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)

Since you located your ancestor Squire Martin in Augusta County, Va., in the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Federal Census, as well as through an 1894 land record, you will be able to narrow your search to that county. In the event you do not find documents pertaining to Squire Martin in Augusta County, expand your search to all of Virginia. Finding a listing for a veteran named Squire Martin in another county may help you rule out the possibility that your ancestor is the one who served with the 55th (assuming, again, it can be explained how a Virginian ended up in that regiment).

Another way to rule out your ancestor is to go beyond his lifetime in your search of census records. You think he died between 1897 and 1900; well, column 30 of the 1910 U.S. Federal Census asks whether or not an individual is a veteran of the U.S. military or naval forces. If the answer is yes, the particular war or conflict in which he served is listed in column 31. If you find another Squire Martin who served in the Civil War, it decreases the chances that your ancestor is the one who served in the 55th.

Another way to learn the identity of the Squire Martin listed on the Civil War muster rolls is to learn more about the 55th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. One collection available through the website Fold3.com is Union Compiled Military Service Records — Colored Troops. Contained in these records are documents such as muster rolls, death reports, deeds of manumission and oaths of allegiance for a number of regiments, including records related to the 55th U.S. Colored Infantry.

We quickly viewed the documents there pertaining to Squire Martin. His records did not provide additional information that would enable us to confirm that they pertain to your ancestor. However, you could try reviewing the records of the other members of this infantry. You may come across the name of a fellow soldier that sounds familiar to you from previous research on the Martin family, which may help you to connect your ancestor Squire Martin to the 55th.

You note that you located information on Squire Martin through Augusta County deed records, as well as Augusta County delinquent tax lists. It’s good that you checked these sources, since county and state sources are also valuable in learning more about the possible military service of your ancestor.

Newspapers could also yield clues. Squire Martin’s military service may be noted in death notices, obituaries or newspaper articles reporting on town or county celebrations and events. We recommend searching Augusta County newspapers for Squire Martin’s death notice or obituary, as well as obituaries pertaining to his wife and children, since his service may be mentioned in these articles. There are several subscription and free newspaper databases available online, including Genealogy Bank and Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. A number of newspapers are also available on microfilm through local libraries and archives, including several Augusta County libraries. We also suggest that you check the local history and newspaper collections available through the Augusta County Virginia Historical Society’s Archives, as well as the Library of Virginia. Black newspapers could also be helpful. Yacovone suggests picking up a copy of African-American Newspapers and Periodicals by James Danky to find one in your ancestor’s region.

Finally, since you do not know Squire Martin’s date of death, be sure to check for headstone or burial information at the cemeteries where other family members are interred. In the event you find the location of Squire Martin’s grave, his headstone may include information about his military service. If a gravestone was never erected, contact the cemetery office to see if burial records are available for that plot. These burial records may contain a notation about Squire Martin’s veteran status.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Curley, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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