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  • Finding Your Civil War Ancestor at the NEHGS Research Library

    David Allen Lambert

    Published Date : August 9, 2002

    If you suspect an ancestor served in the Civil War, you can find a wealth of material at the NEHGS Research Library that may tell you more about him.  For the scope of this article we will concentrate on Civil War soldiers from New England regiments.  When examining the pedigree charts of NEHGS patrons I often inquire if their relative served in the Civil War. Generally a Civil War soldier’s year of birth would be between 1820 and 1847.  Of course there are examples of veterans with earlier or later years of birth, but this seems to be the average range.  While you may already know the residence of your ancestor, don’t be too surprised if he did not enlist in his hometown.  Recruits would often seek out bounty being paid by communities looking to fill their state regimental quota.  For instance, you might have a farm boy from Barnstead, New Hampshire coming down to serve in a regiment being raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

    To begin your search for your Civil War ancestor at NEHGS, follow the steps outlined below. If you already know the regiment in which your ancestor served, then you can skip to step 2.

    Step 1: 

    Begin by looking for your ancestor’s name in a series of books found on the sixth floor of our library titled The Roster of Union Soldiers 1861-1865 (Wilmington, N.C., Broadfoot Publications, 1997) [REF/E494/H49/1997]. The New England states are contained in the following volumes: Connecticut (vol. 4); Maine (vol. 1); Massachusetts (vols. 2-3); New Hampshire (vol. 1); Rhode Island (vol. 4); and Vermont (vol. 2).  We also have the complete series for all other states of both the Union and Confederate armies. These volumes are arranged by state, and list the soldiers alphabetically.  This is a quick way to determine if your ancestor served from a particular state.  It will identify the soldier as: “Lambert, David A., 12th [Mass.] Inf., Co. A.”  You will then need to determine if this soldier is in fact your ancestor. 

    Step 2:

    Look for a detailed listing of the soldiers in your ancestor’s regiment. For some states there are compiled lists of soldiers containing details such as age, residence, race, service dates, and occupation.  This information should help you narrow down if you in fact have the correct veteran from the first step.  The following is a listing of statewide compiled volumes of veterans.


    Connecticut Adjutant General’s Office, Catalogue of Connecticut Volunteer organizations (Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery) in the Service of the United States 1861-1865.  (Hartford, CT: Brown & Gross, 1869) [E499.3/C66/1869/also Loan].


    Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office, Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War. (Norwood, MA., Norwood Press, 1931-35), 8 vols. and index [REF/E513/M32/1931/also Loan].

    New Hampshire:

    New Hampshire Adjutant General’s Office, Revised Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion (Concord, N.H., State Printer, 1985)  [REF/E520.3/N55/1895/also Loan].

    Rhode Island:

    ----, Names of Offices, Soldiers and Seamen in Rhode Island Regiments, of Belonging to the State of Rhode Island. (Providence, R.I., Providence Press, 1869) [RI/60/50].


    ----, Revised roster of Vermont Volunteers and lists of Vermonters who served in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of the Rebellion (Montpeiler, Vt, Press of the Watchman Publishing Co., 1892) [VT/50/2].

    You can also use published Regimental Histories to find information. NEHGS maintains a collection of all New England Civil War Regimental Histories on microfiche in the microtext library on the fourth floor [M.T./E49/C58/1991].  These often include post-Civil War information on the veteran and occasionally photographs. There are also some Civil War-era Adjutant General reports for the state of Maine with limited details.

    Step 3:

    If your ancestor died during the Civil War it should be indicated in either a compiled state list and/or a regimental history.  Another source to determine this is the Roll of Honor, which could also reveal his last resting place.  The printed version of this multi-volume set can be found at the sixth floor reference library [REF/E494/U558/1994], or you can view the CD-ROM [REF/E494/R64/1996] on the fourth floor. With this resource you can easily determine if your Union Civil War ancestor is interred in a National Cemetery throughout the United States. A grave number is often associated with each listing, which will allow you to find the location of the grave when you visit the cemetery.  Sometimes the remains of the veteran were returned back to their hometown for burial in a family or military plot.  Perhaps you will want to examine the extensive collection of gravestone transcriptions kept in the NEHGS Manuscript Department. 

    Step 4: 

    If your ancestor survived the Civil War, and/or left a widow or dependant, you might want to check to see if he had a pension file.  At NEHGS we maintain Internet access to some of the databases at the website.  You can easily search through the database and view an online image of the actual card from the NARA T-288 series for pensions (1861-1934).  To order the original pension files you will need to request the NATF-85 form from the National Archives.  You may contact them via e-mail or by regular mail:

    The National Archives and Records Administration
    8th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW
    Washington, D.C. 20408

    The pension file of your ancestor will unlock a virtual time capsule of information on his life after the Civil War.  It details everything from medical problems, employment history, and residences since the war.  You will usually find original handwritten letters sent by your veteran ancestor, his widow, or individuals representing them.  Sometimes letters are from immediate family, neighbors, co-workers, clergy, or employers. These letters usually deal with the verification of a medical problem of the pensioner or marital details of the widow.

    You will also want to investigate the pensions of fellow veterans in your ancestor’s unit.  You will often find that veterans wrote to the pension office after being queried about the service of a fellow soldier in their unit. This process can be rather costly if performed via the mail. So you might wish to attend a future NEHGS tour to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to examine the documents first hand.

    Step 5: 

    NEHGS also has a wealth of vital records extending into the twentieth century for all New England states. Our collection of deeds and probate for most of the New England counties will also assist your search.  Federal and state censuses for New England states are also valuable research tools.  Especially valuable are the indexed 1890 Special Census of U.S. Veterans (which also lists veterans’ widows); the 1865 Rhode Island State Census; and the 1910 U.S. Federal Census.  The 1910 U.S. Census indicated if a person was a Civil War veteran [Union/Confederate]. You should also check sources outside of NEHGS such as: newspaper obituaries and records of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic). Also check the local historical societies of the town in which your ancestor lived after the war for group photos of local veterans’ gatherings.

    NEHGS keeps a large collection of Civil War letters and diaries, some of which may relate to your ancestor’s regiment.  If you have original Civil War letters or diaries, consider donating them to the NEHGS Manuscript Department for safekeeping. If you prefer to keep the original, we would be glad to keep a copy of the item. However, the careful preservation methods employed by our archival staff guarantee that your original treasures will be safely preserved for future generations to learn from.

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