The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) is a computerized database created by the U.S. National Park Service. The database contains very basic facts about Union and Confederate servicemen from all 44 states and territories of that time.
The first phase of the CWSS contains names and other basic information from 6.3 million soldier records in the National Archives. This phase of the project is complete and is available now. Note that these are strictly soldier's records; the database does not yet include information about sailors.
The information in this online database was manually transcribed from the General Index Cards in the Compiled Military Service Records at the National Archives. These records include 235,000 names of African American Union soldiers.
During the American Civil War, every two weeks on average, usually at the company level, soldiers' names were recorded on muster rolls. Beginning in the 1880s General Ainsworth's staff in the Department of the Army originally indexed these records to determine who was eligible for a pension. His staff wrote a card for every time a soldier's name appeared on a muster roll. When Ainsworth's staff finished the Compiled Military Service records, each soldier's file usually had many cards representing each time the soldier's name appeared on a muster roll.
One type of card, the General Index Card, listed the soldier's name, the soldier's rank at the time of enlistment from the first card, and the date the soldier left the service with the soldier's final rank from the last card. These General Index cards were used to create the online Civil War Soldiers System.
When General Ainsworth's staff completed the project, there were 6.3 million General Index Cards for the soldiers - both Union and Confederate - who had served during the American Civil War. Historians have determined that approximately 3.5 million soldiers actually fought in the War. A soldier serving in more than one regiment, serving under two names, or giving spelling variations resulted in the fact that there are 6.3 million General Index Cards for 3.5 million soldiers.
The records were edited for accuracy and consistency by the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). After editing was complete, National Park Service staff converted the final edited version into an Oracle database for access by the CWSS on the Internet.
I found the online database to be easy to use although not so good for wide-ranging searches. You must enter the last name, first name, side, and state for each soldier that you seek. You cannot search for all records of a surname by leaving the first name blank. Instead, you must already know the soldier's first and last name, as well as his state of origin and whether he fought for the Union or the Confederacy. Keep in mind that spelling variations are common. For instance, a soldier with the last name of Burrell may be listed as Burwell or Burell. In that case, you must search three times: once for each spelling variation.
The information returned is minimal. For instance, here are the results of a search for John Eastman, a Union soldier from Maine:
1st Regiment, Maine Cavalry
Clicking on "1st Regiment, Maine Cavalry" leads to a long and detailed history of that regiment. The only personnel listed in that history, however, were commanders.
Keep in mind that the online information is minimal; it is strictly an index. Finding a soldier's name in this database indicates that there is more information available on microfilm or on paper.
The original service records of Union and Confederate Civil War Soldiers and the pension records of Union veterans are maintained at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, where they are available for research to anyone. You can request copies of those records by ordering online or by using the NATF forms 85 and 86.
The military service records and pension files are separate series of records and must be requested separately. For example, if you need both the service record and the pension file for one particular veteran who fought for the Union, you need to submit two separate orders.
Complete ordering information is available on the web site.
You can access the online database of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) at no charge at http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does not have custody of Confederate soldier pension files. After all, Confederate soldiers and sailors were not eligible for pensions from the government that they had fought against. For additional information regarding Confederate pension files, you will need to contact the State Archives for the state where the veteran lived at the time he would have been eligible for a pension.