McManus, Stephen. Civil War Research Guide: A Guide for Researching Your Civil War Ancestor.

Mechanicsville, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

For many American genealogists, especially for those in the Southern states, and even more especially for relative beginners (i.e., those who haven’t worked back to the colonial era), a frequent early goal is either to identify an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, or to track down a known (or rumored) soldier ancestor of whom little is known other than the name and state of service. For many years, the best how-to book to assist in this quest was Bertram Groene’s Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor, but that’s gone for rather too long without an update, and there are have been number of major changes in research methods for this subject over the past two decades that must be addressed.McManus is well known as an expert in U.S. military research and he and his two co-authors originally came together because of their mutual interest in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, a relatively obscure regiment about which they planned a complete history (and in which one of their own ancestors had served). This led them to consider the tasks facing other researchers with less experience and to bring together this not-long volume of common-sense advice and directives — sixty pages of text followed by a dozen checklists and directories.

Like all good genealogists, they think first of how to organize what they’re going to find (so they can find it again, a few months or even years later), though they seem still to favor a paper-based filing system even for correspondence. (Most of my own paper copies of documents, acquired over nearly fifty years of historical and genealogical research, have long since been scanned, digitized, and stored on both a portable back-up hard drive and in “the cloud.”) Then they explain how to identify the regiment your guy served in (this assumes you already know the soldier’s identity, of course), which is often the most difficult step — especially if he was young, didn’t survive the war, and was buried in an unknown grave. And even more so if he fought for the South. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’re ready to learn where to look — both the official sources, like the government’s own records, and the unofficial sources, including historical societies, public and academic libraries, newspapers of the period, veterans organization records, books published when many of the veterans themselves were still alive to provide their own accounts, and information collected at National Parks and Battle Fields.

For anyone who has been doing this stuff for very long, there admittedly won’t be many revelations here, though it doesn’t hurt to be periodically reminded of what all’s out there. But for novices, especially those lacking a strong academic background in history, I can say from my own teaching experience that many of the authors’ points will be eye-openers. Whether for basic instruction or for periodic review, this is a first-rate book. And since it’s nearly a decade old now, I hope a revised and updated edition is under consideration.

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Published in: on 13 March 2013 at 5:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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