Was My Black Ancestor a Civil War Soldier?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader struggles to connect her forebear to someone listed in the muster rolls.

Entry of 55th Mass. Colored Regiment in Charleston, 1865, in Harper's Weekly (Library of Congress)
Entry of 55th Mass. Colored Regiment in Charleston, 1865, in Harper's Weekly (Library of Congress)

(The Root)

I am trying to figure out if my Virginia ancestor, Squire Martin, is the same one in the U.S. Colored Troops from the Civil War. He is listed in the Civil War muster rolls as a private in the 55th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry. He was 35 years old, and his birthplace is listed as Virginia. He enlisted on Dec. 6, 1863, in Corinth, Miss., and was discharged on May 29, 1865. Military muster rolls didn’t shed any light, and census records show that there was more than one Squire Martin in Virginia during that time. What other resources should I check? 

“Some additional information on the Squire Martin who was my ancestor: He was born in Nelson County, Va., between 1827 and 1833 to Charles and Agnes, formerly owned by Hudson and Nicholas Martin in Nelson County, Va. Squire Martin most likely died in Virginia between 1897 and 1900, since he does not appear in the 1900 census. His first marriage was to Lucinda Nicholas, with whom he had eight children. His second marriage was to Emma Jane Robertson on Dec. 9, 1881, near Staunton, Augusta County, Va.

“He and Lucinda Nicholas are listed in the Augusta County Cohabitation Records of the Freedman’s Bureau, where they registered their union and the names of their children on June 15, 1866. Squire Martin and his family are listed in South River, Augusta County, in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, and in Beverley Manor, Augusta County, in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census. In 1881, Squire Martin was listed in a report of delinquent taxes collected by E.L. Curtis for Augusta County. Also located in previous research was a deed dated Sept. 7, 1894, for land near Brands, Beverley Manor, Augusta County. Squire Martin purchased three acres of land from James H. and Margaret V. Desper for $35.” —Deanna Martin

The 55th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, was composed of Alabama and Tennessee African Americans, as historian Donald Yacovone told us when we showed him your question. If your ancestor is the same Squire Martin, “how, or why, a Virginian got into it would have to be explained,” he observed. He suggested a few avenues to explore.

A good start in any search of this type is checking the National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors database, to reveal how many people who served bear that name. There are four in the database, one who was in the 55th.

To get more information about your ancestor’s military service — and see if you can link him to the Squire Martin in the 55th — it is important to obtain any soldier’s pension application filed by him, as well as by his second wife, Emma Jane (Robertson) Martin. “These files can be gold mines of information, including marriages, places lived, children — really, a possible treasure [trove] of biographical information,” Yacovone told us. “Rarely, they might even include a photograph of the person, especially if they are trying to prove a war-related disability. Compiled service records have far less biographical information, but can include key information about the person, including where enrolled, where mustered out and possible information about official leaves granted or if the person was wounded, besides strict military data such as ranks held and battles fought.”

Yacovone stressed that the National Archives and Records Administration is the place for Civil War records. The local branch of the NARA can be of “enormous help in securing copies of these documents and could also help with Freedman’s Bureau Records, as well.”

There are also several databases available through subscription and free websites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org that you can use to search the Civil War pension index. In the event that you locate a listing for Squire Martin, certain pension records are available through the subscription website Fold3.com. Prior to 1901, if a widow collecting a pension remarried, that pension was revoked. However, an act passed in March of 1901 allowed the widow to resume the collection of the pension if she became widowed again from the subsequent marriage, or if that marriage ended in divorce and she was found not to be at fault.

In 1920, the criteria changed once again. The remarried widows of Civil War veterans who served at least 90 days and were honorably discharged, or who died while in service, were allowed to collect pensions. If Emma Jane (Robertson) Martin remarried after the death of Squire Martin, we suggest you search the database U.S. Civil War and Later Wars Index to Remarried Widow Pension Applications, 1860-1934, available at Ancestry.com.

You’ve noted that your ancestor likely died before the 1900 census. Most of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census was destroyed in a fire in 1921. However, a special enumeration of Civil War Union veterans and widows of veterans was requested in 1890 by the U.S. Pension Office. These documents are known as the 1890 Veterans Schedules. Information such as enlistment and discharge dates, as well as the name of the regiment, is included in these records. Most of 1890 Veterans Schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas, as well as part of Kentucky, were destroyed, but the records for the remaining states, including the Commonwealth of Virginia, are available online through Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.