Reading Handwriting from the Civil War

January 23rd is National Handwriting Day each year, so let’s talk about Civil War handwriting. Men who served the Union or the Confederacy were of varied educational backgrounds. Some could read and write well, but others were illiterate. The latter came from rural areas that lacked schools or where keeping the family farm going left no time for schooling.

In Daily Life in Civil War America, the statistics given were about 90% of men in the north could read and 70% in the south.

In searching for your Civil War ancestor, of course you’ll check the 1860 and 1870 census records. In 1860, one of the questions asked if the person was 20 years of age but cannot read or write. In 1870, the census separated that into 2 categories: cannot read, cannot write.

Below is a sample of Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting. Obviously he could write well with his training as a lawyer. For my Civil War ancestor, Abraham Bates Tower of Leavenworth, Indiana, I have no idea of what schooling he received, but the census lists him as able to read and write.

President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card
President Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card by famousdocuments

In our family papers is a Abraham Tower’s pocket diary that he appears to have purchased at mustering out time. The first few pages of the small book lists the men of Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. In later years, he filled the rest of the diary with family births, marriages and deaths, similar to what one sees in family Bibles.

Spencerian was the style of penmanship popular in the 1850s and 60s. Reading the handwriting of this era can be tricky with faded ink, water damage, archaic words and unfamiliar abbreviations. Here are some tips for reading Civil War letters and diaries.

There are quite a few diaries from this period available for reading online. Getting yourself familiar with the handwriting of that time is easier when you have the original and a transcription side-by-side. Here are links to Confederate, Union and also women’s diaries from the war.

Find Potential Civil War Soldiers on Your Family Tree

If you don’t know the names of your Civil War ancestors, start by examining your family tree. Look for males with a year of birth between 1818-47. This would be the expected dates for those the right age to serve. Top officers with years of military experience were older than the average recruit. For example, Robert E. Lee born 1807.

Keep in mind that some youngsters may have enlisted while underage, perhaps attracted by the adventure of being a soldier. Likewise, someone over the maximum age of 45 could lie about their age to enlist. Apparently no one checked their age.

One sees very young boys serving as drummer boys with units or even as a powder monkey with the Federal Navy. Boys as young as 11, 12 and 13 are known to have served as drummer boys. These boys would have birth dates in the 1850s.

Powder Monkey by Gun 1864 Print
Powder Monkey by Gun 1864 Print by ClassicOldPhotos
This boy carried bags of gunpowder on the USS New Hampshire. Photo from 1864.

Search the names from your tree in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System maintained by the National Park Service. It helps to put in the name of the state where your ancestor lived in the early 1860s.

Lately there’s been research about women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the Civil War armies. I’ve seen an estimate of around 400 who chose this unusual way to serve their country or to remain with their spouse. Since this is a fairly small number and they usually assumed a masculine name, it will be quite difficult to track this. Here’s an article that names some of the better-known women who served as Civil War soldiers.

Tombstone Tuesday – Finding Your Ancestor’s Grave

I’ve mentioned before about using Find-a-Grave for tracking down your Civil War ancestor. You can read that post here. There are other sites, if you don’t have any luck with that source.

Try the Billion Graves site.  It functions quite a bit like Find-a-Grave with volunteers submitting photographs of the gravestones in the cemeteries across the U.S. and around the world. Put in your ancestor’s name and if you have it, the year for birth and death.

There’s an advanced search where you can narrow the search down by state and county. If you already have an idea of where the grave is, this works fine. If not, the site recommends not searching too specifically. The ancestor may surprise you by being buried some distance from where you expect them to be.