The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database

As a lead-in to a more analytical article I plan on posting here toward the end of the month (hopefully), I thought it’d be useful to highlight this wonderful tool. The National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database (CWSS) is a thing of beauty. With a little info on a relative or subject of interest (say, a surname, a state, and on what side the subject fought), one can find service data on anyone who fought in the US Civil War. This includes what regiment they fought with, what company assigned to, rank in, and rank out. For me, it probably helped that “Greenberry Shanks” is a fairly unique name, because the CWSS immediately gave me the right data.

Greenberry_CWSS

Then, to add context to this service, one can follow the link to the regiment. This leads to a fantastic summary of major engagements, such as this for the 11th Kentucky Cavalry.

Regiment_CWSS

You’ll note that many of these engagements are themselves hyperlinked to even more detail. I selected the first conflict at Saltsville:

Saltsville_CWSS

The other kind of cool functionality that has one massively frustrating limitation, at least for researchers interested in unit data, is the link under the regiment’s history, View Battle Unit’s Soldiers. This brings you to a page where soldiers are listed alphabetically. That’s okay, if you’re unsure of how a name was spelled and need to page through 20 soldiers at a time.

Soldier List

I first discovered the CWSS through a blog post from another Civil War blog (Dead Confederates). In his post, which was published a couple of years ago, he highlighted another fantastic capability: there was an export button that allowed you to download an excel spreadsheet of the entire regiment. This was very exciting to me, since I’m currently taking a close look at the people who made up the regiment that my ancestor belonged to. So it was pretty aggravating when I went to the CWSS last year and discovered that this feature had been removed for some reason. I searched everywhere, and even emailed the site administrators and the NPS, but unfortunately never heard back.

Well, I was determined to get this data one way or another. I started scouring the National Archives and the farthest reaches of my search engines for anyone who may have stored it somewhere. All I found were broken links. On May 4 of this year, however, I had a breakthrough. After searching the corners of the Google-verse, I eventually turned up the data files used by the CWSS. The search was maddening, at least for me, as it was quite hard to find. I don’t even remember how I finally found it. I just tried to find it again, and the only way I could was to go back into my browser history and locate the download address. Here it is, if you’re interested:

https://www.nps.gov/featurecontent/foia/CWSS.zip

Keep in mind, this is the raw data, over 800 MB of historical goodness, but not anything that is quickly used. Fortunately, I have a little background in SQL and excel, so I converted the data into a SQL table, and now I’m able to query the data in a number of ways. I’m trying to figure out how I can make this data available on my website, but I’m not sure this blog is the right medium. Until I crack that nut, feel free to ask for regimental soldier queries, as I’d be happy to help.

Speaking of which, my next article will be on Company A of the 11the Kentucky Cavalry. I’m using the CWSS data as a starting point to give me the name and rank of each member of the company, and then cross referencing those names in Fold3. Using that, I’m adding additional data to the names: their ages, the county where they’re from, occupations (if known), casualty data, and a few more data points.

My Spreadsheet
Example of cross referencing CWSS Data with other sources (e.g. Fold3). 

This will allow me to get a feel for the men who made up the company, as well as how they fared throughout the conflict. I’m almost a third of the way through the Company A roster (I’m trying to finish one company per month), and I’ve been fascinated with what I’ve learned so far. I look forward to sharing it with you.

WEL

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3 thoughts on “The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database

  1. Well done! That ability to directly download Excel files for individual regiments was functional for a month or six weeks, IIRC. I also contacted NPS to inquire about it, and never got a response.

    For new users, there is an important caveat about using this data. The NPS database is itself based on the indexing of compiled service records (CSRs) at the National Archives. In theory (and in practice, in my experience) the listings are identical. However, the CSRs are cross-indexed for alternate name spellings as a finding aid, which I believe to be carried over into the NPS database. This means that there are more entries in the NPS database than there are actual records. So for example, in the NPS database there may be a listing for “Smith, William”; “Smith, W. S.”; and “Smythe, William,” all of which refer to the same individual soldier. If you have access to the carded records (e.g., through Fold3) it’s immediately clear which listing is the complete one, but not so if you’re only looking at names from the NPS database.

    This also means that the NPS database will typically list 20-30% more names of soldiers, because of alternate spellings, than there actually is a record of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the expert advice! I’ve come across some incidents of just what you’re talking about. The CWSS is a great starting point, but one definitely should look beyond it when using it for research.

      Like

  2. If you want to avoid clicking through lists of soldiers 20 at a time, you can adjust the inquiry URL to display a much longer list. Pull up the first list of 20 names, and navigate to the second page of 20. Then, in the URL in your browser, change this:

    &maxrows=20

    to this:

    &maxrows=200

    and it will return 200 names per screen.

    Liked by 1 person

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