Confederate Service and Pension Records:
Some General Description of How They were Created and What They Contain

The following information is written with a focus on searching for information about Confederate soldiers who lived in North Florida and South Georgia.  However, much of it is applicable to understanding 19th century military records in general and to searching such records irrespective of the place that the soldier lived or which "side" he fought on in the Civil War, and some of it can even be applied to searches for records of soldiers in other wars.

The Compiled Confederate Service Records have been microfilmed by the National Archives, and copies are available at various state archives and many libraries that have significant genealogical holdings.  The Florida State Archives has expanded the idea of an archives into more of a library concept and not only has copies of records of soldiers in Florida units, but also soldiers in Georgia and Alabama units, and is even adding those in North Carolina units.  In using these records, you have to realize that U.S. War Department clerks who copied much of them from original Confederate records, did whatever they did... including making mistakes in reading original documents of varying legibility and making their own mistakes in copying from them.   Sometimes they recorded information so cryptically that eliciting a meaning from it is a mind boggling process.  Sometimes their handwriting is hard to read... especially light handwriting after it has been microfilmed.   Original Confederate documents that are occasionally found in these records are even harder to read, being written in a script more removed from our own time and technology, sometimes under harsh conditions, and on a bewildering array of scraps of paper which were much older and had gone through a lot more abuse before they were microfilmed.  I wish you good luck on finding legible records...  Some are.  Others are not.

Most documents in the Compiled Confederate Service Records are not original Confederate records, but were created long after the war by extracting information contained in original Confederate records.  The information had to be extracted because the original Confederate military records were kept in the form of a "roll", a list that named many soldiers in one document.  Not  just Confederate records, but most military personnel records created before World War I were kept in this manner.   Rolls typically listed all soldiers who were in a particular unit and who did a particular thing at a particular time.  For instance, the situation permitting, the unit routinely "stood muster" at the time it was created, or "mustered in", and at two-month intervals thereafter.  At the time of each muster, all of the men in the unit were listed on a very large printed sheet of paper under the heading of "Muster Roll", or if no such sheet was available, on plain paper in approximately the format of the printed sheet.

If there were men who were in the unit who were not present at the time of the muster, some note was made of where they were known or believed to be.  Sometimes men were listed as absent without leave when they were in fact in the hospital, or as captured when they were in fact dead... so notes about soldiers must be understood in the context of the limits of knowledge of the leaders of the unit.  Often the muster rolls listed when and where the soldier was enrolled in the unit and by whom; and how much, by whom, and when they were last paid.  This information was listed repetitively on muster roll after muster roll, but was not always accurate on each one.  The very first muster roll, made when the unit was "mustered in", or the first muster roll in which a new soldier later joined a unit that had been in existence for awhile, may have more accurate information.  The unit also prepared special rolls for special reasons such as issuance of clothing, commutation of rations, etc.  If the soldier was in the hospital, each hospital that admitted and discharged him usually kept a record of each event... again, not separately for each individual but rather in the form of a "roll".

The extraction from all these various rolls of every type was made by the U.S. War Department from captured Confederate records plus other uncaptured records provided by the states, at the request of the former Confederate states some years after the war.  Also extracted were any Union records that existed for Confederate soldiers... such as prisoner of war records and copies of paroles and oaths of allegiance to the U.S. government.  Although the U.S. government did not pay pensions to Confederate veterans... the former Confederate states did, and those states had need to verify pension claims by Confederate veterans the same way that the federal government needed to verify veterans claims from Union service and service in other wars.  Similar extractions were made from Union Civil War records and from records of U.S. and state militia units in other wars... all for the same purpose: verification of veterans' claims for pensions or bounty lands.  By the process of extracting these records, a collective record for all of the members of a military unit became an individual record for each particular soldier who served in the unit.  Any original Confederate records that might have been found by the War Department which pertained only to one soldier... such as a disability discharge document, or a claim from the family for the enlistment bounty and/or back-pay of a deceased soldier which were unpaid at the time of his death, would also be placed in with the extracted records... but such original records concerning individual soldiers are fairly rare.   Also, a few soldiers in Florida served on both sides in the Civil War.  If that is the case for a particular soldier, the compiled records of Union service are very similar to the Compiled Confederate Service Records.  I have never researched a soldier who served on both sides but I do not believe that it was possible to get a Confederate pension for such service... because pension laws in former Confederate states did not allow payment to soldiers who "took the oath of allegiance to the United States" before the end of the war.  Where pensions are concerned though, there were some Confederate veterans and widows of Confederate veterans who drew pensions for Confederate service in the Civil War, and also received pensions for other military service from the U.S. government.  No such pensions were ever paid to veterans for service in the Mexican War, because of opposition to that war in the North before during and after.  That war was a part of the dispute between the North and South over the expansion of slavery, and most of  its veterans were Southerners.  But in the North Florida/South Georgia/South Alabama area, there were many veterans of militia service against the Creeks and Seminoles.  They could receive both U.S. and Confederate pensions.  Copies of U.S. pensions can be obtained from the National Archives.

