Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database - Part 3

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 this is the third article in a three article series.  Part 1 appeared here, and Part 2 is here.

Confederate Soldiers in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database: Special Considerations
Copyright (c) 2012, Kathleen Nitsch

Although I’m most certainly not an expert, I have learned a few things while struggling with the challenges of documenting military service for the Confederate soldiers in my mother’s family. Among my direct ancestors, I have two great grandfathers and two great great grandfathers who served in the Confederate army. So the first time I used the CWSS search engine, I thought I must be doing something wrong. Only one of these four ancestors appeared anywhere in the database. If I had stopped my research after this search, I would have missed very important parts of the stories of those other three men. And, really, that’s the key lesson you should take away from this discussion…

Persistence and knowledge will both pay off handsomely. 

In this final post, I’ll outline some background information about Confederate records and why some aren’t found in the National Archives.

First, exactly how did Confederate military records become part of a U.S. archive? 

That’s an important consideration. Throughout the war, Union forces confiscated any Confederate military records (muster lists, pay sheets, requisition papers, correspondence, orders, etc.) that they came across. It wasn’t their highest priority, but still a fair number of Confederate records were preserved by the Union forces. Other Confederate records were transferred to the Rebel Archives at the U.S. War Department after the war ended. But you need to keep in mind that the reasons why the Union preserved these records had absolutely nothing to do with helping future generations of genealogists. The Confederate records that were of the most value to the Union might not have been the ones that had all the details about your ancestors.

Why didn’t all Confederate military records end up in the National Archives?

Sigh! It’s hard to know where to start. Here are some alternatives you’ll need to consider…

  • Some muster rolls are held in state archives. The good news is that these records were loaned to the National Archives in the early 20th century so information could be extracted for inclusion in the Confederate CMSRs.
  • Occasionally a few stray records ended up in private hands (in someone’s dusty attic) or buried in uncatalogued material in an obscure archive. You know there must be some interesting tales involved with these records. Any Confederate military records discovered after 1927 would have surfaced too late to be included in the CMSRs, but today you might find these records in state or university archives, museums, historical associations, or any number of other such repositories.
  • A number of records simply didn’t survive the war. Some were lost or destroyed in battle or from exposure to the elements. Others were abandoned when troops had to lighten the load and move quickly (e.g., the retreat after Confederate Gen. Sterling Price’s ill-fated raid into Missouri in 1864).
  • Some Confederate records that you’d expect to find were never even created in the first place. Especially in extreme situations where mere survival was challenging, you might find that recordkeeping was ignored. (Imagine the final days of the Vicksburg and Port Hudson sieges…how much energy would have been devoted to updating muster rolls?)
  • But, to me, this last group is the most interesting (and frustrating) category of permanently lost records: Confederate records were deliberately destroyed by order of high-ranking Confederate officers immediately before the surrender of their troops at the end of the war. Did you know there was a Confederate Marine Corps? One reason why they’re virtually unheard of today is that the majority of their records were destroyed by order of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy.
  • The same thing happened in the army. Confederate General E. Kirby Smith is said to have ordered the destruction of the records held at his headquarters in Shreveport before he surrendered the troops in the Trans-Mississippi Department. That one order wiped out so many records that the final two years of the war has become a black hole for many Confederate soldiers who served west of the Mississippi. Even entire regiments vanished without a trace. (This one fact explains why there’s not a single official military record for either of my great grandfathers.) 
  • Records were also destroyed in the fires at Richmond when the Confederate government evacuated just days before Lee’s surrender. I’ll stop now because I think you’re getting the picture. My point is that if you can figure out where your Confederate soldier might have served, you’ll also know where to start researching the possibility there were major records losses or destruction. Persistence in tracking down records is essential, but a little background knowledge is a powerful ally.  Why waste your time chasing after records that went up in flames nearly 150 years ago? 

 That sounds so grim. Isn’t it practically hopeless to search for Confederate records?

