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Rooting Out Civil War Archives : 'North and South' Miniseries Inspires Record Searches

May 21, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

Is there a Yankee or a Rebel in your past? That's what a lot of people are asking now, apparently inspired by a recent television miniseries.

Not only did ABC's "North and South, Book II" win the network ratings war--all six episodes placed in the Top 10 Nielsen ratings--it sparked a renewed interest in Civil War history, according to spokesmen from the U.S. Army and the National Archives.

"It's similar to the phenomenon that happened with 'Roots,' " said Maj. Philip Soucy of the Army's media department. "People at the genealogical survey (of the National Archives) just about went crazy with all the letters from people wanting to trace their families."

Archives Deluged

Actually, officials at the National Archives were deluged with letters twice because of "Roots." When the miniseries, based on Alex Haley's book tracing his black ancestors in Africa, first aired in January of 1977, several thousand letters were received from people inquiring about their family backgrounds.

When the second miniseries, "Roots: The Next Generations," appeared two years later, February, 1979, they then got several thousand more.

Local genealogical libraries, too, experienced a surge of requests from people trying to trace their families then.

" 'Roots' really brought out the people. It was incredible," said John Justice, assistant secretary of the Sons of the Revolution, which operates a library in Glendale. Although the Sons of the Revolution Library's collection of historical books deals predominantly with the American Revolution, it also has an extensive Civil War section, with books of military records for both North and South, family histories, records from states, counties and towns.

"We have the largest genealogical collection open to the public in the entire Southwest," Justice said, explaining that the Sons of the Revolution Library has more than 20,000 volumes of historical records. The library was started in 1893 in downtown Los Angeles and moved to Glendale in 1973. "People might be able to find Civil War information here easier than writing to the government."

But people already are writing to the Army and to the National Archives in search of Civil War histories in their families.

"We were just swamped after 'Roots,' " said Karl Weissenbach, a consultant at the National Archives in Washington. "And after the first 'North and South' (the first miniseries adapted from John Jakes' book and aired in November) we got hundreds of letters."

Weissenbach said that letters asking about Civil War veterans are starting to come in again now, following the recent airing of "North and South, Book II."

"All it takes is something to spark the interest of the people," the Army's Maj. Soucy said. "And whatever that is, a TV show or a book, starts a flurry of activity."

One of the problems in tracing either Yankee or Confederate ancestors, Soucy admitted, is finding where to look for them.

On a national level, the best place to start is with the Military Records Division of the National Archives in Washington, where records of all military personnel who served in U.S. armies from the Revolutionary War to 1917, when the United States entered World War I, are kept.

(Military records of veterans from 1917 on are kept at the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63132.)

2,000-3,000 Letters a Week

" 'North and South' isn't causing anything as dramatic as 'Roots' did, but we're receiving a lot more requests for Civil War records recently," Weissenbach said. "A lot of people want to see if they had any family in the war. There's a big demand for military records. We get 2,000 to 3,000 requests a week. After 'Roots,' it went up to 5,000 a week and that lasted a couple of months. People were looking for everything, passenger arrival records, census, military, pensions, everything we have."

Weissenbach said that anyone wishing to locate Civil War veterans in their families should first write to the Correspondence Branch, Room 301, National Archives, Washington, D.C. 20408, and request NATF Form 80 to order a person's military service record.

"They might want to send for two Form 80s," he said. "One to request the military service record, the other to request the person's pension file. You're apt to find more in his pension file than in the regular military records."

Requesting a pension record of a Civil War veteran from the National Archives applies only to former Union soldiers, though, according to Weissenbach.

"For the Confederate army, there is only a general index of all who fought," he explained. "And there are no pension records of Confederate soldiers here, since they were given at the state level by the Southern states. The people trying to trace Confederate veterans would have to contact the state where the veteran lived after the war to find his pension record."

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