Genealogy 101: #23 Researching Your Union Civil War Ancestor

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega shows some of the many sources available to research your Union Civil War ancestor, including military service records and pension records. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Do you have a Civil War soldier in your family tree? Did he fight for the Union? Now’s the time to learn more about his life. Not sure how to start your military research? This article provides some first steps in learning more about your Union Civil War soldier ancestor.

Photo: unidentified young Union Civil War soldier
Photo: unidentified young Union Civil War soldier. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Find His Name
(I’m referring to soldiers as men but there were some women who fought in the Civil War dressed as men.)

One of the first places to confirm your Civil War ancestor’s military service is the free National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database website. To search for a specific soldier, click on the “Soldiers” tab and then enter his information such as name, state, and side (choose Union in this case). Your results list will provide a name, battle unit, and any alternative names. You can click on your ancestor’s name to find a few more details including rank and National Archives microfilm number.

Photo: Civil War record for Willis A. Ararasmith
Photo: Civil War record for Willis A. Ararasmith. Credit: National Park Service.

Don’t forget to click on the hyperlinked battle unit name to learn more about your ancestor’s unit.

Genealogy Tip: Note the names of other soldiers in your ancestor’s unit. You may find the names of relatives or neighbors.

Obtain His Military Records

Now that you have found some information about your Union soldier, you may want to obtain copies of his military service records. Digitized military service records for both Confederate and Union soldiers can be found on the subscription website Fold3. Access to Fold3 is available through an individual subscription or by using the website at a nearby Family History Center. Please note that Fold3 has other Civil War records as well. You can also order the military records from the National Archives.

Don’t Forget the Census

Don’t forget about the valuable information that can be learned about your Civil War ancestor in the U.S. Census. For Union soldiers, there are a few census enumerations that you will want to take note of.

An article about military service records in the 1890 U.S. Census, Evening News newspaper article 31 May 1890
Evening News (San Jose, California), 31 May 1890, page 3

While genealogists lament the loss of the 1890 U.S. Census, some of the 1890 Veterans Schedule still exists. Missing are the states of Alabama through Kansas and about half of Kentucky. The Veterans Schedule was meant to enumerate “All men [and widows] who were mustered into the military service of the United States during the late war…”

However, there are exceptions to this and it’s not unusual to find Confederate soldiers, as well as widows and veterans from previous wars, listed in these schedules.** Questions asked include: Name of surviving soldier, sailor, marine, or widow; Rank; Company; Name of regiment or vessel; Date of enlistment; Date of discharge; Length of service; Post Office address; and Disability incurred. I highly recommend reading the enumerator instructions for the 1890 U.S. Census to learn more about this schedule. You will find those instructions on the U.S. Census Bureau website.

For some researchers, the first indication that a male ancestor was a Civil War veteran may have been from the 1910 U.S. Census. This census asked if the person listed was a “survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy.” In the instructions to enumerators for the 1910 U.S. Census it states that “this question should be asked to all males over 50 years of age who were born in the United State and all foreign born males who immigrated to this country before 1865. Write ‘UA’ if a survivor of the Union Army; ‘UN’ if a survivor of the Union Navy; ‘CA’ if a survivor of the Confederate Army; and ‘CN’ if a survivor of the Confederate Navy.”***

What about a Pension?

Now that you know your ancestor served for the Union during the Civil War, and you have obtained or ordered his military service record, your next question will be: did he, his widow, or dependent children receive a military pension?

An article about Civil War pensions, Anamosa Eureka newspaper article 4 August 1870
Anamosa Eureka (Anamosa, Iowa), 4 August 1870, page 1

According to the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki page Union Pension Records, the Act of July 14, 1862 “Started the General Law pension system for Civil War veterans who had sustained war-related disabilities. Pensions became available to widows, children under 16 years of age, and dependent relatives of soldiers who died in military service from war related injuries.” By 1872, the law allowed the veteran’s dependents to collect a lump sum payment based “on the date of death or discharge from service in addition to a monthly pension payment.”**** FamilySearch collections include:

  • United States Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861-1917 (index)
  • United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (index and images)
  • United States Civil War Widows and Other Dependents Pension Files (index)
  • United States Navy Widows’ Certificates, 1861-1910 (index)
  • United States Remarried Widows Index to Pension Applications, 1887-1942 (index and images)
  • United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933 (index and images)
  • United States Index to General Correspondence of the Pension Office, 1889-1904 (index and images)

While it can be tempting to stop your research after finding the soldier’s military record, it would be a mistake. Pension records can provide genealogically relevant data including a marriage or death date, information on your ancestor’s health, and much more.

Start Researching

Learn more about your Union Civil War ancestor. The tips above are just the beginning. Continue your research by searching historical newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, for his military unit and the battles he fought in. Learn more about researching Civil War ancestors by consulting the book Genealogical Resources of the Civil War Era by William Dollarhide, and the FamilySearch Wiki.


* “1890 Instructions,” U.S. Census Bureau ( accessed 24 May 2017), p. 44.
** “First in the Path of the Firemen. The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 2,” Prologue Magazine ( accessed 24 May 2017).
*** “1910 Instructions,” United States Census Bureau ( accessed 24 May 2017).
**** “Union Pension Records,” FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki ( accessed 28 May 2017).

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