The records that went into the Compiled Confederate Service Records are often "spotty"... that is to say partial.  There are gaps where records should have been created but perhaps were not, and where records were created but were destroyed in combat or just perished due to conditions that prevailed during the war.   Some records may have been deliberately destroyed at the end of the war, and no doubt some records perished after the war and before the compilations were made... by action of the things that usually destroy records... fire or exposure to heat, light, water, insects and/or rodents, while in storage.  One record of a request by the wife for a deceased soldier's bounty and pay that I have seen, had a hole in the center of each page large enough to pass your hand through, but worse than that the request was denied by the Confederate Second Auditor's office because the soldier's unit had not recorded and reported the death.  That was a death in Florida, and it has been my experience that hospital and other records are much "spottier" when a unit was in Florida than when it was in, for instance, Virginia, where a somewhat efficient bureaucracy was in place to keep records.

There are some peculiarities of the Compiled Confederate Service Records due to the fact that the extracts were made and compiled a good number of years after the war, by clerks who were sitting in an office somewhere in Washington, D.C., and who did not personally know anything about the men concerned or the events recorded in the documents.  If a soldier's name was written in various ways on different rolls, sometimes all of those were put together in one file and other times two or more files were created for the same individual.  There was a general tendency for some soldiers to have two or more files under slightly different spellings of their names, but in rare instances the records of more than one soldier ended up in one file.  I have also seen where a soldier whose first and middle names were always given as initials in the original Confederate records, in the Compiled Confederate Service Records given the spelled-out first name of another soldier (his brother) whose first name started with the same letter and who had the same last name and served in the same unit.  There are many such instances of confounding of identity in the Compiled Confederate Service Records themselves and these tend to either be perpetuated or magnified... or some times are resolved... in printed indexes and lists of soldiers in books where the raw information has undergone an editing process prior to publication.  For this reason, I strongly suggest that though such published works are very valuable, it is always best to take what they do or do not say with a grain salt until the actual Compiled Confederate Service Records that might relate to a particular soldier are read and ***ANALYZED*** in light of any other information that may be known about him.   It is by far better to be able to look at the actual Compiled Confederate Service Records yourself, than to have to rely on the ability of an archivist or librarian who does not know what you know about the soldier you are looking for, to do the search for you.  I almost guarantee that you will find more by doing the search yourself.  But even when you find exactly what you are looking for, there may well be unanswerable questions galore.

Extracts from rolls were made onto pieces of paper that were approximately the size and shape of an original Confederate letter-sized document folded twice.  Larger documents were simply folded more times.  This is the way records were physically kept before the invention of the "file folder" that we all know and love so well, and the implementation of "flat filing" within the folder.  Original documents thus folded usually had clean back sheets exposed, and when they were originally filed a description that was essentially a label describing what was in the letter, was written sideways across the  top on the back of it by the clerk who filed it.  Also, various recipients of a document routed "through channels" often wrote "endorsements" (comments) on the back of original documents.  The U.S. War Department rubber-stamped captured documents there with the words "RECORD DIVISION", "REBEL ARCHIVES" and "WAR DEPARTMENT" within an oval outline as well.  The extract documents later written by the War Department were often written on partially pre-printed forms with unit information and headings given as prompts under which copyists were to fill in specific information from the muster rolls by hand... or towards the final days of the extraction process, by that new-fangled invention, the typewriter.

