Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Never-Ending Treasure Hunt: How To Track War Ancestors

How do you track your Civil War ancestors?  This question arose once again during a presentation I gave recently, so it’s time to blog the answer.  First, let me say that tracking down Civil War ancestors is an ongoing process. One thing leads to another. Before you know it, you’re on a never-ending treasure hunt. Here are a few tips that might help:
A Soldier's Application for Pension
by my N.C. ancestor, David Welborn,
 dated 1917. The Confederate veteran
was then 74 and disabled.

Dig through all that stuff great grandma or some other relative left behind.  Read every letter, examine every document, and pore over every trinket.  You might discover something awesome. My father left behind boxes of documents and artifacts that I regrettably waited forty years to examine. That's how I found a few authentic Civil War letters and priceless (to me anyway) genealogical information. 

Ask questions of older relatives by phone, e-mail or in person.  Attend family reunions. Stories and show-and-tell moments can abound. 

Visit graveyards.  Ancestors' headstones sometimes reveal where and when Civil War veterans died in battle, their regiments and companies, as well as other details.

Visit state archives and universities with large historical collections in states where your ancestors lived.  I’ve spent many days combing through materials at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among other places. Staffs are very helpful. I’ve not only found documents that belonged to my family, but hints of other documents to track down. (See application for Civil War pension above left. More on this in a later blog.)  Remember Civil War records were written by hand and in haste, so names might be misspelled. 

Go online.  It’s amazing how many resources you can find on the Web to aid your hunt. Some are free; others have a price.  The more specific the phrases you put in search engines, the more gratifying the results.  I found copies of Civil War letters from ancestors through the online records of several universities.  Even if you only find an index of documents, something might provide a map to treasure. You can order copies of some documents, usually for a small fee.  I’ve done this many times.

Burn some rubber.  I’ve done my highest-return sleuthing in little libraries at such out-of-the-way places as the basement of the Warren County Library in Warrenton, N.C., and the library stacks at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C.  I’ve found ancestors’ war records, newspaper clips of interviews with ancestors, as well as family land deeds, wills and local census records. At Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park in Virginia, I found a list of Confederates issued parole passes assuring safe passage home after Lee’s surrender to Grant.  Several ancestors were on the list.

Finally, be persistent and follow up all leads; be prepared to invest time and money in your search; and, organize your documents, notes and written responses to questions in accessible files.  I drew a family tree for easy reference.  I also made a Civil War timeline with the dates my ancestors began military duty, the battles in which they participated, their deaths, their pension applications, their war injuries, and records of equipment issues. I update and expand the timeline regularly.  

Despite many frustrations, my Civil War treasure hunting has yielded valuable and often surprising information and insights into my family, myself, the Civil War and the story of America.  You’ll likely experience the same.  Go for it. 

Main Street in picturesque
Georgetown, South Carolina

NOTE:  I gave my most recent Civil War presentation in coastal Georgetown, South Carolina.  Never been?  Well, put a trip to the historic seaport along Winyah Bay on your “To Do" list right now.  The town offers quaint shops, unique restaurants and plenty of lovely, old buildings. See PHOTOS page.