Why Research Your Civil War Ancestor?

Cannon at Battle of Five Forks Virginia

Cannon at Battle of Five Forks Virginia
Photo Credit: Cindy Freed

As genealogists and family historians it’s a rush when we add another generation to our family tree. We’re elated when we identify one more set of grandparents. We love discovering who our ancestors were and what they did.

As we do we strengthen our own identity and individuality. When we come to know who we are and where we came from we gain a sense of belonging and security. It’s true that most people in one way or another have a yearning to know their roots, the where and whys of our life. It’s the genealogists and family historians that act on that desire.

In doing family research there are so many documents, newspapers and books to read. There are databases to search, cemeteries to comb and courthouses to visit. There is so much to learn to put our ancestors and their lives in proper perspective it can make our head spin. It’s a hard decision to take just one long ago relative and spend hours, days, even months researching their life and especially the short span of four years or less but I’m suggesting you do just that.

With the myriad number of ancestors that make up your family tree and their call to you to find their message, their story, it’s a tough decision to narrow in on only one ancestor but I’m challenging you to do just that. I’m suggesting you take one fore bearer, one patriarch and concentrate on what may be his life’s biggest struggle, his greatest feats or worst fears realized.

I recommend you research your Civil War ancestor.

The Wheatfield - Gettysburg National Battlefield Park

The Wheatfield – Gettysburg National Battlefield Park
Photo Credit: Cindy Freed

Why you might ask? What more do I need to know than that my ancestor fought or worse yet that he didn’t come home from the fighting? In fact you may already have a family story or two handed down about your Civil War ancestor. So what other info do you need?

The Civil War was an epic moment in our country’s history. More than 3 million men from both the north and south fought. That was nearly 7% of the population. In comparison to today’s population it would be like 45 million Americans going off to war. Such a huge number is bound to touch every single person in this country and that’s exactly what the Civil War did. The fighting, the loss of life and property, the need for food and clothing, guns and ammunition, it all affected everyone’s daily life.

The combined death toll for both sides during the war is recorded at about 620,000 although many historians feel that number may be on the low side, yet comparing that number to today’s population the death toll would be around 6 million! Again you can see the impact this war had to have on each and every person’s life during that era.

But let’s narrow our look at the Civil War a bit. Let’s take the individual soldier, your Civil War ancestor and his war experience. Was he a northerner called to service because of his love for his country and the instilled need to preserve the Union? Was he a Confederate soldier fighting for the love of his country and its rights and freedom? Was he an African American, freedman or slave, fighting for the system with little acknowledgement?

These are the things you’ll want to know about your ancestor as well as the actual experiences he endured. Whether a member of the Colored Troops, Confederate or Union army, your ancestor made history. Your ancestor made our country what it is today. Finding his facts as well as researching his battles, camp conditions, food he ate and so on will put you alongside your ancestor in his Civil War journey. You’ll learn his experiences of fear, fatigue and injury and in knowing what he lived through you’ll be able to appreciate his service all the more. The Civil War changed this country’s path, it shaped our nation into what we know today and your ancestor had a hand in that.

As the years pass we move further and further away from this monumental time in our country’s history. As family historians and genealogists we need to research and preserve these stories of the men (and women) whose courageous and historic actions have blazed the path for us today.

Wilder Tower Chickamauga National Battlefield Park

Wilder Tower Chickamauga National Battlefield Park
Photo Credit: Cindy Freed

You may be thinking I’ll get to that some day. I’ve got a couple great great grandfathers that fought in the Civil War and I do want to research their military service. In fact that’s currently on my To-Do list and that’s a good thing but I suggest you might act on that desire sooner rather than later. Right now is the best time to research your Civil War ancestor. We in this country are in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war and there is a plethora of events, displays and ceremonies that won’t be available to us when we get around to Civil War research in the future.

Now there will always be plenty of books and databases and websites to aid in our research but right now in the middle of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial there are programs, videos, roundtables and various other opportunities to gain knowledge about the Civil War. These learning experiences are so valuable it’s hard to pass up on these once-in-a-lifetime occasions.

So my challenge to you today is to move forward on the research of your Civil War ancestor. Make him a priority. Attend webinars, seminars and workshops. Investigate and attend the numerous Civil War programs and ceremonies that abound today. Once the 150th anniversary has passed some of these opportunities will no longer be available and the insight you might gain may not present itself in that manner again.

Read, research and familiarize yourself with your ancestor’s Civil War journey. Once you’ve compiled some of his info make sure you write it up and continue to add to his military experience as you gather additional information. You’ll want your descendants to have access to all the valuable research you’ve found.

Your ancestor participated in one of the most significant intervals this country has ever seen. His heroic selflessness is worthy of honor and remembrance. I hope you’ll accept my challenge:

Why Research Your Civil War ancestor?

Because his story is a part of our country’s history but more that that it truly is part of your story. To know your Civil War ancestor, his life and military service is to know a part of you.

Good luck in your research.

P.S. I’d love for you to sign up for my monthly newsletterCivil War Research Tips here. It’ll be full of pointers and info to help in researching your Civil War ancestor. Please take a moment to sign up and thanks so much!

Also remember my soon to be released book Ancestors In A Divided Nation – An In-Depth Guide To Civil War Research will be a valuable resource as you research your Civil War ancestor.

This article was previously published in the Going In-Depth January issue. You can find the entire issue here.

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3 thoughts on “Why Research Your Civil War Ancestor?

  1. Hello Cindy. You have a very nice site. I’ve enjoyed reading some of your posts.

    I totally agree about researching our Civil War ancestors. I only had two direct-line ancestors at the right age. One was opposed to war for religious reasons. He was German Brethren. He paid for a substitute who died in the war. My other ancestor, however, was a Civil War Union soldier and I hit the mother-load of information when I discovered his journals at the Iowa State Historical Society a few years ago. My ancestor began journaling in September 1861 when he entered service and continued journaling throughout his life as a farmer and businessman — right up to his death in 1923. His Civil War experiences are covered in his 1861, 1862 and 1865 journals. He must have lost his 1863-1864 journals as they were not in the collection.

    I finally started a blog and am posting some of the more interesting journal entries. I’ve just gotten to 1865. If you are interested in reading what a solder from the 11th Iowa Infantry experienced, please visit my site at http://cmkinhuntercm.wordpress.com/. My blog is titled “In His Own Words: Isaac Newton Carr 1836-1923″.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts. I am also working on a book about Isaac’s life that weaves together my research with his journal entries.

    • CM ~ Thank you for reading and commenting! I appreciate your kind words! You have a wonderful site! First congrats on finding such valuable info on your Civil War veteran! You are right! You hit the mother-lode! I read many of your posts and was completely drawn in to Isaac’s war experiences. I’m especially fascinated by his remarks on Shiloh. That’s what history needs. Isaac’s true and accurate account of events. I’m a Gen. Grant fan but I’m sure Grant’s accounts gloss over mistakes and errors in judgement on the battlefield. I’m so glad you’re sharing Isaac’s words with us!
      Let me know when your book on Isaac’s life comes out. I’m confident it will be outstanding! The research you add to Isaac’s words are thorough and help the reader understand the events. I’m sure your book will be valuable account of a soldier’s Civil War experience.
      Would you mind if I use your web site as a future Civil War Quick Tip? Anyone researching the life of their ancestor or the 11th Iowa would find lots of useful info there!
      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting! I’m happy to find your site. Good luck in your continued research!

      • You’re welcome! I would be happy if you would share my website in your Civil War Quick Tips. Thanks for doing this.

        The book has a ways to go, but I will certainly let you know when its published.

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