Finding Your Civil War Ancestor in Wisconsin
A guide to help you get started in your search
One of the most frequent requests I receive in my e-mailbox comes from people who want to learn more about their Civil War ancestor from Wisconsin. They have the soldier's name but don't always know the regiment he served with or the town he was from. "Where do I start?" they ask, or "How can I locate his military record?" I've put this page together to provide you with a few tips about identifying your ancestor by rank and regiment, and where his service records might reside (if they still exist).
Note: This information is based upon personal experiences while researching my own Civil War ancestor. It is provided as a general guide and is not a comprehensive listing of all possible sources.
Right up front I am going to recommend a book for you to find. It's called "Researching Your Civil War Ancestor in Wisconsin" and was written by Dennis R. Moore. This paperback book was published in 1994 by Bivouac Publications and it may be out of print by now. You may be able to order a copy directly from the publisher. I found my copy at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum gift shop in Madison. This book is very thorough and complete, providing the researcher with plenty of sources and addresses to check. The book contains everything I've listed below, plus lots, lots more right down to information sources for specific Wisconsin regiments. Publisher contact information:
Your first step is to identify the soldier's regiment. If you know your Civil War ancestor's name, but nothing else about his military service (other than that he was a member of a Wisconsin regiment) you will first need to find a copy of an old book entitled "Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865". It was compiled by the state Adjutant General's office, and published by the Democrat Printing Company in 1914. Many libraries and archives have this book, or can get it for you through interlibrary loan. For a membership fee, you can view the book online from Ancestor Publishers. This book has an alphabetical listing of all Civil War volunteers from Wisconsin (excluding Naval service) and lists name, highest rank achieved, and regiment. If you don't find your ancestor's name immediately, check for alternate spellings.
Locate regimental summaries. Next step is to find a two-volume publication entitled, "Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861 - 1865" by Jeremiah M. Rusk and Chandler P. Chapman. It was published in 1886 by the Democrat Printing Company, State Printers, Madison, Wisconsin. Even though the title seems the same, it is quite different from the first book mentioned above. This book is organized by unit, including cavalry, light batteries, and volunteer regiments. Regimental officers are listed first, followed by companies. You may find information included about soldiers such as their date of enlistment, residence, date of muster out, discharge, or death. Check with your library or local historical society for availability, or even easier, browse the online version of this book.
Search Online. The Wisconsin Veteran's Museum is in the process of placing all Wisconsin Civil War Regimental Histories online. These histories do not list many soldiers by name but do provide a concise summary of each unit's service during the Civil War. The histories are primarily adapted from the book Records and Sketches of Military Organizations, Charles E. Estabrook, ed., (Madison, 1914).
Investigate original regimental records. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin Archives Division has many of the original muster and descriptive rolls for Wisconsin regiments. Additional information such as height, hair color, complexion, marital status and ocupation, notes about promotions, transfers, and wounds will be found here. If you can't get to Madison to view these documents in person, they are available on microfilm. Contact your nearest Area Research Center and ask them to order the film from the State Historical Society.
Search a computer database.The Wisconsin Veteran's Museum in Madison has entered the names of the soldiers who enlisted in Wisconsin regiments into an interactive computer database. From computer terminals located in the museum's Civil War gallery, visitors, scholars, genealogists, and history buffs can view a soldier's place of enlistment, rank, unit, dates of service, and information about his death or discharge. The computer also provides a brief historical sketch of the regiment in which the soldier served, and a record of engagements in which the soldier participated. This information can be immediately compiled and printed as a souvenir "Certificate of Service". The certificate contains all of the information described above, and may be purchased by mail.
The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) is a database of soldiers and sailors (both Union and Confederate), unit histories, battle summaries, cemetery records, and other information of interest to genealogists and historians. It is the largest free Civil War database available on the Internet and is the result of a cooperative effort between the National Park Service (NPS), the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the Genealogical Society of Utah, and several other national partners.
The site gives users the ability to search for Union and Confederate soldiers regardless of state or affiliation, download unit rosters, find unit histories, examine battle summaries, and search through lists of burials, prisoners, and Medal of Honor recipients. This combination of information makes the CWSS an invaluable resource for Civil War researchers. Give it a try now.
Request copies of federal military records. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. has archived many individual soldier's military files, including Civil War soldiers. Paper copies of Civil War military service records can be ordered by mail using an NATF Form 86 for each soldier. Copies of Civil War pension records can be ordered by mail using an NATF Form 85 for each soldier. You can obtain the NATF Form 85 and Form 86 by providing your name and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to specify the correct form number and the number of forms you need.
You can also order online - registration is required to place an order. Last time I looked, the fee for obtaining a service record was $25 and pension records were $75.00 US.
Check burial records. The Sons of Union veterans of the Civil War are in the midst of a long-term project to build a computer database listing all Civil War Union veteran's final resting places. The database is being added to continuously but is still incomplete. It's online and may be freely searched at suvcwdb.org.
These are NOT the only sources of information on your Civil War ancestor. There are still Wisconsin Veteran's census records (1885, 1895, 1905), records of state and local G.A.R. posts, regimental histories and reunions, burial records.... well, there's plenty of material to dig through. It's not hidden anywhere, you just have to start looking at your local library or historical society. And, there's no time like the present to get started!