I recently made my first visit to the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). This is one in a series of articles inspired by that visit to help you make your first visit to the National Archives.
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors
The National Park Service is assembling an online index of American Civil War Soldiers and Sailors (CWSS) at
Sailors have yet to be completed, but soldiers were completed in September 2004. The index contains entries for 6.3 million soldiers, both Union and Confederate. The index was assembled by the park service and partners from index cards archived by NARA. Historians have determined that approximately 3.5 million soldiers actually fought in the War. A soldier serving in more than one regiment, serving under two names, or spelling variations resulted in the fact that there are 6.3 million General Index Cards for 3.5 million soldiers. (Source)
To begin searching for soldiers, click on Soldiers.
Putting it all together
As an example of using the CWSS, let's see if we can find the compiled military service record (CMSR) of Abraham Annison, an African American from Maryland who fought for the Union. While we don't know in which unit Annison served, as an African American he would have been assigned to one of the US Colored Troop (USCT) regiments. Enter this information and click Submit Query.
The one search result shows Abraham Annison of the 19th US Colored Infantry Regiment. Clicking on the regiment name, we see it was organized at Camp Stanton, Maryland. While it is common to find soldiers who signed up in states other than their own, finding an Annison in Maryland is enough to justify further investigation. The search results cite film number M589 roll 3 as the source of this information. I don't think any additional information is available, but we can look up m589 in the National Archive Research Catalog (ARC) to find the records M589 indexes. A search for M589 returns Indexes to the Carded Records... in which the "Function and Use" section indicates,
This series was created to index the series "Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the Civil War, 1890-1912" (ARC Identifier 300398).
A search for ARC identifier 300398 shows that the CMSRs for the USCT 19th are available on microfilm publication M1822. We are in luck! This regiment is one of the few for which compiled military service records are available on microfilm. Since it is available on microfilm, it is probably available online. We check the chart in my article titled "Compiled Military Service Records." In the row for "Union Army" and the column for "Online CMSRs" we see that CMSRs are available on Ancestry.com for a few USCT regiments.
On Ancestry.com, we search the database, "U.S. Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1861-1865" for Abraham Annison and find two potential matches. The first has 44 enclosures! Pay dirt!
Viewing the black and white images, we see the fire damaged CMSR envelope front and back.
Further into the documents we find some genealogically important information. From the "Company Descriptive Book" abstract card (left, below) we see that Annison was age 18 on 18 December 1863 and was born in Cecil County, Maryland. On the "Deed of manumission and Release of Service" (right, below) we see that Abraham Annison was also known as Abram Anderson, the slave of William G. Etherington of Cecil County, Maryland. Knowing the slave owner is necessary when researching Annison's ancestry. (It makes me ill to do African American genealogy; you research property records!)
That illustrates how to use the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors (CWSS) system. Most of the time you won't be lucky enough to find the CMSR online or on microfilm. You can order a copy of the CMSR from NARA for a fee. But you can also put it on your list of records to look at when you make your first visit to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.