On the Trail of Our Ancestors

Page Location: TrailofOurAncestors.com/civilwar.htm
Finding a Civil War Ancestor
by Donna Speer Ristenbatt

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Bullet Purpose of This Page
Bullet Brief Overview
Bullet Resources
Bullet NATF Forms
Bullet Additional Information
Bullet Brief Biographical Sketches
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Purpose of This Page

The intent of this page is not to relate the history or other events pertaining to the Civil War, as that has already been done numerous times. Web sites of particular note are The American Civil War Homepage by Dr. George Hoemann. (For fans of the movie "Gettysburg", there is even a link to information about Joshua L. Chamberlain [played by Jeff Daniels]), and Dakota State University's Civil War Page, managed by Jim Janke. Rather, the intent of this page is to give helpful hints for finding those ancestors who may have fought in the Civil War. Also, there are brief biographical sketches of my husband's and my ancestors who served during the Civil War.

Brief Overview

Briefly, the Civil War was fought between the Northern and Southern (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) states, beginning on April 12, 1861 when troops in South Carolina fired upon the garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and ending officially on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army to General Ulysses S. Grant. The war affected nearly every family in those regions of the country.


There are numerous sources to help a person's search, and many can be found in the LDS Family History Centers. If you are not close to a state archives or appropriate library, Family History Centers can be very helpful. Their Research Outlines will save you much time and fruitless searching.

One helpful source from the Family History Library is Bibliography of State Participation in the Civil War, 3rd ed, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913 (FHL film 1,465,569) which lists veteran organizations, regimental histories and state, county, and town histories (Northern and Southern) that have rosters of soldiers. For more helpful sources, be sure to check out the LDS Research Outline on U.S. Military Records.

Numerous organizations are working together (The National Park Service, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the Genealogical Society of Utah, and numerous volunteers) to make a computerized index to all Union and Confederate soldiers. This index will be available at National Park Civil War sites when completed.

If you are wondering if your ancestor served during the war, one of the first things to ask is if he were an appropriate age. In the Union, the Conscription Act of 1863 declared that men between the ages of 20 and 45 were eligible for duty. (Aliens who had filed their declaration of intention to become citizens were also eligible.) These records are at The National Archives and have not yet been microfilmed. If you can get to The National Archives, these records contain valuable genealogical data.

The next step in your search might be to check the 1890 Federal Population Special Census of Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Widows of the Civil War. (Since the 1890 US Federal Census was largely destroyed, this is a good alternative.) Schedules for states alphabetically from Kentucky through Wyoming are available. On this particular census, you will first see the name of the surviving soldier,etc. If it is his widow, you will see for example, "Widow of Wm. H.G. Miller". The census then lists the following: rank, company, name of Regiment or Vessel, Date of Enlistment, Date of Discharge, Length of Service, Post Office Address, Disability Incurred (if any), Remarks. Once again, a very good place to view this census is the LDS Family History Center. When using the Family History Library Card Catalog, check under United States, under the topic "Censuses". Then order the appropriate film.

Once equipped with this information, your next step might be to check with The National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. You may write to them at the following address:

National Archives & Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001

Or you may call: (202) 501-5652. Whether you write or call, make sure you ask for the NATF 86 Form for Military Service records or NATF 85 Form for Military Pension records. You may also e-mail them at inquire@nara.gov

NATF Forms

As of November 2000, the National Archives has changed the forms which it uses. These are the forms NATF 86 for Military Service and NATF 85 for Pension Records for men who have served before World War I.  The pension form is the longest, whereas the military form asks only for the first few items, as found on the pension application.  Also, the military form is now only for army service.  Additionally, the National Archives now states that the pension forms requested of them are only for Union service, not Confederate service.  The National Archives then gives addresses on the back of the pension form where one may send for information from the various Southern states.

When you receive your NATF Form, you must fill in the first 5 items in order for your file to be searched. These are the items:

  1. File to be searched
  2. Payment Method - credit card number, signature, exp. date & daytime phone OR Bill Me
  3. (This is now at the bottom of the page and is not part of the first 5 items.)
  4. Veteran - Last, first & middle name
  5. Branch of service in which he served
  6. State from which he served
  7. War in which, or dates between which, he served
  8. The next items are optional, but helpful to the search, if you know them.
  9. Unit in which he served

  10. If service was army, arm in which he served, such as infantry
  11. Rank - Officer or Enlisted
  12. Kind of service, such as Volunteer or Regulars
  13. Pension/Bounty - land file No.
  14. If Veteran lived in a home for soldiers, give location
  15. Place(s) Veteran lived after service
  16. Date of birth
  17. Place of birth
  18. Date of death
  19. Place of death
  20. Name of widow or other claimant

Lastly, don't forget to fill in your name and address at the bottom (your mailing label) and keep the pink page as your copy. (may come in handy to reference later.)

Fees have increased. Check the following URL for the items you require. Order Forms for Military Service and Family History Records. Length of mailing time, once you've sent the form, depends upon how the Archives is staffed. A few years ago, it took 4-6 weeks to receive a response. Copies of discharge papers are not included in the file. These were given to the soldier himself when he was discharged or mustered-out. The fact that I have a copy of my great great grandfather's discharge paper tells me that someone in the family still has that paper today. (hopefully!)

Additional Information

For those who know the regiment, etc. in which their ancestor served during the Civil War, this additional information might be of interest. By writing to the following address, you can find out if a photograph exists of the regiment in question. This organization has been gathering photographs of various units. If they have a photograph of the regiment, they will send it to you for a fee.

US Army Military History Institute
Carlisle Barracks, Bldg. 22
Carlisle, PA 17013-5008

Brief Biographical Sketches

Bullet Henry H. Speer, Jr.
Bullet William Henry Garret Miller
Bullet Milton S. Ristenbatt
Bullet Richard A. Terhune
Bullet Jonathan B. Speicher
Bullet John W. Lutz/Groll

For additional information:

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