Eileen Curley, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
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.

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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