Civil War Research at the North Carolina State Archives

[This blog post was written by Debbi Blake, Public Services Branch Head for the North Carolina State Archives.]

Reference desk in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives

Reference desk in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives

2011 marks the beginning of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial and its commemoration will renew interest in conducting research on the period covering 1861-1865.  The North Carolina State Archives (NCSA) has always seen more Civil War researchers than those for other historical periods.  It is hoped that this article will remind researchers of the myriad collections that can aid in Civil War research.

When searching for Civil War records it is important to remember that during the early war period of 1861-1862, many states were raising and equipping their own regiments.  The state therefore created many of these early records.  From 1862 through the war, however, the Confederate States of America took control of the war effort, and as a result, created records.  Most of these were captured and are maintained by the National Archives (NARA) in Washington, DC.  Their website provides information regarding their holdings and how to access them (  The following will give a sense of the types of materials held in the State Archives.

Finding aids bookcase in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives

Finding aids bookcase in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives

There are several guides and finding aids in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives that will explain the materials available. The Military Collection finding aid, available in a group of loose-leaf binders in the Search Room, details materials related to all military conflicts in which the state and its people have participated. The Civil War section is by far the largest section and is available online. The Civil War Collection, as it is often called, is an artificial collection since Archives personnel brought together papers from a number of public and private sources into one collection.  This was done for ease of reference.  In 1966 a Guide to Civil War Records in the North Carolina State Archives was created as a project of the Confederate Centennial Commission.  In spite of its wide scope it did not attempt to mention all of the records housed in the State Archives related to the Civil War.  The guide did not describe any private collections containing such material.  The Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives details some of the hundreds of collections that include Civil War material and many private collections finding aids are available online.  Several of the larger or more important Civil War related collections will be listed below.  Researchers can also do a MARS search for Civil War letters and diaries and those listed will be described in the collection scope notes.  The Civil War collection itself contains a great variety of records ranging from muster rolls, bounty pay rolls (bounties were paid to drafted soldiers), reminiscences, to petitions for presidential pardon.

Another valuable resource that was an outgrowth of the Confederate Centennial Commission is the roster entitled North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster, the initial volume of which was published in 1966.  Published by the Historical Publications Section of the N. C. Office of Archives and History, this on-going multi-volume roster lists all known North Carolina soldiers that fought for both Union and Confederate armies.  In addition to giving a synopsis of each soldier’s service record, the volumes also provide brief regimental and company histories. For researchers interested in individual soldiers this roster is invaluable.  North Carolina Troops uses service records housed at the National Archives as its basis.  The North Carolina State Archives has purchased the microfilm of these service records for North Carolina soldiers, which can be used by researchers in the Search Room.  In addition to service records, Historical Publications researchers consulted muster rolls, Adjutant General’s records, pension applications, private collections, period newspapers, and Roster of North Carolina Troops in the War Between the States (Moore’s Roster) to make the current roster very thorough.  Currently, 18 volumes are available with additional volumes planned.  Others will include Union soldiers from North Carolina and the series will end with a comprehensive index.  North Carolina Troops is readily available at many libraries.

When researching an individual soldier, it is important to know his company and regiment, since the most detailed records on individual soldiers were kept at the company level.  Regiments were responsible for maintaining specific records.  These records include a descriptive book, a clothing book, an order book and a morning report.  The majority of such records were destroyed in battle so there are tremendous gaps in them.  Those that have survived often suffer great gaps as well, since few entries were made in the books either at the end of a military campaign or during a lull in an engagement.  The two most complete rosters of NC troops that will provide researchers with a company and regiment designations for their soldier are North Carolina Troops and The Roster of Confederate Soldiers 1861-1865 published by Broadfoot Publishing Company.  Both published series are available in the Search Room of the State Archives as well as most large libraries.  Armed with the company and regiment, one can then turn to the Confederate Military Service Records (MSR).  These records are maintained, and have been microfilmed, by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but many archives and large libraries also have copies of the microfilm.  The records are also being made available online as part of an on-going project.  The service record for both Confederate and Union troops give the whereabouts of the individual soldier at various points of his military career.  The first in a series of cards is usually one that records his enlistment.  The microfilm of the service records of North Carolina soldiers on both sides is available for use in Search Room of the State Archives.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion in the Search Room

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Various regimental histories give the engagements of each regiment and often the whereabouts of each company within the regiment.  North Carolina Troops includes these short histories.  Another series of books entitled Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865, but most often called Clark’s Regiments, edited in the early1900s by Walter Clark, gives more in-depth histories of the various regiments.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion is another invaluable resource, which includes official correspondence and reports made during the war.  This resource is available online at  The volumes of this series for both the Army and the Navy are available in the State Archives’ Search Room as well.

