Researching Old Military Records & War Stories in Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers for articles about his ancestors’ military service and records—just in time to help you research your military ancestors during this Memorial Day weekend.

As we commemorate Memorial Day this weekend, honoring the men and women who have died while in military service, you might feel inspired to research your veteran ancestors.

In our genealogy work, we frequently find ourselves having to use a wide variety of techniques to ferret out an obscure clue when we are working on our family histories. Often, this is especially true when we are working on the military service history of our ancestors.

One technique I have found to be especially valuable is searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for articles that relate to my military ancestors. It can be a very successful genealogy strategy, as well as introducing you to some valuable history and stories.

Researching My Civil War Ancestor

painting of the Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan, by Kurz & Allison

Painting: Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan. The author’s ancestor was killed during this battle. Credit: Kurz & Allison; Library of Congress.

Recently I was researching one of my ancestors, Captain James Ham. I decided that rather than simply search on his name, I would search on the military unit he had enlisted in during the United States Civil War: the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. My first newspaper archive search on the “Seventeenth Pennsylvania” returned some very interesting results, such as this 1862 article from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

The newspaper article is headlined: “The Camps at Harrisburg. A Visit to Camp McClellan.” Initially, the reporter gives us a detailed, firsthand account of what conditions were like at Camp McClellan, such as: “Mud and slush seem to be the main characteristics…”; and, “These are cavalry men. But few of them have yet received their horses. They are but novices in the art and science of soldiery; but yet the men of Camp McClellan are remarkably well-disciplined.”

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List of Calvary Regiments

Then the news article continues on to list the three new Cavalry regiments, one of which was the 17th. I was delighted to find this newspaper article contained every officer of the regiment—and listed as a first lieutenant was my ancestor James Ham.

article about the roster of the Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 21 November 1862

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 21 November 1862, page 2

The next news article I came across was published after the war, from an 1880 New York newspaper. This report particularly caught my eye since it was at the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia that James lost his life to enemy fire. This newspaper article, though short, was firsthand testimony by Colonel Henry C. Durland, the commander of the PA 17th, and it reported for the first time the losses by my ancestor’s regiment of “seven officers and thirty privates.”

Losses at Five Forks, New York Herald newspaper article 15 October 1880

New York Herald (New York, New York), 15 October 1880, page 9

War Stories Abound

As I continued my newspaper research, I discovered dozens of news articles that reported on the military battles and movements of the PA 17th, which included more famous Civil War battle locations including Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, and several others—and often included fascinating first-person accounts of those battles.

Researching My Indian Fighter Ancestor

photo of Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875

Photo: Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875. The author’s ancestor fought against the Apaches. Credit: Wikipedia.

Here is another example of the value in using newspaper articles to fill in your genealogy and learn about an ancestor’s military service. One of my great, great uncles, Frantisek Vicha, served in the U.S. Army in Company “D” of the 16th Infantry while fighting in what we know as the “Indian Wars.” From previous research, I knew that he enlisted in 1878 and was discharged due to disability in 1881. However, I knew little about the Indian Wars and practically nothing about my ancestor’s military service.

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My first research finding in GenealogyBank’s newspapers was an old article from a 1919 New Jersey newspaper. This historical newspaper article listed the (unfortunate) multitude of Indian Wars and gave me a good overview of these conflicts and the time period when my ancestor fought.

article about all the wars and battles in U.S. history, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 5 January 1919

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 5 January 1919, page 6

The next article I located was from an 1880 Pennsylvania newspaper. This historical news article reported that “Company D, Sixteenth Infantry”—my ancestor’s company—was one of those sent in relief of General Hatch, who was pursuing “Victorio’s band of Apaches in New Mexico.”

article about the Apache War in New Mexico, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 2 June 1880

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1880, page 1

Now I had a location that I could work from, with even more focus. I then began to search on Victorio’s Apaches and found this article from an 1880 Texas newspaper.

Victorio's Apaches, Galveston Weekly News newspaper article 8 July 1880

Galveston Weekly News (Galveston, Texas), 8 July 1880, page 3

I found dozens more newspaper articles detailing several battles and the movements of Victorio and his fellow Apaches. An interesting and helpful article was published much later, in a 1921 Arizona newspaper. This detailed article covers the time in Apache history when Victorio was the “accredited war chief” of the Ojo Caliente Apaches, including his death in 1880.

