The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database (CWSS) was created from the Civil War military records held in the U.S. National Archives (NARA). Randy’s initial post explained how to use the website to learn about the military service of your ancestors. If you’ve also read the first part of this follow-up series, you know that the Sailors Index to the CWSS contains information on the 18,000 African American sailors who served in the Union navy during the Civil War.
Although the Soldiers Index is much more comprehensive than the Sailors Index, there are still soldiers who aren’t included. Also, it’s easier than you might think to overlook information on some of your Civil War ancestors—even though it’s in the database. To understand why soldiers are missing (especially Confederate ones), you need to know more about the index and about the records that are linked to the index. This basic knowledge will also help you find more of the information that is available for your Union soldiers.
Where did the information for the Soldiers Index come from?
The information was originally extracted from Civil War era military records now held in the National Archives. Additional information was obtained from Confederate records borrowed from state archives. But none of the original military records were directly indexed in the creation of the CWSS database. There were several intermediate steps in the process:
- After the Civil War, the surviving military records were held at the U.S. War Department or (for some Confederate records) in state archives.
- In the early 20th century, information from these original records was extracted to create a Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) for every Union and Confederate soldier named anywhere in these records. It was a laborious process. Imagine creating 140 million hand-written individual record extracts and then sorting through them, matching names and unit designations until you’ve located all cards that belong to a single soldier.
- Next, a General Index Card was created for each CMSR. This was a very brief abstract of the collection of extracts contained within the CMSR.
- The original military records, the CMSRs, and the General Index Cards were later transferred from the War Department to the National Archives.
- Finally, at the end of the 20th century, a massive project was coordinated with public agencies and private voluntary organizations working together to collect information from the General Index Cards (now at NARA), create a database of Civil War soldiers, and make it searchable online through the Soldiers Index of the CWSS. (The Sailors Index was also created around the same time, but the database for sailors was extracted directly from the original Union navy records at NARA.)
Who is included in the Soldiers Index?
The Soldiers Index includes enlisted men and officers from the following three categories:
- Union soldiers
- U.S. Colored Troops
- Confederate soldiers
What can I expect from the search results returned by the Soldiers database?
There will be less information than you would obtain from a successful search of the Sailors Index. But finding your ancestor in the Soldiers Index isn’t your ultimate goal. You are searching within an index that includes (at best) barely enough information to distinguish your ancestor from other soldiers with similar names. When you find what you believe to be the right soldier, the information in his search result will tell you how to locate his military records in a Compiled Military Service Record. That’s your goal—the CMSR.
Is the database for the Soldiers Index more complete than the Sailors Index?
Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.” It is much more complete, especially for Union soldiers.
In fact, the Soldiers Index suffers from the opposite problem. There is one entry in the Soldiers Index for each of the 6.3 million individual Compiled Military Service Records for Civil War soldiers. Wait…does that sound like too many soldiers to you? It’s estimated that 2.8 to 3.5 million soldiers actually fought in the war. So yes, it’s time to do some math and search for explanations. That surplus of around 3 million CMSRs is not a collection of records of imposters or fake Civil War soldiers. Those are real records of actual soldiers. So, when you search the Soldiers database, keep two things in mind:
- Soldiers’ names weren’t always recorded in the same way. Let me introduce you to my first cousin (3 generations removed), Maj. J.W.L. Daniel of the 15th Alabama Confederate Infantry Regiment…and to his alter egos: Capt. John W.L. Daniel and Capt. J.W.S. Daniel. Yes, three names for one soldier. I’ll discuss search strategies next, but already you can see why it’s important to be thorough.
- As well, many soldiers served in more than one regiment over the course of the war. Maj. J.W.L. Daniel has a CMSR bulging with records from the 15th Alabama Confederate Infantry Regiment, and Capt. John W.L. Daniel’s records document his service with the 23rd Alabama Confederate Sharpshooters Battalion, while Capt. J.W.S. Daniel’s records are filed with Hilliard’s Legion Alabama Confederate Volunteers. And, thus, this one man has three CMSRs—not so much due to name variations, but principally because he served in three different regiments. Thankfully, when his CMSRs were created, an observant archivist added a notation on the jacket (folder) of each CMSR listing the other regiments where additional records were filed for my cousin. But the Soldiers Index doesn’t tell me about that.
Tips on Conducting A THOROUGH search
You know the drill. You want to feel confident you haven’t missed an index record for your ancestor simply because you searched for John and he was listed as Jno or the clerk preferred a creative spelling of your ancestor’s surname or a 20th century indexer was unable to decipher the 19th century clerk’s handwriting. (Sometimes alternate spellings are cross-indexed on the General Index Card, but you can’t rely on this.)
