor in the Sailors Index can thank a dedicated team of professionals and volunteers who combed through a mountain of unindexed original records at the National Archives to create this database, index it, and make it accessible online. And, if you have African American ancestors and your family lore has some crazy story about a female sailor that sounds like a very tall tale…don’t laugh! Instead, rush to the Sailors Index to see if there might be a military heroine in your family tree. Eleven fascinating stories are waiting to be claimed—and the Sailors Index will open the door. 

Want to learn more?

I used the Wayback Machine to find basic information on the creation of the Sailors database at the old CWSS website.

As director of the African-American Sailors Project at Howard University, Professor Joseph P. Reidy guided the team which compiled the current version of the Sailors database. He has published a three part series of articles filled with fascinating information about black sailors of the Civil War. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the naval records held at the National Archives, you could start with these two articles:

And while you’re waiting for the Confederate records to be added to the Sailors database, here’s some interesting reading about the Confederate Marine Corps. Plante’s article will help you understand why they’re almost forgotten today.

Next time we’ll look at the Soldiers Index to the CWSS database. I’ll also share search engine tips that should increase your chances of finding your ancestors in both the Sailors and the Soldiers databases.


My thanks to Kathleen Nitsch for researching and writing this article so that the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database can be better understood by myself and my readers.

1 comment:

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