Discovering Ancestor’s Involvement in the Civil War Leads to Renewed Interest in History

Alfred C. Young III

In our modern society of technical gadgets and rapid access to information via the Internet and tablets/smart phones, a question frequently offered is, Why should I be interested in that? It is just history.    From the opposite perspective, historic thinkers have often responded that those who do not study history are duly bound to repeat its mistakes.   Fortunately for advocates of this discipline, many members of the so-called baby boom generation have become interested in family history and genealogy.   For people who once found history to be a boring subject of mere events and dates, there is nothing more stimulating than discovering that their ancestor or ancestors participated in a decisive or popular historic event, movement, or conflict.

Many such family studies reveal an ancestor’s involvement in the American Civil War.   Our nation is currently observing the sesquicentennial anniversary of this epic conflict, and many Americans have found in their research of family history that they have one or more ancestors or relatives who served during this war.   The logical step following this initial discovery is learning more about the experiences of this ancestor while in military service.   Questions quickly arise: Was my ancestor a volunteer or was he drafted?  Was he present in any significant battles or campaigns and, if so, was he in the ranks or detailed somewhere in the rear?   Lastly, was he injured or killed, or if not, did he contract a debilitating disease that affected him for the remainder of his life?

A wealth of information on a particular soldier can often be obtained from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and/or from state archives.   These government agencies house individual military service records and subsequent pension application documents.  They can be photocopied and mailed directly to any interested person for a specified cost.   These records provide information regarding the enlistment date and location of a soldier, his status at selected periods during the war, and information regarding injuries or death that occurred during battle.

The archival records available at these governmental centers, however, often do not provide the full story of a soldier in the war.  They do not clearly indicate the battles or campaigns in which the enlistee participated or how he fared during those events.   In order to learn more about how a soldier performed during a particular battle, it is often necessary to research and learn the history of his unit.   Most of the men who served in the war were volunteers or draftees assigned to designated state units such the 18th Georgia Infantry Regiment or 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.   Most of the units were, in turn, assigned to specific brigades.  The men took immense pride in their individual command and, in short time, the relatives back home knew the battle history of their unit and its brigade.  Books dealing with the participation and accomplishments of specific commands are a welcome addition for those interested in their family’s link to the Civil War.

Alfred C. Young III is and independent scholar living in Pennsylvania. His book, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign, was published in May by LSU Press.