An additional caveat: Even if you know your ancestor's name and where he lived and find someone by that name in the Compiled Confederate Service Records in a unit raised near where he lived... there is a possibility many times, that it is another person with the same or nearly the same name.  Sometimes it turns out that several persons... perhaps close relatives... crop up with what you had thought to be a relatively unique name.  Very seldom is there sufficient information in the Confederate Service Record itself to make an absolutely positive ID of a particular soldier.  Sadly, one of the few specific instances that gives rise to such information is a claim for a deceased soldier's bounty and/or pay... because it named a wife or parent who claimed the money.

If the soldier not only survived the war and the hard times that followed, many years later he may have also applied for a Confederate pension.  The application would have been made in the former Confederate state he lived in at the time of application, regardless of where he lived when he went into Confederate service or what state the unit that he went into was raised in (many men who lived in North Florida went into units raised in South Georgia and Alabama, and vice versa).  Information in those applications may not only positively identify a soldier who appears in them, but because he has to give information about the unit or units he served in, it may provide positive identification of his record in the Compiled Confederate Service Records too.  One man may have served in two or more units, sometimes in units from different states.  Sometimes he mentioned that in his pension application, but it was not absolutely necessary to do so and sometimes he did not.

Widows also applied for pensions on the basis of their husband's service records... but again, a widow whose husband died in the war often remarried and had no claim for a pension even if she lived long enough to apply for one.  Often widows who applied were wives of later marriage to an elderly veteran, long after the war... not the wife who was the mother of the veteran's children.  Information in the application should be sufficient to catch the broad outline of such situations, however.

Army Compiled Confederate Service Records are organized by state and by unit down to the regiment or battalion level, except in special cases where a unit did not fit into that scheme of organization (such as by being an "independent company" or "legion" or other atypical unit) or where a soldier was assigned to an installation such as an arsenal or other facility instead of to a unit... then by last name within the unit regardless of the company or companies within the unit or "department" of a facility in which the soldier served.  If you do not know a soldier's regiment or battalion, there are various published indexes and lists, some of which are annotated with some synopsis of the contents of the soldier's record.  They vary in scope from including all Confederate soldiers and a small synopsis... to including only those of a particular state and a much larger synopsis.  If you don't find what you are looking for in one, or even if you do, I recommend consulting all of them that you can get ahold of.  Not every soldier is on every list that he should be on.  A few "fall between cracks" and others show up not only where you have reason to expect them, but in other places too.  Most units were "raised" in a specific location.  Sometimes various companies of a regiment or a battalion were raised at different places.  For most units, there are reference books that give that information.  If you know where exactly your ancestor lived, that is a good clue as to looking for him to have joined units raised fairly nearby... but sometimes "nearby" may be further away than you may think... even in an adjoining state.

Confederate Navy (sailors and marines) records are organized by the ships or shore installations where they served, and again there may have been several.  Many of the indexes include only army personnel.  The Confederate navy was small and the marines were minuscule in number, but don't forget about the possibility that a particular ancestor may have served in naval forces... and you are not going to find their records by looking in indexes of army records.  Even in the Confederate army, realize that so many men were in the infantry that some lists and indexes do not include the smaller numbers in cavalry, artillery, and... gee, what about engineers and other less thought-about functions such as ordnance and wagoners.  I'll be honest... I'm not sure myself how to look up some of these folks.  It may not be so terribly hard, but I am suggesting that you should beware of being caught in a mental box because certain indexes include less than the complete universe of possibilities.

The archivist or librarian can be your friend.  As them questions... the dumber the better.  They get paid to shed light on your ignorance.  Some are more knowledgeable than others and the quality of answers is variable, but if you hide your ignorance by keeping your mouth shut, it may never get an light shed on it and you can struggle on alone, never finding the answer you are looking for.

You can go from the indexes and lists to the Compiled Confederate Service Records, and often... especially for "common" names, there are a number of soldiers that you have to winnow through the information about, weeding out those with information not fitting what is known and hoping to find information that is consistent with what is known.  Small pieces of family oral history such as "great grandpa got his leg shot off at Gettysburg" may be exactly what you need to confirm that you have found the right record.  However, you may end up being surprised at how possible it is that you will find elusive ancestors in places that you would not have guessed ahead of time... significantly advancing the little that you know about that ancestor.  If you do not find a record where you think it "ought to be" based on what you know... expand the search area slightly and keep looking.

Good Luck!

Richard White
Tallahassee, Florida
16 November 1999

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