No, definitely not hopeless. There are many other sources of information on Confederate veterans that can be located outside the National Archives. But even when no Confederate records survived for a Rebel soldier, sometimes the Union records at the National Archives held information about him. So, in some Confederate CMSRs you might find…

  • Parole records 
  • Prisoner of War records,
  • Records of Confederate deserters who surrendered to or were captured by Union forces,
  • Enlistment records for Confederate prisoners who chose to join the Union army rather than risk death in a POW camp. (These were the “Galvanized Yankees”—like galvanized metal they were gray on the inside but had acquired an external layer with a blue-ish tint. It was not meant as a compliment.)
  • End of the war surrender records and oath of allegiance documents.

POSTSCRIPT: Don’t jump to conclusions.

Knowing how many records failed to survive the war, you should also recognize the distorted impression which could be created by an incomplete military record. There could be critical information missing. When your ancestor’s CMSR comes to an abrupt halt, don’t be tempted to assume that he was captured or died or that he deserted. You might as well add “abducted by Martians” to that list of unfounded conjectures. Instead, repeat your search of the Soldiers Index to make certain you didn’t overlook a second CMSR under a different name or filed with a new regiment. In the end, even if nothing else turns up, all you can safely conclude is that no other records were found in the archives when that CMSR was created. Then it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

Please be doubly careful that you don’t jump to the wrong conclusion if the last record in your ancestor’s CMSR states he was “absent without leave.” Yes, some soldiers were deserters, but you’ll often find Union documents included in the CMSR of an actual deserter. In many instances, “absent without leave” means quite simply that your ancestor was unaccounted for. He could have been killed or captured or left injured on a battlefield—but he might be listed as AWOL if no one who knew his name had witnessed the incident.

Sometimes the rest of the story is less grim. When soldiers were sent home on medical leave to convalesce, their record could end with an AWOL notation. Those who recovered might be too far away to rejoin their old regiment. In many cases, even if transportation had been available, they wouldn’t know where to go to catch up with their regiment. So, soldiers opted to enlist in a regiment near their home. This was such a common occurrence that an absent without leave notation at the end of a CMSR should always trigger a search for a second CMSR filed with a different regiment.


Researching Confederate soldiers almost always requires you to look beyond the holdings of the National Archives. But even so, you can still benefit from learning more about the Civil War military records held at NARA. There’s definitely going to be information in that large collection of military records that can help fill in the background of both your Union and Confederate soldiers’ service. The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to figure out where to start.

The following three resources from the NARA website will help you get a handle on the vast storehouse of information on Union and Confederate military records in their collections:

The National Archives also publishes a quarterly journal, Prologue Magazine, where you can find information on special topics from their own experts as well as noted historians. Their Genealogy Notes page is a topically arranged collection of links to the online articles from Prologue that will be of particular interest to genealogists and family historians.

Here is my selection of some of the most useful articles on Civil War and military records (all from the online collection of the Prologue Magazine backlist): 
  •  Musick, Michael P. “The Little Regiment: Civil War Units and Commands.” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 1995). (This is more than an explanation of the organizational structure of the military. It’s a rare gem of an article that introduces you to the emotional significance of your Civil War veteran’s attachment to his regiment. It is a two part article. The link at the bottom of Part 1 will take you to Part 2.) 
  • Musick, Michael P. “Honorable Reports - Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes: Civil War Records and Research.” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Fall 1995). (Where does one turn to pursue an interest in a particular military engagement? There are so many choices…let Michael Musick be your guide. He covers a wide range of resources, and his tutorial on the index to the OR has almost convinced me to delve more deeply into the 128 volume set of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.) 
 And, finally, there’s a catalog of the guides published by NARA on specific records collections. These guides provide descriptions of records relating to a single subject in the records of many Federal agencies. The published guides are not free, but National Archives reference papers on a variety of topics have been digitized as (free) PDFs and posted online by the Mt. Vernon Genealogical Society.


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.

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