Records Origin

Medals of Honor

Soldier Records Origin



During the American Civil War, every few weeks to every few months depending on the unit, usually at the company level, soldiers' names were recorded on muster rolls. Beginning in the 1880s General Ainsworth's staff in the Department of the Army indexed these records originally to determine who was eligible for a pension. His staff wrote a card for every time a soldier's name appeared on a muster roll. When Ainsworth's staff finished the Compiled Military Service records, each soldier's file usually had many cards representing each time the soldier's name appeared on a muster roll.

One type of card, the General Index Card listed the soldier's name, the soldier's rank at the time of enlistment from the first card and the date the soldier left the service with the soldier's final rank from the last card. These General Index cards form the basis for the Soldier names in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System.

When Ainsworth's staff completed the project, there were 6.3 million General Index Cards for the soldiers - both Union and Confederate - who had served during the American Civil War. 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. Data from all 6.3 million cards is in the CWSS.


The fundamental source for all the names entered into this phase of the CWSS is the General Index Cards of the Compiled Military Service Records, which were derived from muster rolls of the Union and Confederate Armies. The Union Army muster roles were already in the possession of the War Department when General Ainsworth's staff began their work. The Confederate Army muster rolls were sent to Washington for this purpose with the permission and assistance of the Governors of the eleven states formerly in the Confederate States of America (CSA). The War Department clerks transposed the information by hand to an estimated 140 million, 3x8-inch cards. These cards, known collectively as the "Compiled Military Service Records," are located in the National Archives, as are the original muster roles from which the data were taken. The muster rolls are extremely fragile and rarely used; individuals seeking information on Civil War soldiers from the Archives either use the cards or microfilm copies of some of the cards.

Recording Sequence (How Soldier Names Progressed from Original Historical Documents to a Posting on the Internet)

I. Muster Rolls (1861-1864)

These were the routine official records kept by the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. They are today stored in the National Archives, but are too fragile to be readily available to the public.

II. Compiled Military Service Records
The approximately 140 million cards include 5.4 million General Index Cards, each containing a soldier's name. It is important to understand that the first phase of the CWSS, known as the Names Index phase, is limited to less than ten pieces of information on each of the 5.4 million General Index Cards. The most important pieces of information are the name of the individual, rank in and out, and the name of the organizational unit (such as regiment and sometimes the company).

III. Microfilm Copies of General Index Cards
The National Archives produced microfilm records of the General Index Cards for public use at the Archives in Washington and in regional offices; copies were also made by the Genealogical Society in Utah.

IV. Paper Copies of Microfilm Records (c. 1992)
Paper copies of the microfilm ("blowback" records) were made by NPS and GSU for use by volunteers entering data for the CWSS.

V. Data Entry into UDE (Universal Data Entry) Software by FGS and UDC volunteers (1993-99)
As of the year 2000, volunteers in over 36 states had completed initial data entry for all of the 6.3 million soldier names. All of this work was done on home computers using the Mormon Church's universal data entry (UDE) software, from paper copies of the microfilm records.

VI. Editing by GSU, FGS, and The Utah Army Corps
The data from the FGS and UDC volunteers around the country was received by the GSU and was edited for accuracy, consistency, etc. Also, Unit Codes were derived from the original data. The Utah Army Corps provided invaluable support during this final editing process.

VII. Converting Data into the CWSS
NPS staff converted the data into an Oracle database for use in the CWSS on the Internet. Data was made available on the CWSS as it was completed by the GSU and FGS.

The Sailors Database

The information in the Sailors Database is derived from enlistment records and the quarterly muster rolls of Navy vessels. Approximately half of the sailors entered the service at the Navy's established points of enlistment. For these men and women, enlistment records serve as the primary sources of information. The Howard University research team used muster rolls to fill in missing data or to correct apparent misinformation recorded at the time of enlistment. Information about the remainder of the enlistees was derived directly from these muster rolls. When research uncovered inconsistencies in the data (such as conflicting reports of an individual's age at the time of enlistment) the most frequently recorded response was used.

The work of the team from Howard University makes previously inaccessible information available to people interested in the Civil War. Descendants of Civil War sailors will find biographical details regarding age, place of birth, and occupation that may help supplement or clarify details from such other sources of genealogical information as birth, death, and census records. Moreover, information about any individual sailor's enlistment and service is necessary for determining the presence or absence of their pension records at the National Archives.

People with more general interest in African American history or the African diaspora will likewise find the list of names informative. Searching by city or state of nativity, for instance, provides a fascinating profile of the individuals from those places who served. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that more than 5,000 of the men were born in the two slave states bordering Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and Virginia, the former of which remained in the Union and the latter of which joined the Confederacy. No other two states north or south of the Mason and Dixon Line came close to accounting for such large numbers of men.

