Research for Cemetery Tours - Sources
During a cemetery tour I hosted at a local cemetery I was asked about where did I find my information for the stories I shared. "I just make it all up" was my less than coy reply, but then went into some of the sources I use. I thought that this might be something the readers might be interested in, especially for those of us not close to any battlefields. Cemetery tours are a great way to connect the public the the history of the war on a personal level, and I encourage you to explore hosting tours in your area.
If there is a particular cemetery in your area, then of course a cemetery visit can reveal veteran's resting places. Look for the familiar white stones (think Shiloh or Andersonville or any other national cemetery and you know the ones I mean). Usually their is the name and unit of the soldier on the stone, at times they can provide rank, and even rarer birth and death years. But, do not overlook the stones of others buried there that are not of the military style. I find that the vast majority of Civil War veterans have a private marker. Some may have indication of military service, others may not. But if you have a person that has a birth year of 1820 until 1845, there is a decent chance that they are a Civil War veteran. The cemetery may also house some information about those who are buried there as well.
County Recorders offices are great places to start if they have the graves registration cards (GRCs hereafter) online. I am lucky in that aspect as the county I live in and the county I am from both have the GRCs online (over 12,000 of them in one county alone). Here is an example for those who are unfamiliar with what a GRC looks like.
Now, keep in mind the GRCs can also have sketchy information. Sometimes the company the man served in is incorrect, or at times even the unit is completely off, but they are a good starting point to use to compare to other sources. At times if the man died in combat during the war it will mention the battle. In the example above there is several pieces of useful information about Second Lieutenant Cumming, who apparently died a crazy old man. He was nearly 92 after all.
Another source, especially used with the GRCs, is the website Find a Grave. If someone has created a memorial for the person or persons you are researching, it might have good data like birth date, death date, where they were born, where they died, who they were married to, their parents, a picture of their grave site, and maybe even a picture of them. At times people will include a obituary or other story about the person. You can also contribute any information you have found to provide a more complete story. As Find A Grave relies upon its members to provide information on each memorial, at times the information can be incorrect.
One source I use everyday is the American Civil War Research Database website. This site is searchable in many ways, includes the rosters for nearly every Civil War unit, and at times a picture of the soldier or sailor. It is a paid site, but at only $25.00 per year it is well worth the cost. Bear in mind that soldier names listed on the site are as they appeared on the official roster, so spelling can be tricky at times, especially German surnames!
Of course many rosters are online, but are usually scans of the original rosters, and at times those scans are not great. But typically if you search for a particular roster you can find a few sites that house them, like Civil War Index (at least on the Federal side of things). In keeping with Lieutenant Cummings above and using "138th Ohio Infantry roster" as my search criteria, I found the following:
For Ohio units we are lucky to have the Ohio in the Civil War site created by Larry Stephens. If has unit histories, books and articles for each unit, and a lot more. When I am looking for some background info, I go there to see what may have been published about the unit. As the 138th was one of Ohio's one hundred days regiments, it does not have a lot written about it, but Mr Stephens has compiled the following:
And that leads me to the Library of Congress site, Chronicling America. This site has hundreds of old newspapers online and is searchable. This is a great source to find stories about a unit or a soldier who may have written a letter to his hometown paper. For example searching for "138th Ohio" yielded 32 results.
What else? There are the paid sites, such as Fold3 or Ancestry, that can really delve into the records of a veteran. And of course, there is the good old method of using a search engine. At times this may yield a family story on a geneology site, or even a letter written by one of the men of the unit. Also, in the 1930s the WPA completed surveys of cemeteries (at least in my area) that included plat maps showing where each veteran was buried within a particular cemetery. These surveys are fairly accurate, but occasional errors do appear. Below is an example of one of the survey maps, and I have added the names of the Civil War soldiers to it (veterans are marked with black rectangles, and some may be from other wars). Lieutenant Cumming is located in the center, Section C, Lot 44). Unfortunately his stone is no longer in place.
Okay, so now you have put together some stories and are ready to host a tour. Contact the cemetery to arrange a date and obtain their support for the tour. Having tours brings more people to their cemetery and they are usually welcome to the idea. I have worked with one cemetery to do this, and they were kind enough to clean and reset stones of those men I would be talking about, and had marked each veteran with a flag (which made it very easy to move from point to point). They also promoted the tour on their Facebook page. Promotion is important, so be ready to talk about your event a few times on places like Facebook. Get the word out! Contact the local historical society and let them know their members are welcome. Before the tour, walk the route a few times, mentally going through what you want to cover. I create a tour guide with the stories and any pictures I can find. This way I have an idea of timing, as well as some of the extra talking points I want to bring forth.
So there you have it, just some of the sources for organizing a cemetery tour.