Determine the Nationality of Your Civil War Ancestor’s Last Name

If you’re curious about your Civil War ancestors and where their last name originated, there are a variety of sources to help you track it down.

  • A good starting place is your public library. Good-sized libraries have a book with surnames in their reference section. An excellent title is the Dictionary of Surnames published by the Oxford University Press. It contains 800 pages with 100,000 entries from Europe, Australia, North America, and the British Isles. You can visit the library or call with your question about your name.
  • There are a wealth of links online at Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites. You can browse the names on passenger lists looking for the spelling and country of origin that fits you best.
  • Search on the Internet for your last name. In the search box, put the name followed by a plus sign and the words “origin of name.” It will look like this: McGraw + origin of name
  • Ask family members where they think the family came from and talk to older relatives at family reunions.genealogy search keyboard
  • The search is more difficult for African Americans whose last name may be that of the slave owner. Ask at the library for anything like this title: A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors. How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Check the website listed below where 1860 slave holders and African names are matched and the other one with African American names. Here are two sites to check: List of slaveholders and African names and Site with 50,000 African American surnames.
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Finding a Civil War Letter

I read about someone finding their Civil War ancestor’s letters in a trunk in their attic. Sigh, I wish that would happen to me. Unfortunately, I have no attic with dusty trunks waiting to be opened.

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Letter by Abraham Lincoln (in the museum in Baltimore, MD)

I have some World War I letters from my grandfather and a great-uncle. They were treasured and kept carefully by my mother, our family historian. If you have someone in your family, who serves in that role, check with them.

Some historical societies have letters donated by local residents. These are not always digitized or displayed. They may be cataloged and stored away. Ask about Civil War letters and diaries in historical societies in the area where your ancestor lived.

Even if what they have is not your ancestor, it is possible that your ancestor was mentioned by another soldier. Reading about other soldiers in the same unit as your ancestor will give you details about their Civil War experience.

Check eBay, as Civil War letters sometimes show up on there. You can place a watch on keywords or a topic and eBay will inform you when something shows up at auction.

Many letters from that era have been published in books. Search for Civil War letters on Amazon under the book category. Some books focus on letters by an individual but others are collections of letters by various soldiers or a military unit or a region.

envelope for a civil war letter

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

 

Civil War Newspapers

Newspapers in the Civil War Era

Newspapers provided vital news to troops about what actually was happening in the Civil War. There were plenty of rumors picked up from other soldiers, but it was good to get solid information.

 

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1863 newspaper (photo by Virginia Allain)

For the wives and parents back home, the newspaper was eagerly read searching for news about war activities that affected their loved one in the service.

I’ve provided links to Civil War newspapers online, articles about journalists and publishing and included fascinating images from the Civil War era.

Selling Newspapers to the Troops in the Civil War

Remember that at this time in American history, there were no phones, no radios, no television, no Internet, so news traveled by word-of-mouth or by the printed page (the newspaper).

1863 newspaper vendor at Virginia camp.

Civil War Newspapers Online – for your reading and research

If you’re researching the Civil War, you’ll love this indexed newspaper files. You can enlarge them to read online.

Books That Reprint Civil War Newspapers – or tell the stories behind collecting the news during the war

 

 Fighting Words: An Illustrated History Of Newspaper Accounts Of The Civil War WAR NEWS: Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War Civil War Newspaper Maps: A Historical Atlas Fanatics and Fire-eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War (The History of Communication) The Moving Appeal: Mr. McClanahan, Mrs. Dill, and the Civil War’s Great Newspaper Run Witness to the Civil War: First-Hand Accounts from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper The New York Times: Complete Civil War, 1861-1865 (Book & CD)

&

 

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Civil War newspaper greatly enlarged for an exhibit at Gettysburg. Further down the page, you’ll see an original page of this same newspaper that we had framed for my father.

Read Civil War Newspapers Online

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Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper with sketches of emaciated Andersonville prisoners.

What You Might Find in the Old Newspapers

I found a newspaper online from December 1864 that described the Andersonville prisoners being paroled and taken onto the steamer, New York, for transport to Maryland. This is the right time for my ancestor’s release from Andersonville, so I read the full-page article with him in mind.

There were heart-wrenching sketches with the story that showed the emaciated prisoners on the deck of the steamship. One of those could have been my great-great grandfather.

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Clyde Martin with his original, framed newspaper featuring Lincoln’s assassination.