Finally, people interested in the history of the United States Navy will be able to search the names of vessels for the list of black men who served on board at various times during the Civil War. One such search reveals that three black men were aboard the U.S.S. Monitor when she sank in December 1862. Another indicates that forty-four black sailors were on board the U.S.S. Hartford at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, when Admiral David Farragut uttered the immortal words "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

In a few hard facts uncovered by a simple search, the beginnings of full and compelling stories are revealed.

For additional information, contact Joseph P. Reidy at:
Department of History
Howard University
2400 Sixth St. NW
Washington, DC 20059


Records Consulted

The database consists of the names of every person whose personal description indicates the possibility of African descent. The researchers combed the surviving enlistment records and the muster rolls of vessels for this information. These records are part of Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, at the National Archives, Washington, D.C. The enlistment records are Weekly Returns of Enlistments at Naval Rendezvous ("Enlistment Rendezvous"), volumes 7-44 (Jan. 1858 - July 1865), inclusive. The muster rolls may be found among Muster Rolls of Ships; the accompanying list provides the name of each vessel and the date(s) of muster examined.

In most cases, the description of an individual as "Negro," "Colored," or "Mulatto" suggested African ancestry such that the person's name and other descriptive information was entered into the database. Other cases are less straightforward. Person's whose complexion is listed as "Yellow," for instance, are also included in the database on the grounds that this designation was used commonly in the nineteenth century to describe persons of mixed European and African ancestry. It was also used commonly to describe Asians. In some instances, persons were characterized as "Black" or "Colored" even though they may not have been of African descent. To err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, the names of such persons whose ancestry is ambiguous are included in the database. So too are the names of African Americans whose names were entered onto the enlistment rolls but who did not subsequently serve in the navy. In most cases, these men were found to have a disease or disability when they reported to the receiving ship and were rejected from further duty.

Regiment Histories Sources

In one Connecticut regiment during the American Civil War a young drummer boy witnessed first hand the intensity of war. Several decades later in 1903, this drummer boy now a grown man, devoted himself to writing the histories of all the Union regiments. This man was Frederick Dyer. After the war, the Department of the Army assembled some of its vast information on the War and published the multi-volume work entitled the "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion." However, the Official Records were not fully indexed and were therefore not easily usable. Dyer used information from this source and from Union veterans to complete his work. After five years of almost solitary confinement, Dyer completed his task which was published under the name of the "Compendium of the War of the Rebellion."

Over seventy years later, the Civil War Soldiers System' Historian's Steering Committee, which consisted of National Park Rangers and Historians, recommended Dyer's Compendium as the most complete and reliable source for Union regimental histories. Dyer's Compendium had withstood the test of time and became the CWSS source for Union regimental histories.

Popular Grove National Cemetery


Located twenty-five miles south of Richmond,Va., Petersburg National Battlefield contains 2,460 acres and is made up of six major units. These units contain battlefields, earthen forts, trenches and Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Collectively, they reveal the story of the longest siege in American warfare and the experiences of the nearly 150,000 soldiers from both sides of the trenches.
During the Civil War a gothic-style church called Poplar Grove was constructed by the 50th NY Engineers and a cemetery was chosen on its grounds. A year after the War ended work began to move approximately 5,000 Union Soldiers from nearly 100 separate burial sites around Petersburg.

Medals of Honor Records Source

The bulk of the Medals of Honor records available in this section of the CWSS were originally taken from the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Report, Medal of Honor Recipients: 1863-1978 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979).

A few records have been added to represent awardees who received the medal after 1978.

A good website for correlation purposes is the one maintained by the U.S. Army Center for Military History in Carlisle, PA. (

Prisoners Records Source

Prisoners records come from Andersonville Prison and Fort McHenry.

The National Park Service wishes to thank the staff and volunteers at Fort McHenry National Monument and Shrine, especially Scott Sheads and Ana Von Lunz, for providing the history of the prison and records for our database.

Andersonville National Historic Site maintains a database of prisoners held at Andersonville Prison. Because record keeping at the prison was inconsistent and incomplete, many of the entries in this database have been developed with assistance from descendants and volunteer researchers. For up to date information from this database or for assistance with researching prisoners of war held at Andersonville please visit Andersonville_POWs or contact e-mail us. Thanks to Joan P. Stibitz, Susan Fuller and Eric Leonard for developing and maintaining this database.

Baltimore During the Civil War by Scott S. Sheads and Daniel C. Toomey (Toomey Press, 1997). Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861-1865, Microfilm No. 598, Roll 96, National Archives.
Andersonville: The Last Depot, by William Marvel, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1994.
Captives Immortal: "The Story of Six Hundred Confederate Officers and the United States Prisoner of War Policy", by Mauriel Phillips Joslyn, White Mane Publishing Co., Inc., Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, 1996.

Last updated: March 20, 2013