Focus: Finding Civil War Information

The American Civil War had a more profound social, political and economic impact than almost any other event in American history. Among the thousands of books, articles and websites written about it, where does one start to look for useful information? Here are some suggestions.

General Information

An excellent one-volume survey of the war is The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson. It is long, but readable and beautifully illustrated with photographs and art. The Civil War Dictionary is a useful tool for checking facts about people, places, battles and other topics of interest. Dorling Kindersley's Visual Dictionary of the Civil War offers excellent photographs, with parts labeled, of uniforms, weapons and ammunition, medical tools, personal equipment, ships and other pertinent topics. It helps to understand the specialized vocabulary used by Civil War scholars. The National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War will orient you geographically. KPL holds copies of all of these volumes. The Reader’s Adviser (volume 3, pages 526-530) contains a bibliography of other excellent books. Ask for The Reader’s Adviser at the library’s Reference Desk on the second floor. Many more titles can be located in the library catalog using the subject heading United States History Civil War, 1861-1865. It is also often helpful simply to browse the stacks in either the Local History Room or the adult circulating collection in the general Civil War number 973.7.

American Heritage magazine, kept in the magazine stacks near the Tech Center on the second floor, has printed fine articles about the Civil War. A separate index that covers articles published between 1954 and 1999 is shelved at the beginning of the run. 

A detailed and widely cited multi-volume source is The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, although it is more commonly known as the Official Record, or just OR. It contains official correspondence, reports, orders and returns concerning military operations, prisoners of war, etc. Two tools that will assist with the use of this set are The Official Records of the American Civil War, a Researcher’s Guide, and a personal name and subject index to the set (H 973.73 U5827). Both are kept in the Local History Room. The set itself is so large that it is shelved in a closed area, but the staff can retrieve needed volumes in just a few minutes.

There are hundreds of useful websites about the war. A good place to start is Cyndi’s List with its categorized links. Although the site is aimed at genealogists, many of the links will interest general searchers as well. Click on the “Categories” bar and choose United States-U.S. Military: Civil War, which leads to nearly a thousand links to online information.

For information about Confederate soldiers, In Search of Your Confederate Ancestors, by J. H. Segars, is a fairly current source with general advice. James C. Neagles’ Confederate Research Sources: A Guide to Archive Collections provides more specific information, but is no longer reliable for addresses, hours and other access details.

About 200,000 black men served in the Colored Troops during the Civil War. Most of the general sources will provide information about them, but Guide to Tracing Your African Ameripean Civil War Ancestor, by Jeanette Braxton-Secret, has some suggestions for locating additional sources.

Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album , by Maureen A. Taylor, will assist in identifying and analyzing Civil War era photographs. Uniforms of the Civil War, 1861-1865, by Philip Haythornthwaite, a compact volume illustrated in color, demystifies the stars, bars, sashes, caps and other details that will also help in identifying photos of Civil War soldiers, which can, in turn, lead to other documents about them.

Finding Information about Individual Soldiers

The third edition of The Source; A Guidebook to American Genealogy includes a concise and reasonably current chapter on military records (pp. 499-558) that is a good place to start learning about how to find information about individual soldiers. The Source is known particularly for its fine bibliographies, in this case including several that are specific to the Civil War. Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor, by Bertram Hawthorne Groene, was originally published in 1973, so it is outdated in several ways, but thoughtfully used, it still provides some helpful ideas about how to conduct a search. U. S. Military Records; A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present, by James Neagles, published in 1994, is also somewhat outdated, and is much broader in its coverage than just the Civil War. Nevertheless, it has some fine resource lists. Just don’t trust it for addresses.

Another excellent starting point is William Dollarhide’s Genealogical Resources of the Civil War Era; Online and Published Military or Civilian Name Lists, 1861-1869, and Post War Veteran Lists.  Dollarhide first discusses twenty record groups of national and statewide scope, then gives statewide name lists, organized by state. Published in 2009, some of the URLs are already outdated, but all the URLs tested for this article lead to the desired information, even if they were no longer current.

Cyndi’s List, mentioned above, will also locate websites about Civil War soldiers. Many of these links lead to Ancestry.com, which is a subscription based service. If you do not have a personal subscription, KPL does, but it must be used in the library and cannot be accessed through our website. On the Ancestry site, click “Military” on the “Search” tab.

Probably the single best source of information available for a Civil War soldier is his pension record. For Union veterans, these can be ordered online from the U. S. National Archives in Washington, D. C. It is neither cheap, nor usually quick, to do so, but the expense and effort involved are almost always worth it. Understandably, the federal government did not issue pensions to Confederate veterans. These were paid on a state level, and records are usually found in state archives. Consult In Search of Your Confederate Ancestors, and Confederate Research Sources, both mentioned above, for direction in locating such records. Cyndi's List is also helpful in that regard.

Finding Information about the War in Michigan

The Michigan section of the Dollarhide volume mentioned above is a good starting place for information about Michigan’s service in the Civil War.  

A fine new narrative history is Michigan and the Civil War: a Great and Bloody Sacrifice, by Jack Dempsey. It is brief enough to serve as a good orientation to Michigan’s participation in the war and includes a good bibliography of other printed sources, many of which are owned by the library. John Robertson’s much longer Michigan in the War includes regimental histories of about a dozen pages each, a register of commissioned officers with brief information about them, and other useful facts. The table of contents (headed “Index”) is in the back of the book.

In the 1960s, the Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission published an interesting series of books about the impact of the war on various aspects of life in Michigan, including churches, schools, labor, farming, and women, among others. A list of the titles that the library owns from this series can be found by doing a key word search in our online catalog on Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission. Most nineteenth-century county histories include a chapter about the activities of that county in the Civil War and usually list the names and units of men who served from the county. These can be found in the library’s catalog by doing a subject search on “name County (Mich.) History.” Also, several histories focused on specific Michigan regiments, or on Michigan’s participation in specific battles. These can be located with a subject search on “Michigan History Military.”

Many more individual records can be found in the Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865. All 46 volumes are available on microfilm in the Tech Center on the second floor. An index volume and the first ten volumes of the set, which have been reprinted, are kept in the Local History Room. Each volume includes a brief regimental history accompanied by a modest amount of information about the individuals who comprised that regiment.

A useful tool to help find information about men who served from other states but moved to Michigan after the war indexes the federal census for 1890. To the dismay of every American genealogist, a warehouse fire in Washington, D. C. destroyed the 1890 general population schedules, but the special schedule enumerating Civil War veterans survived. The 1890 Michigan Census Index of Civil War Veterans or Their Widows identifies veterans by the township and county in which they lived and the supervisor’s district and enumerator’s district numbers that include those locations. Although specific pages are not given, there were few enough veterans that the information allows easy access. The library has the microfilm of these schedules for Michigan, kept in the Tech Center.