John Adam Sawyer’s Soldier’s Application for Pension

John Adam Sawyer’s Soldier’s Application for Pension (Click on the image to see a larger version).

Pension records are another series that can provide information about a soldier and his military service.  The North Carolina State Archives maintains the pension applications of Confederate soldiers that fought for North Carolina.  Most states that were part of the Confederacy have their pension applications as part of their collection.  NARA maintains those for Union troops.  In North Carolina the first significant opportunity to file for a pension was 1885 when a soldier had to be disabled and own less than $500 worth of property in order to receive one.  A widow could only receive one if she did not remarry.  The requirements were loosened in 1901 and many more soldiers and widows could apply.  These records provide known company and regimental designation, where the soldier was wounded or when he died and where the soldier or widow was living at the time of the application.  There are sometimes letters or affidavits from commanding officers and fellow soldiers supporting the claim. These records are part of the state auditor’s records group, which also includes a large amount of correspondence.

Two other series that provide information related to individual soldiers are the state auditor’s records of the old soldier’s home and those dealing with the issuance of artificial limbs.  Veterans wishing to live at the old soldier’s home submitted an application and these can include a great deal of information.  Another series within the auditor’s record group deals with the issuance of artificial limbs to veterans who needed them.  It was necessary for the soldier to submit a certificate of disability to receive an artificial limb.

Other records that give information about individual soldiers are muster rolls.  The NCSA does not have a complete set of them for every company and regiment but does have a large number of them.  Their size and fragility makes them quite difficult to use.  Thankfully, the compilers of North Carolina Troops have consulted them and included the information in their entry for each soldier so that it is generally unnecessary to consult the originals.

Most of the records in the Civil War Collection relate to the company and regiment rather than to individual soldiers.  Keeping detailed records on individual soldiers is a modern day practice.  In truth, most records maintained about individual soldiers in the Civil War related to his pay or his appearance.  Authorities wanted to be able to find him if he deserted.

The adjutant general and state auditor maintained records related to the war that can certainly add information to the overall story of a soldier’s war experience.  The adjutant general was the state authority on military affairs.  He had a statutory obligation to maintain certain records, most significantly those he created as quartermaster.  These records deal most often with officers.  Records of the auditor’s office most often relate to claims both of active and former soldiers, as in the above-mentioned pension records.

Two of the largest state agencies of great usefulness for most research are surprisingly unhelpful in terms of Civil War research.  While there are records within them that help with an overall study of the war, there are not many records in the Secretary of State or the Treasurer’s and Comptroller’s Papers that help a study of an individual soldier.  Of the two, the Treasurer’s and Comptroller’s Records has the greater amount.  The Guide to Civil War Research lists and describes the records of interest in this group and those in other state agency groups.

Records were created by the Supreme Court when cases involving the military draft or conscription and those related to soldier’s desertions were heard by this body.  None of the published guides lists these records.  The North Carolina General Assembly passed laws that provided troops to fight for the Confederacy, as well as in the militia and home guard.  The Confederacy itself turned to conscription laws when it became obvious that the war could not be maintained by volunteers.  These laws allowed certain classes of citizens to provide substitutes if they could not fight themselves and exempted a great many others from active service.  As more and more men, who thought themselves exempt, were arrested, they turned to the courts to settle the issue for them.  To find such records the researcher should creatively use the North Carolina Digest.  Most cases can be found in the section entitled Army and Navy.  Within that section are further divisions such as “minors”, “compulsory service and drafts,” and “desertion” that indicate individual case names.