Apache, Past and Present, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 22 May 1921

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 22 May 1921, section: second, page 8

Then of course there was another old article I discovered about my Indian fighter ancestor, from an 1889 Ohio newspaper. This article reported an entirely different fight Frank Vicha had on his hands—but that one took place in a courtroom, and will have to be a story all its own for another time!

article about Frank Vicha filing for divorce, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 March 1889

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 March 1889, page 6

Historical newspapers are a great way to weave together the story of your veteran ancestor’s military service, and find more military records. Have you had success in finding your ancestors’ military records using newspapers? Tell us what you’ve discovered in the archives about your ancestor’s military service in the comments section below.

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149th Anniversary: Civil War Ends with Lee’s Surrender to Grant

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant that effectively ended the American Civil War.

All of us have studied it, memorized the date, and (if we’ve been lucky) visited the place where it occurred: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the site of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General U. S. Grant, effectively ending the United States Civil War on 9 April 1865.

Although General Lee’s surrender was 149 years ago now, that momentous historical event still seems fresh in the public’s mind—and it must have been incredible news to our American ancestors all those many years ago.

I decided to take a look in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives to see how the news of General Lee’s surrender was announced via the nation’s newspapers, and learn what has happened to Appomattox Court House since that fateful day.

Just six days before the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, surrendered, this Richmond newspaper was still giving its readers news about the war.

Vigorous Assault upon the Enemy's Works near the Appomattox, Richmond Whig newspaper article 28 March 1865

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 28 March 1865, page 1

Just days before Generals Lee and Grant were to meet at Appomattox, the Battle of Five Forks was raging as reported in this Albany newspaper. One of my ancestors, Captain James Ham of the Pennsylvania Cavalry, was mortally wounded in this action and died five days before Lee’s surrender. I wonder how his family received the news about the war’s end, coming so soon after they had received word of his death.

article about the Civil War's Battle of Five Forks, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 3 April 1865

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 3 April 1865, page 2

After Lee surrendered on April 9, it didn’t take long for word to spread across America, as you can imagine.

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The headlines of this Boston newspaper article say it all.

Surrender of General Lee and His Entire Army, Boston Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

That same day and in the same city, readers of this Boston newspaper saw this article, including this paragraph:

The joy of our population this morning, as the intelligence of the surrender of Lee’s army spread, hardly knew bounds. Men embraced each other with the most extravagant demonstrations of feeling; staid, quiet citizens forgot their equanimity for the moment and found themselves cheering in the streets for Gen. Grant and the Potomac Army; workmen in shore gave voice to a joyous outburst of patriotic exultation, and everywhere the same accordant strains of heartfelt rejoicing were heard.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

Readers of a New York newspaper saw these headlines.

Surrender of Lee and His Whole Army to Grant, New York Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

New York Herald (New York, New York), 10 April 1865, page 1

On the same day and across the country in California, this San Francisco newspaper reported the important news.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 10 April 1865

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 10 April 1865, page 2

Twenty years later, as you can see in this 1885 Aberdeen newspaper article “The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold,” the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant were still being reported. I remember as a young student reading these types of Civil War stories and realizing for the first time that Appomattox Court House was the name of a town, and that Lee and Grant had actually met in the home of the Wilmer McLean family.

Grant and Lee--The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 17 April 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 17 April 1885, page 3

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The fortunes of Appomattox Court House waned after the war, as you can read in this 1884 New York newspaper article. It reports that the town was almost deserted and the McLean home had been:

…taken down, brick by brick, for removal to the World’s Fair, but for some reason the plan was not carried out, and the bricks and timbers are still stored in the vacant houses in the neighborhood.

article about Appomattox Court House, Virginia, New York Tribune newspaper article 10 June 1894

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 10 June 1894, page 16

Luckily for all of us, as you can read in this 1903 Dallas newspaper article, bills had been introduced in Congress to provide funding to buy and save the historic McLean house in Appomattox before it was sold to a Chicagoan who planned to move it there and use it as his residence.

