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Finding American Civil War Ancestors
Column published: 22 November 2006.
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Those of you who know me well realize that if I am addicted and compulsive about my genealogical studies that I am truly over the bend when it comes to learning about the history of the Civil War.

Depending on which part of the country you lived in, this period was referred to in many ways. In the north we refer to it as the Civil War. This really is an oxymoron. Who ever heard of any war that was truly civil?

Some of the other names that it has been called are:
  • The War of Northern Aggression
  • The War for Southern Independence
  • The Second American Revolution
  • The War for States' Rights
  • Mr. Lincoln's War
  • The War of the Southern Planters
  • The War of the Rebellion
  • The War to Suppress Yankee Arrogance
  • The Brothers' War
  • The War of Secession
  • The War Against Slavery
  • The War for Separation
  • The War of the North and South
  • The Recent Conflict
Most of our ancestors were the farmers who help turn this land into a nation. Some of them had ancestors that had served in the Revolutionary War. Most of them had never shot at anything unless it was for food or their own protection.

Men from Michigan responded gallantly. As the men who volunteered exceeded Michigan's quotas, many men joined "Units in Other States". If your ancestor lived in Michigan and served in the Civil War and you cannot locate him in Michigan records, check and see if he might have enlisted in one of our neighboring states. For example, three companies of men from the Battle Creek area formed the Merrill Horse of Missouri. This Missouri Regiment was the largest group of Michigan men serving in the unit of another state. We had over 900 men serving in Illinois units. There were 386 men serving in the Reserve Corp and 153 serving with General Hancock. The casualty rate of these men was over 11%.

The Union had a population of about 20,700,000. The eleven states of the Confederacy had a population of 9,100,000 including nearly 4,000,000 slaves.

How many Americans died in the Civil War?

Union deaths from battle or disease totaled 364,511. Authoritative figures for the confederacy are not available, but most estimates range around 260,000. The total of 620,000 deaths makes this conflict the bloodiest in the nation's history -- not excluding World War II, in which 405,399 Americans died.

Age of Soldiers

Figures from government records indicate that 78% of the Civil War was fought by 15-18 year olds. 38% of all soldiers were 18.

The explosion of the Sultana was, and remains even today, America's worst-ever-maritime disaster. The Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River early on the morning of April 27, 1865. Well over 1,500 paroled Union soldiers, crewmen and passengers lost their lives in the cold, muddy waters that spring morning.

The actual number of passengers aboard the Sultana will likely always be unclear due to poor record keeping at the time of boarding, but scholars today believe that between 2,200 and 2,300 were probably aboard the steamer when she exploded nine miles north of Memphis, Tennessee on the Mississippi River.

Of the paroled Union soldiers aboard the Sultana, nearly three out of four were from the states of Ohio, Tennessee, or Indiana, but there were also many soldiers from Michigan aboard. In fact about 13% of those on board were from Michigan.

Some of Shirley's favorite Civil War Sites
  • American Civil War The page is maintained by Dr. George H. Hoemann who, with Mary Myers, is one of the original co-authors. Hoemann is currently assistant dean for distance education and independent study at the University of Tennessee.
  • Civil War Center The mission of the United States Civil War Center is to promote interdisciplinary study of the American Civil War. It was founded in 1993 by novelist David Madden, Professor of English at Louisiana State University, and is supported in part by a donation from the late Frank Magill, founder of Salem Press.
  • Civil War Poetry and Music If you want to understand the thoughts and emotions of the men who faced each other across the battlefield and those who waited for them at home, look to the poems and songs written during and after the War.
  • Civil War Veteran Burials - Michigan ( free ) Dept. Of Michigan The database contains over 50,000 records, including all Civil War soldiers buried in Michigan from any units, as well any Michigan soldiers that are buried anywhere. Also include are the burial places of veterans of any war from the American Revolution through the Spanish American War if they are reported to The Department of Michigan.
  • Civil War Women Given the wealth of information about the Civil War already on the Internet, there is a relatively small amount of material that reflects women's lives and experiences during this time period. This site provides links to primary sources that are directly related to women and the Civil War.
  • Civil War: North vs. South This site contains links to articles and papers regarding specific Civil War battles, plus additional information regarding the conflict. Content is listed alphabetically by battle name.
  • Index of Civil War Information The mission of the United States Civil War Center is to promote interdisciplinary study of the American Civil War. It was founded in 1993 by novelist David Madden, Professor of English at Louisiana State University, and is supported in part by a donation from the late Frank Magill, founder of Salem Press.
  • Introduction to Genealogy & Civil War The American Civil War provided many documents which have information vital for those interested in family history. Many men born from 1825 to 1847 served in the armies, but many older men and some young boys also participated. This site provides strageies to help you begin your research.
  • Joshua Chamberlain Page The Pejepscto Historical Society rescued the Chamberlain House from demolition in 1982, and that year began restoration on what would become the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum. Links from this page will bring you up to date on this project, and lead you to the Pejepscot Historical Society's extensive Joshua L. Chamberlain resources.
  • Michigan in the Civil War - Honor Roll The top of this webpage is an advertisement for a commercial CD , however if you scroll down the page a little, you will find a free database of all of the Michigan soldiers that did not survive the Civil War. It is the names of all of the 14,790 men regardless of the cause of death. This does not include the 279 listed as "Missing in Action" and probably killed.
  • National Civil War Association
  • Sinking of Sultana The most terrible steamboat disaster in history was probably the loss of the Sultana in 1865. Some 1,700 returning Union Veterans died... yet the tragedy got very few headlines.
  • Underground Railroad (Canada) During the 19 th-century, thousands of enslaved and many free African-Americans fled the United States and made their way to Canada where they could live as free citizens. The refugees arrived at points as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west as British Columbia, but the majority crossed over into what is now southwestern Ontario. The network of abolitionists that assisted in the escapes became known as the Underground Railroad.
  • Underground Railroad (National Geographic) You are a slave. Your body, your time, your very breath belong to a farmer in 1850s Maryland. Six long days a week you tend his fields and make him rich. You have never tasted freedom. You never expect to. And yet . . .

Thought For The Day

I would like to share this following thought with you. There are 37 shopping days left until Christmas. I would like to have each of you think about something that you could do for your family for Christmas.

Write your life story. It truly is the most precious gift that you could ever give them. I think that the most important mistake that we make as genealogists is that we don't pass along information about ourselves. We get so wrapped up in finding out information about those who have gone before us that we forget about ourselves. Hopefully, one hundred years from now that will matter to someone also.

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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