My father was thrilled one Christmas to receive a framed newspaper about Lincoln’s death. He had long been a collector of books about Abraham Lincoln. It was an interest that dated back to his childhood when he read a biography that made a big impression on him.

The family went together to purchase the newspaper and get it framed so it could be viewed both front and back. He loved this addition to his Lincoln collection.

Although the issue shows its age of over 150 years, it is a treasure to be preserved.

Background Information on Newspapers, Journalism and Printing – during the Civil War

I found the description interesting of how a story was collected in the field, then sent by telegraph. Because the telegraph lines were frequently cut by opposing troops, it was quite difficult to get stories to the papers in a timely fashion.

Finding Your Ancestor Inside a Book

What are the chances that your Civil War ancestor might be mentioned in a book about the Civil War? Probably slim, unless he was a general or other high-ranking officer. It is always possible, since more primary source material like diaries and letters are getting published plus an abundance of new research. Your ancestor may turn up in print some day.

That’s why when I see a book on Amazon about the war or a history topic, I look for the names of my ancestors.  Not all books have the LOOK-INSIDE-THE-BOOK feature, but it only takes a minute to search when you find one that does have it.

The preview feature usually shows the table of contents and a few pages from the first chapter. See the screenshot below to see how the search function can turn up valuable information. In some cases, it shows the index. You’ll want to scan that for events and names that are important to you.

Put the Amazon Search Inside a Book to work for you.

Put the Amazon Search Inside a Book to work for you.

For this book, I put in the name Walsh and the search brought up 5 page links. By clicking on each link, you can see the whole page with that name highlighted on it.

It’s a little bit like searching for a needle in a haystack, since there are 284,298 books under the topic “Civil War.” More are being added all the time. I look for books relating to areas of the war where I know my ancestor might be (Andersonville, Vicksburg, Brice’s Crossroads). I also use this search for books on Indiana and Kansas history where I might find Abraham Tower before or after the war.

Did You Check the 1890 Veterans’ Schedules?

Although the 1890 census was almost totally destroyed, there was a Veteran’s Schedule done at the same time. It’s possible your Civil War ancestor will show up on this. It documented around 75,000 Civil War Union veterans or their widows.

According to the census office, this is the information collected, “name, rank, company, regiment or vessel, date of enlistment, date of discharge, and length of service. It also included the post office address, any disability incurred in the service, and general remarks.” Some of the census takers ended up recording Confederate veterans and veterans of other wars. Read more about the Veterans Census on the National Archives site.

To get something looked up in this Veteran’s Schedule, there’s a special angel out there willing to search for free. Just one search request per person, per day. Allow a week for the look up. The site is called Ancestral Findings and here is the form to submit your request.

I’ve just submitted mine for Abraham Bates Tower. Can’t wait to see if anything turns up for the searcher. Wish me luck.

 

UPDATE March 6, 2015: Had a reply on my inquiry on the 1890 Veterans Schedule and no luck. Sigh.

Requesting Civil War Medical Cards from the National Archives

I just submitted my request for medical information about my ancestor. Although I don’t know if he was ever wounded, he most likely had medical treatment when he was released from Andersonville Prison. I’m really curious about any information that might be included with this.

Here’s the query I sent to the National Archives:

“I would like a copy of my ancestor’s Civil War Medical Cards.
His name was Abraham Bates Tower. He started as a private and later was a Corporal. He was in company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He was a prisoner of war at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

I am working on a book about his life.

My mind is teeming with the possibilities that this might reveal. Do you know if your ancestor was wounded or had medical treatment during their service?

I found out about medical cards from a blog post on the Genealogy Circle. There are some intriguing posts there called Civil War Saturday, so I’ll be busy reading all of those. Here’s the one about the Medical Cards.

The blogger, Cindy Freed, also has a book that looks helpful. The title is Ancestors in a Nation Divided: An In-Depth Guide to Researching Your Civil War Ancestors and it is available in Kindle or paperback.

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UPDATE: I received an email from my inquiry.

“Dear Ms. Allain:

This is in response to your inquiry requesting to obtain a copy of the Civil War Carded Medical Cards pertaining to Private/Corporal Abraham Bates Tower, Company G, 93rd IN Infantry.
We searched Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Entry 534: Carded Medical Records, Volunteers, Mexican & Civil Wars (1846-65).
We were unable to identify any Carded Medical Records pertaining to Private/Corporal Abraham Bates Tower, Company G, 93rd IN Infantry.
Sincerely,
P. H.
Archives I Reference Section
Archival Operations-Washington, DC “

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.