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 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.
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 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.
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.
Yesterday, I wrote about a photo that a distant cousin thought was our Civil War ancestor. You can read about that here (Authenticating a Civil War Photo). I wanted to verify this, so did some searching.
It turns out that the soldier in the photo is from the same company as our ancestor and was in Andersonville Prison at the same time. I discovered this by running the photo through Tineye.
Results of the TinEye search on the photo.
The link it provided didn’t work, so my next step was to run the link through The Wayback Machine. That’s a site that stores defunct web sites.
When I saw the results, a web site from 2008, I then googled the topic and found where the page currently resides. Here’s the story about the soldier that the photo actually shows. His name is Lambert Rogier.
With delight, I saw a photo posted by a distant cousin on Veteran’s Day of a Civil War soldier. “It’s our grandfather Tower,” he wrote on Facebook. Wow, I’d never seen this photo before.
Then I paused and a few skeptical thoughts crossed my mind. How could I be sure that it really was our mutual ancestor who served in the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry? When I queried to be sure it was Abraham Bates Tower, my cousin said that he’s been told that it was, but “How that was authenticated, I don’t know, so I ain’t gonna swear on a stack of Bibles.”
So now I have a mystery to solve. Can I prove that it is who we want it to be? Here’s how I’ll proceed.
- I’ll check the photo against some that I have showing him later in life. This is complicated by his having a beard in his other pictures.
- I’ll show the photo to another distant cousin who works on the family tree. Maybe she knows more about it.
Could this be Abraham Bates Tower in the Civil War?
- I’ll run the photo through some Internet searches using Tineye, Google and Bing. Tineye looks for a photo to match the one you have. If the photo shows up on the web, there may be some information about who it is.
- I’ll post the photo to a Civil War forum or a re-enators site to see what they can tell me about the uniform and the accessories in the photo.
- I could also send the photo to the Photo Detective, Maureen Taylor. I recently heard her speak at a genealogy conference in Orlando. She has a book titled Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album and a number of others about identifying photos.
- Another method is to post the photo online like I’m doing here, then wait for comments. If someone else claims this as their ancestor, they will contact me.
Well, it didn’t take long to find out about who was in the photo. Click the link to read about the results.
I’ve been asked about the graphic used on this blog. It’s a photo I took when I visited Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
If you like it, I’ve made it available on a mouse pad that can be ordered from Zazzle. It would make a great Christmas gift or birthday present for any Civil War buff that you know or get it for yourself.
Here it is:
Genealogy can be an expensive hobby or passion. Ancestry.com alone can be over $150 for a year’s subscription.
Fortunately, it gives you a free two-week trial which has some added benefits down the road. If you sign up for the trial membership, then you get email notices from the site pretty regularly.
Every so often, usually around holiday weekends, it has an open search. If you don’t want to pay for the year’s membership, you’ll want to take advantage of the open access times offered.
At special times during the year, this military records site offers free weekend access to certain records. Sign up for their emails at the site to be notified of these.
The example shown in the graphic above is my email from the Fold3 site which is another genealogy subscription site. It specializes in military records. As you can see, it offers the free access every now and then as well.
Best of luck on hunting down your ancestors!
ONE WARNING: Be sure to cancel at the end of the trial period. Some sites automatically roll into the full membership and charge your credit card.
(graphic created by me using Awesome Screenshots)