Finding Your Way Through the Civil War

Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant

My son’s middle name – Grant – was passed down through his paternal family history. His great-great-grandfather served under General Ulysses Simpson Grant in the Civil War – then the g-g-grandfather named his son Ulysses Simpson Grant Roberts. Do you have family history in the Civil War?

Please welcome Pamela Toler – historical research expert, writer, blogger, and traveler. Pamela shares valuable historical research tips and resources. Today’s topic – the American Civil War.  Fire away, Pamela!


In case your invitation got lost in the mail, let me welcome you to the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.  For the next four years, you’re going to have a wide choice of articles, television programs, exhibits, lectures, recreations and other events commemorating the war. It’s a great time to learn something more about a critical event in our history.

You could always settle in and watch re-runs of Ken Burns’ Civil War.  (And a very fine program it was, too.)  Or you could try something more active, like:

1.         Visit a Civil War battlefield:

The National Park Service does a wonderful job of telling the story of the battlefields in its care. Don’t limit yourself to the big battlefields. There are stories to learn at the smaller sites, too. Check out NPS website to find a Civil War site near you:

2.         Attend an historical re-enactment or encampment.

There’s no better way to understand the sights, sounds, and smells of a Civil War battlefield that an historical re-enactment or encampment.  (What’s the difference? Enactments reproduce the events of a specific battle.  Encampments reproduce a Civil War campground.)    Re-enactors are a passionate lot and dedicated to getting the details right and are usually happy to share what they know.  The last time My Own True Love and I visited an encampment, we watched a military unit drill, learned how cannons and muzzleloading rifles are fired, joined in a period music sing-a-long, saw period costumes (military and civilian), heard a sales pitch for a government-issued life insurance policy for new recruits, and drank a lot of lemonade.

3.         Visit your local historical society.

Even if you don’t live anywhere near a Civil War battlefield, your home state was affected by the Civil War (unless you live in Hawaii or Alaska). Your local historical society can tell you how.

4.         Read a book.

Obvious, right?  But which book?  As a quick visit to your local library will demonstrate, writing about the Civil War has been a popular enterprise for a long time.

Let me make a few suggestions to get you started:

  • When I get history writing assignments that aren’t in my field, my first stop is the children’s section of the library.
    It’s a great place to figure out what the basic issues are, as well as who did what where.
  • Don’t forget fiction.  Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Ambrose Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians are hailed for their accurate depictions of war.  (Warning:  these books are not for the squeamish.)  If you’re looking for something more modern, try Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which the Army War College has used as a text on Gettysburg.
  • Choose a narrow topic and dig deep:  Civil War music, the war in the border states, British involvement in the war, the role of industry, Civil War medicine, the role of women, how the war affected your hometown. If you pursue a little piece of the war, you’ll learn about the bigger picture along the way.
  • Ask your librarian or local bookseller for a recommendation.
  • When you find a book you like, don’t forget to check the footnotes and bibliography for more books. There’s good stuff in there.

5.         Celebrate Juneteenth, the anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration.

6.         Learn how to spell sesquecentennial sesquacentenniel, sesquicentennial.

Pamela Toler is a freelance writer specializing in history and the arts. She took the twenty-year plan for getting her PhD in history from the University of Chicago, in part because she kept wandering down fascinating by-ways. Join her at History in the Margins.


“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.” –Ulysses S. Grant

“I know only two tunes: one of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.” – Ulysses S. Grant

Have you experienced the Civil War in any of our Nation’s parks or battlegrounds? Which battleground is your favorite?

Photo – National Archives
– Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent, Cold Harbor, VA, June, 1864. Archives #111-B-36.

Brainy Quote



Filed under Guest Writers & Bloggers

5 responses to “Finding Your Way Through the Civil War

  1. Pingback: A lagniappe

  2. Props to Pamela Toler! This was very informative and an excellent reminder to dig into history on our own. I am very interested in attending a re-enactment, and have wanted to for awhile. I have met some of these passionate people who are dedicated to preserving this important part of our nation’s history.

  3. I’ve not been to a re-enactment or encampment either. But would like to. I’ve seen just little snippets at National Parks – people in period dress and such.

  4. One of my favorite stories was about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

  5. And what bravery was shown in that Underground!

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