In the first of a series of Internet Resources posts, we look at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System. Here you can discover how many people with your name or surname served in the American Civil War, and learn more about their units and battles. You may even be related to some of them!
The fundamental goal of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System is to provide basic information on the 6.3 million records for soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. Run by the National Park Service and their partners, to date over 6,000,000 soldier’s names have been added, while 18,000 African-American sailors names are also recorded. There are other searchable elements still under development including regiment histories, battle histories, and listings of national parks to name a few.
Despite the number of records, it is estimated that the actual number of soldiers who fought in the Civil War is closer to 3.5 million. The extra records relate to those who served in more than one regiment, who served under more than one name, or to those who have had their name spelt a number of ways. The main information on the soldiers is derived from their General Index Card, which lists their name and rank at time of enlistment on the first card and the date and rank at which they left the service on the last card. These were compiled after the war from muster rolls to help determine pension entitlements.
So how does it work? The Search by Soldier Name function allows you to enter different information depending on what data you have. The fields allow you to enter the first and last name, whether you want to search Union or Confederate forces, identify the State and number of the unit, and specify the arm of service. However, often the most enjoyment comes from putting your surname in the system and seeing what comes out! As an example, there are 36 records for the name ‘Shiels’ in the Civil War. As Damian wasn’t a very common name back then, lets look at the ‘John Shiels’ entries, as that is my middle name. There are six records, two Confederate and four Union. One served as a Private with Company G, 5th Regiment, Florida Infantry, a formation in the Army of Northern Virginia that fought at battles such as Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. It is also possible to look at all the other soldiers names recorded for this regiment to see if, for example, it had a distinctly Irish flavour. Of course if you are fortunate enough to have a more common Irish name you can spend significantly more time searching through the system; for example ‘Patrick Murphy’ produces 551 entires, ‘John McCarthy’ 339 entries and ‘Michael O’Brien’ 360.
If you are using the Soldiers and Sailors System to look for specific individuals, or as a source for the entire make up of a regiment, you do need to do so with caution. It is inevitable that there remain some errors in the database, most commonly in terms of misspelled names. These are principally a result of errors in the post-war period, when the index cards were created from the original muster rolls. For the researcher who wants to delve deeper and, for example, research one of the Irish regiments, it is always a good idea to look at these original muster rolls if possible to be confident of your information. As a starting point though the Soldiers and Sailors System is a superb achievement and a wonderful resource, which provides everyone with an opportunity to see what their family was up to in the American Civil War.