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Soldiers' letters revealing

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Gen. William T. Sherman is credited with telling us that "war is hell." And he was not wrong. It was hell for both sides - and it wasn't only because of what happened on the battlefield. Often, the weather, hunger, vermin, disease, and even medical treatments proved to be even greater enemies.

Imagine wearing a wool uniform as you marched through the hot, humid South in shoes that didn't fit. Imagine being so hungry, you'd eat spoiled meat and worm-infested hard biscuits. Imagine sleeping on the ground with nothing but a blanket to cover you. Imagine lying on a cot looking at the nub where your leg or arm had been.

These were your ancestors and, through the four years of the Civil War, many of them rode the rails and marched through snow-covered fields and insect-infested swamps, often in either cold driving rain or blazing heat.

There are two major groups of materials researchers can access to explore these aspects of the war. One is "The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies." The other is the writings of the soldiers and their families in letters and journals.

Commonly referred to as the Official Records, this 127-volume set of books is available in most libraries and state archives. It also is searchable online at several places. My favorite is Cornell University's Making of America site at http://tbo.ly/h7K1L1.

Researching in the official records or in personal letters and journals requires a basic understanding of how the Union and Confederate armies were organized.

The war wasn't fought by two big opposing armies. The Union had 13 armies and the Confederates had 23. They carried names like the (Union) Army of the Cumberland or the (Confederate) Army of Northern Virginia.

The next increments were corps - each army had four. Corps were subdivided into two or more divisions of about 50,000 men each. Each division had three or more brigades consisting of four or more regiments. Each regiment had 10 companies.

The divisions were the primary maneuvering groups. That means they marched and fought together. This is important to us as researchers because we need to apply the genealogical premise of "investigating the neighbors" to learn about our own families.

When you look at battlefield maps you'll see the various brigades and regiments placed on the battlefields. Here's how to apply the "neighbors" concept to the battlefield.

First, refer to one of two books - Frederick H. Dyer's "A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion" or Stewart Sifakis's "Compendium of the Confederate Armies" - to learn the battles in which a regiment fought.

One of my ancestors fought with the 9th Georgia Regiment. In Sifakis's compendium I find that the 9th Georgia fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the Official Records I find that the 9th Georgia at Gettysburg was part of Anderson's Brigade. The other regiments that made up the brigade were the 7th, 8th, 11th, and 59th Georgia Regiments.

Within the Official Records I look for reports concerning any of those regiments - not just the 9th - because I know they were all together or near each other during the battle.

This method of research can be applied to using journals and letters written by my ancestors' fellow soldiers in order to get a good feel for what my kin experienced.

For example, a soldier in the 59th Georgia might have written home to his wife, mother, or sweetheart. If I can locate any of those letters, they will likely describe experiences, problems and emotions experienced by many of the soldiers around him.

Hundreds of books of letters have been published in the past decade as genealogy grew in popularity. They are easy to find. For example, at www.barnesandnoble.com, enter "Civil War Letters" as keywords in an advanced search and 502 books pop up.

Much of the frustration of genealogical research comes from not finding records. That will not be a problem in searching for an ancestor's likely experiences in the Civil War.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wi

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