Deconstructing a Civil War Regiment Part III: Seeing the Forest and the Trees of History

 Smoky Mountains

It is important in interpreting your ancestor’s Civil War experience that you read a lot of history books. For some of you that will be great news, for others you are wondering just how many do I have to read??? If you are asking that last question, probably more than you will want to, but there is just no other way around it.  It is unlikely your ancestor left an account their time in the war and if they did, in all probability it wasn’t saved for posterity. My ancestor Rev. McNair published poems, sermons and debates, yet there are no letters or diaries of his time in the military. So how do I get that information?  History books!

This is how I break it down –

Civil War History

History of Civil War

Civil War History BooksYour personal library should include a good overall history of the Civil War and an atlas of the battles. I have a couple on my bookshelves that I can refer to when I need to know what was happening in governmental politics, individual states and the war in general. I shop 2nd hand bookstores, library book sales and used books on Amazon. Surprising, you can get some great deals on history books.  I can just hear my kids in 40 years pondering “what are we going to do with Mom’s Civil War book collection?”  They will be reselling them I bet….

Make a timeline of key events that happened when your ancestor was in the war.  This is how I found out that over the course of Rev. McNair’s nine months in the 31st New Jersey Regiment, that the Army of the Potomac had four different generals commanding them!  Can you imagine the chaos in the Army? How demoralized they must have felt with the lack of good leadership. There is nothing in the Regimental history or the Compiled Military Service Record of your ancestor that will tell you facts like that. You have got to dig deep and stretch out wide in your knowledge of the time period.

Civil War Regiment and Battle BooksHistory of the Regiment and Battles

I have a lot of books in my collection on the individual regiments and battles that my ancestors were in.  But you don’t have to do that. Many of these books are available online or at your local library. Search WorldCat, Google Books, Digital Public Library of America,, HathiTrust etc. Use search terms including the specific regiment, the name of the battle or the county histories where the regiment was recruited.

Job Specific History

Look at books about the job they had in the war. Was he a private in the Army? There are plenty of books that are about the everyday experience of the common soldier. It will tell you what food they ate, what items they carried on the march, what they did in their spare time, the weapons they used etc. If your ancestor was a surgeon, chaplain, Sanitary Commission worker or high-ranking officer, find a book about the challenges they faced trying to do their job.

Individual History

These are a little harder to find, but not impossible. Look for the following:Archivegrid 31 NJ Regiment Overall

  • Your ancestor’s Compiled Military Service Record
  • Your ancestor’s Pension Record if one was filed
  • Firsthand accounts by people who served in the same Regiment
  • Firsthand account of people who served in the same battles
  • Firsthand accounts of people who had the same type of job

Archivegrid 31 NJ RegimentFor individual accounts of the war, you can check all the websites previously listed, but I have had the best luck using ArchiveGrid. Using just the search term “31st New Jersey Regiment” I found two very promising first person accounts of people in Rev. McNair’s regiment. Unfortunately, I will have to go to Rutgers University to get them unless I can get the library or another NJ-based genealogist send me copies.

One final note on individual accounts. My distant cousin Jann, who also descends from James Ramsay (1770-1851) of Warren County, New Jersey, and I keep in touch. (Rev. John McNair’s son-in-law was James Ramsay Dey.) She has been incredibly helpful in filling in details of my Dey family migration to Florida and sending pictures etc. Jann contacted me after my first post about the 31st New Jersey Regiment to tell me she had ancestors that had been in that Regiment too. In fact, she has four! Abram O.S. Carpenter, Robert C. Carpenter, Abram E. Hinley and James F. Green.  I have to wonder, did they know Rev. McNair? There is a good chance that they did.  Lucky me, more things to research that might add details to the story!

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2 Responses to Deconstructing a Civil War Regiment Part III: Seeing the Forest and the Trees of History

  1. Laura says:

    Great post! I can’t wait to read the book that is the outcome of all this research!

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