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Monday, July 2, 2018

The Impact of the US Civil War on Genealogical Research

I continually find those who are researching their ancestors to be almost entirely unaware of the history of the time period when they lived. As I have noted several times previously, this is likely a result of the lack of real history being taught in U.S. public schools today. If your ancestors lived in the United States during the time period between 1861 and 1865, then their lives were probably dramatically influenced by the U.S. Civil War (aka War between the States).

Although the total number of casualties of the Civil War is subject to dispute, the most common estimates put the number at around 1.5 million. The 1860 U.S. Federal Census put the total population of the country at 31,443,321. According to some calculations, 2% of the country or 620,000 men lost their lives. Total casualties were over 1.08 million. But what is also pertinent to genealogical research is the vast movement of populations and the loss of records.

Here are some of the major actions in the war that might well affect your own ancestors:

1. Sherman's March to the Sea

Here is a map of the campaign that is known as Sherman's March to the Sea:

By Map by Hal Jespersen,, CC BY 3.0,
If your ancestors had property anywhere in the area covered by this map, they probably suffered some loss due to the Union Army's and more specifically by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's "Scorched Earth" policy.

What are the genealogical consequences:

  • Loss of life
  • Loss of property
  • Displaced population
  • Loss of record through the burning of courthouses and other repositories

2 Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Here is a quote from General Philip Sheridan about the consequences of the battles for control of the Shenandoah Valley:
Sheridan proudly inventoried his takings from the Valley to Grant after the campaign, “435,802 bushels of wheat, 77,176 bushels of corn, 20,397 tons of hay, 10,918 beef cattle, 12,000 sheep, and 15,000 hogs”(6). This list doesn’t include the vast reduction in productivity in the area that would prevent the area from being self-sustaining and profitable for some time after the campaign. The Shenandoah Valley campaign represents the changing tide of the war when the Union army discovered the effectiveness of ravaging the land, which brought them much military success but absolutely devastated the landscape. 
See Brady, Lisa M.. Environmental History and the American South : War Upon the Land : Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes During the American Civil War. Athens, GA, USA: University of Georgia Press, 2012 quoted on

3. Overall damage done by individual war campaigns and battles

Here is a map showing the location, by county, of the major battles.

Public Domain,
A careful researcher will take all of these issues into account while research almost anyplace in America during wartime. My own ancestors, the Sidney Tanner family, were living in San Bernardino, California and moved to Beaver, Utah as a result of the Utah War or more commonly called the Utah Expedition of 1857-1858, shortly before the Civil War. One of the prominent future Confederate Generals, then a Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston led the U.S. Troops on their invasion of Utah. He was subsequently killed at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862.

These seemingly random ancestral moves sometimes turn out to be much less than random when put in historical perspective. 

1 comment:

  1. Your so on point with this post James. It’s critical that we, as researchers, know the times our ancestors lived in. What was going on around them? What was going on in the country they lived in? Whether there was a war, an epidemic, a drought or political unrest, all of these things affected the lives of our ancestors. Some in significant ways, some smaller. Great post!