Catherine Ann Edmondston Diaries

Catherine Ann Edmondston Diaries (PC1100)

Another valuable record group is that of the Private Collections housed at the NCSA.  Information in the various collections covers everything from ambulances to zouaves.  These collections include diaries, letters, drawings, and military papers such as maps, battle reports, fort descriptions and accounts of prison life.  The State Archives maintains collections of papers of many key military personnel.  D. H. Hill, Jr. and Sr. (PC 94 & 93 respectively), William H. C. Whiting (PC 195), Braxton Bragg (PC 347), General Pierre G. T. Beauregard (PC 53), Zebulon B. Vance Papers (PC 15) and Major General William D. Pender (PC 834) are some of the collections that contain everything from telegrams to letters and reports.  Several other large collections contain a great variety of materials.  These include the Catherine Ann Edmondston Diaries (PC 1100, also published as “Journal of a Secesh Lady”: The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston 1860-1866),  Little-Mordecai Papers (PC 1480), and the Thomas Merritt Pittman Collection (PC 123).  The John Devereux Papers (PC 34)  deserves special mention since he served as North Carolina’s State Quartermaster and many of the papers he created and maintained in that capacity.

Several collections contain particularly significant documents.  The Lucy Williams Polk papers (PC 75) include letters relating to her post-war attempts to get compensation for her house damaged by federal troops during the war.  The Futch Papers (PC 507) include poignant letters from John Futch to his wife about his homesickness, how much he missed her and the death of his brother in his own arms at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.  The premier collection of this type, however, is the Isaac E. Avery collection (PC 1190) that includes a bloodstained letter written by a dying young man to his father.  This is considered one of the treasures of the Archives and has been featured in many books and television documentaries and books about the Civil War.  The Henry H. Bowen Collection is a group of letters, part of the Civil War Collection (Box 89), and another North Carolina treasure.  It is a group of letters written by a North Carolina sailor and one of the few such collections in the country.

Country Records card from the Search Room's card catalog

Country Records card from the Search Room's card catalog

While a somewhat unusual occurrence, there are some records related to the Civil War in the county records record group.  These vary greatly by county and are listed in the county records card file in the State Archives’ Search Room, as well as in the Guide to County Records in the North Carolina State Archives.

The Governor’s Office papers also contain a wealth of material from official military business to letters from destitute women pleading for help to letters and petitions of destitute freed people begging to be reenslaved in order to survive the harsh conditions on the homefront.  For a brief description of the papers of each Civil War era governor that contain significant material see the Guide to Civil War Records.  North Carolina had four governors that served during the Civil War:  John W. Ellis, Henry Toole Clark, Zebulon Baird Vance, and Edward Stanly, who was appointed Union military governor by President Abraham Lincoln and arrived in federally occupied New Bern in 1862.   Edward Stanly remained within the Union lines in North Carolina until January 1863 when he resigned.  The North Carolina State Archives does not have any official records created by him during his brief time in the state.

General Assembly records are invaluable to researchers since they chronicle the steps the state took towards secession, as well as the legislature’s role in guiding the state through the war.  State Convention records are of critical importance as well and should be used in conjunction with Convention records in the Secretary of State records.  Printed volumes of the laws passed by the state during the era and their companion volumes of Senate and House journals are available in the Search Room.

The NCSA has a large number of records related to the Civil War and the reference staff can help guide researchers to specific records that might answer their questions.  Many other record groups, such as organization records, maps (available online at, and newspapers on microfilm are available.  The sheer volume of materials housed in the NCSA may seem overwhelming, but with patience and perseverance researchers can draw a surprisingly clear picture of this watershed event in our nation’s history.

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1 Response to Civil War Research at the North Carolina State Archives

  1. LTC (Ret.) Sion H. Harrington III (Retired Military Collection Archivist, State Archives of North Carolina) says:

    Very well written article and brimming with excellent information for North Carolina-oriented Civil War researchers. Regarding the Henry H. Bowen Collection, Bowen was not a sailor. Rather, he was a member of the Confederate States Marine Corps, a very small, and relatively short-lived organization. Thus, anything connected with the CSMC is rare and highly collectible. The true value of these letters is that, according to the professional appraiser who ascribed a financial value to them when donated, they constitute the largest collection of enlisted Confederate Marine correspondance extant.

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