- Use your experience to vary the surname’s spelling. A search for the Daniel surname will also return hits for Daniell, Daniels, and even O’Daniel. But wildcards don’t seem to be an option here and you can’t do a Soundex-type search—so be thorough. My experience with 19th century spelling of this surname suggests I should try at least 3 different surname searches: Daniel, Danial, and Dannel.
- Start using the surname plus a first name, and then add a middle name (or initial), or drop back to a diminutive or nickname, or just input the first initial of the given name. Let your results at each step guide your choices for what else to try.
- You might even consider a surname-only search and scan the results list for likely candidates. There’s a new feature that allows you to download search results in a spreadsheet file. It’s a big help if you need to take notes or want to keep track of which files you’ve examined.
So far, we’ve discovered a few important facts about the Soldiers database and how to craft a search strategy. Depending on which side your ancestor supported, your search results might or might not give you a definite answer to the deceptively simple question: Did I have any family members who were soldiers in the Civil War? Here is some guidance on how to interpret search results from the Soldiers Index.
If your search of the Soldiers Index locates your ancestor…
The information in the search results won’t tell you much about your ancestor’s service but it will provide what you need to locate his CMSR. It doesn’t matter whether he was in the Union or Confederate army; you now know there is at least one Compiled Military Service Record at the National Archives that belongs to him. It might be skimpy—many of the Confederate ones are—but there will be something in a jacket with his name on the outside. Take a minute to celebrate!
Then, your next step is to obtain a copy of the CMSR:
- Fold3 has digital images of CMSRs for
o U.S. Colored troops (check availability here)
o Confederate soldiers (almost all files have been digitized, see list here).
- The Ancestry database only has digital images for two subgroups of soldiers (both of which are also found in the Fold3 collection):
o U.S. Colored troops (they were nominally part of the Union army but typically served in separate units).
- Microfilmed records are often available at research libraries (including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City), state archives, and some National Archives branches. You can also order a microfilm roll through your nearest Family History Center. (The NARA film roll number is included in the Soldier Detail results page generated from a search, but you’ll need to translate that NARA film number into a FHC film number. The simplest way to do this is to use the table on the FamilySearch Research Wiki. This state-by-state table also links to PDF copies of the NARA microfilm guides, OCLC WorldCat entries for microfilm holdings, and the Fold3 databases);
- Or you can order a copy directly from NARA. You can purchase a paper copy or digital copy (recorded on a CD or DVD), but there is no option for a direct download of digital copies. All CMSRs are delivered through the mail.
What can you conclude if a thorough search didn’t find your ancestor in the Soldiers Index?
Here’s the point at which the research paths for Union and Confederate soldiers diverge.
- Randy’s ancestors were all Union soldiers, so he can feel fairly confident that his search of the Soldiers Index will give him a definite answer. Once he’s conducted a thorough search, if he finds no entry in the index then he knows…
b) It’s fairly certain that the ancestor he searched for never served as a Union soldier. (Of course all bets are off if Randy’s landlubber of a great great grandfather up and enlisted in the Union Navy. Improbable, you say? Actually, no. Union sailors were recruited far beyond the eastern seaboard and sailors didn’t serve exclusively on ocean vessels. There were riverine units deployed along the Mississippi and other inland waterways. And don’t forget the Pacific Squadron if you have west coast ancestors.)
- But, if your family included any Southerners (including residents of the border states) who might have fought for the Confederacy, your situation is different. If you’ve searched thoroughly and still haven’t found any trace of your ancestor in the Soldiers Index, then here is what you know…
b) You’ve only just begun your search.
Although some Rebel soldiers left no trace behind in any military records held at the National Archives, most soldiers did leave records somewhere that will tell you about their military service. And even when a Confederate soldier’s CMSR does exist, there could be a gap of two years or more where there’s not a single piece of information recorded. Either way—CMSR or no CMSR—the trick is to make some educated guesses about where to search next. So, pull out your history books and consult some experts on researching Confederate soldiers. Now you’re really getting to the fun part. Enjoy the journey!
Resources describing how Compiled Military Service Records were created:
- Description (and sample images) of CMSRs at Fold3 for Union, US Colored Troops, and Confederate soldiers.
- Description (and sample images) of General Index Cards for Union CMSRs at Fold3.
Want to learn more about other Civil War era military records at the National Archives?
A general resource list will be included in the final part of this series. That’s the part where I will finally answer Randy’s question about special considerations for interpreting Confederate Compiled Military Service Records.
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.
The URL for this post is: http://www.geneamusings.com/2012/06/civil-war-soldiers-and-sailors-database_26.html