McLean House at Appomattox, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 February 1903

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 February 1903, page 23

And of course as a genealogist, it would be hard not to note the remarkable role played by one of the Appomattox surrender’s lesser known but critically important players, Ely Parker. You might not recognize the name so I’d recommend you take a look at this wonderful obituary for this full-blooded Seneca Indian who actually penned Grant’s terms for surrender. This obituary appeared in an 1895 Cleveland newspaper.

obituary for Ely Samuel Parker, Plain Dealer newspaper article 1 September 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1 September 1895, page 1

Today Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and the McLean House are part of our National Parks system and well worth a visit.

Read More Articles about the Civil War:

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Using Historical Newspapers to Research My Civil War Ancestry

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find stories about his Civil War cousin, Captain James Ham, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Five Forks just as the war was drawing to a close.

 Earlier this month (July 1-3) our nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I well recall the awe I felt when, as a youngster, my family and I visited those hallowed grounds during the centennial of the Civil War back in 1963. That experience was the one that sparked my deep interest in American Civil War history, which continues to this day.

As pure luck would have it, while I was enjoying all the recent publicity regarding the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I happened to make the discovery of a cousin in my ancestry, James Ham, who was a veteran of the Civil War.

Gravestone of James Ham - A Civil War Veteran

Photo: gravestone of Captain James Ham in Glen Dyberry Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Credit: Patricia Bittner.

James was born in Launceston, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom. I discovered that after running into trouble with the law for “assaulting an officer in the execution of his duties” and receiving a 12-month sentence, he emigrated from Cornwall. It wasn’t long before I found that he established himself in Wayne County, Pennsylvania.

As I was following his listing from the 1860 U.S. Census, I also came upon the fact that James Ham served in the Civil War. He rose to the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry, in their M Company. It was very enjoyable to find, while searching the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com, an article from an 1889 Maryland newspaper reporting on the dedication of a monument at Gettysburg to “my” Captain Ham’s regiment, with a description of the huge crowds that attended this event.

Pennsylvania Veterans' Day Newspaper Article - Sun 1889

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 12 September 1889, page Supplement 2.

Monument 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Civil War

Photo: Civil War monument at Gettysburg dedicated to the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. Credit: from the author’s collection.

The more I followed my leads, the more I was able to improve my understanding of the life, and unfortunate death, of my Civil War ancestor. It wasn’t long before I came upon the fact that Captain Ham was wounded in Virginia at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and died from those battle wounds on April 5, 1865. Now, as much as I like to think I know a lot about the Civil War, I was not familiar with the Battle of Five Forks—so I turned again to research the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com.

This time there were hundreds of old newspaper articles for me to pick from. My knowledge was really expanded by reading an impressive article from an 1865 Wisconsin newspaper. This was a very detailed account of the battle, and the reporter wrote paragraph after paragraph that put me right in the action of many of the cavalry charges.

Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - Milwaukee Sentinel

Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 7 April 1865, page 1.

Shortly thereafter I found an article in a 1908 Idaho newspaper that would make any genealogist’s and/or historian’s heart jump. This old news article contains a story of family letters, history, a dash of good luck, and perseverance in the discovery of the fate of the battle flag carried for a time by Union General Sheridan during the battle.

Old Battle Flag Sheridan Carried at Five Forks Is Found Newspaper Article - Idaho Statesman

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 23 March 1908, page 4.

Then my attention was captured by an article published in an 1880 New York newspaper which reported that General Sheridan was being called to court in order to explain why he relieved General Warren of his command after the Battle of Five Forks. The subheading really caught my eye: “Eight Days Previous to the Surrender at Appomattox.” I had read the date of death of my ancestor but I had not, until that point, realized that he was killed in action only days before the Civil War ended.

Sheridan Warren Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - NY Herald

New York Herald (New York, New York), 27 October 1880, page 8.

I am now in the second phase of seeking even more information about this Civil War ancestor as I have placed a research request with the Wayne County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society (http://waynehistorypa.org). One of their researchers is hard at work hopefully finding more clues, data, and details about Captain James Ham and his family. Plus after my very first conversation with the researcher, I have been “forced” to place Wayne County, Pennsylvania, on my “Genealogy Must-Visit List” since the researcher casually mentioned to me that the Museum holds dozens of personal letters written from Captain Ham back to his wife and family during the Civil War!

I think I better start packing right now. I figure at least two days reading for sure! Can you imagine what those letters might hold?

Do you have comparable success stories about researching your Civil War ancestor? Tell us about them in the comments section.