Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In Slavery and in Freedom--Civil War Era Records Serve to Contain Rich Data

When I speak with people researching their ancestors, especially African Americans, I am often amazed at  how few people tell the story and incorporate the Civil War into the family narratives.

Oh we all know about the "Wall of 1870" that many reach when they run out of census records to document the family. The "Wall" is the technical "dead end" where many stop their research on a particular line.  Some will indeed begin the process of identifying the slave owner, and others will simply stop, choosing not begin to climb over that wall. 

For some there is the major challenge of identifying the slave owner, and for others researching the line during the slavery era is something that they may not be ready to do. And for many others the task is not attempted simply because one does not know what to do, to take the family back any further.

It is for this very reason that I recommend researching the Civil War to find the family both in slavery and in freedom.

After one has exhausted census and vital records, one can find that there are documents including many documents that will reflect the Civil War Years and the first days of Freedom.

Among the records to trace the family during the Civil War Years are:
-Local Histories 
-Compiled Military Service Records of Civil War soldiers
-Civil War Pension Records
-Freedman's Bureau Records
-Freedman's Savings Record

Local Histories  Your ancestors did not live in a vacuum, whatever happened to the community, affected them as well.  If the war, came through the community where your ancestors were enslaved and if there were many white men who left to fight----then opportunity for the slaves came---to make a break for freedom. In the 1860s there are many  images of the slaves escaping to the Union lines, hoping to find sanctuary.  One of the most dramatic images from that of slaves fleeing to Ft. Monroe Virginia---which became in fact, the first of many contraband camps.

Ilusatration from depicting slaves pouring into Ft. Monroe for sanctuary.

A good number of actual photographs of newly freed slaves, identifying them as contrabands, also were taken.

SourceTitle from Milhollen and Mugridge: "Bermuda Hundred, Va. African-American 
teamsters near the signal tower. 
(Note---the gray-looking coats are actually the light blue Union Army top coats. The union soldiers are wore the same kind of kepi (hat) or forage cap.

Compiled Military Service Records of Civil War soldiers
If you live in a community where there may have been a regiment of United States Colored Troops, it would be worthwhile to research the service records of the soldiers from those regiments.  Many are not aware that their ancestors were soldiers. Many of these compiled records reflect where the soldier enlisted, and provide exact dates.  Keeping in mind that the enlistment of these soldiers would have been a direct affront to the wishes of their slave masters---these records are very important.

This soldier from Yortktown VA enlisted at Old Point Comfort, and he was present at some time at Ft. Monroe which was known to hold a major contraband camp. 
Source: National Archives Publication M1817  Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers in the 1st through 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry 

Civil War Pension Files I have illustrated in other blog posts how Civil War pension files can reveal details about the family history that had been lost.  In a piece that I wrote about a gr.gr. uncle, Sephus Bass, his beginning deposition provided information about the time when he, a brother Braxton, and his own two sons enlisted together in the same regiment.  Look at the details----4 healthy men walked off the Bass estate and joined the Union Army.  Clearly they had opportunity and one researching the family must savor this.  In addition, from a genealogy perspective, I learned about an uncle whose name was known by no one living today, and the additional two sons also were names lost to the family for decades.

Part of Pension Application Depotion of Sephus Bass, of the 111th US Colored Infantry

In many other cases, one might not have had soldiers in the family line, but they appeared as  witnesses speaking to the character of other men who did serve and who later applied for a pension.  These depositions reveal much rich information about the relationship of the soldier/pensioner, to the community

Freedman's Bureau Records
Records from the Freedman's Bureau are quite telling and so diverse they contain notes and letters made by officers, at the various camps but also provide some glimpses into the lives of the newly freed slaves. In some cases, labor contracts are found, marriage ledgers and even bounty records of black soldiers soldiers

Ledger of Bounties paid to Black Soldier at end of the Civil War

Names of  soldiers from several regiments found in FB Records

Freedman Savings deposit books sometimes hold interesting data on the account holders.

This images shows one of the depositor's data found.  Note that he was skilled laborer and such records often provide  family data like the parents mentioned on this document.

These documents illustrate that even when one hits the infamous Wall of 1870 brick wall, there are ways to climb over that wall, but utilizing other documents. These records are all federal records, though they reflect local community data in many cases


  1. I'm glad I found this post. I recently started helping a friend research his ancestors. He had a lot of information already, and it was easy to trace the family back to 1870. I've had no experience with African-American genealogy, and I admit I've not had a lot of time to try to figure out where to go from here. You gave me some tips I had not considered. I know realistically that the best thing to do would be to travel to Cobbtown, Tattnall Co., Georgia, but that is not a financially feasible thing to do right now. I've become a follower of your blog and I'm also going to attend a couple of sessions on this topic at next month's Ohio Genealogical Society conference. Thanks.
    Kathy Reed

  2. Hello Kathy,
    Thank you for your remarks and for visiting the blog. I am happy that you found some tips what the "next step" can be. At Ohio conference, attend if you can the workshops by Dr. Deborah Abbott, Tim Pinnick and Shamele Jordan. You will find their information quite useful.