The National Archives and Ancestry.com published newly digitized Civil War records online for the first time Wednesday, allowing users to trace family links to the war between North and South.
Nearly 275,000 newly published pages are among the most heavily used documents for research in the National Archives' Civil War holdings, curators said. The pages contain about 3 million names of those who enlisted for a draft from 1863 to 1865, though only about 40,000 were drafted to fight.
Archivists estimate 17 million Americans have an ancestor who fought in the war. Many may not know about their family ties.
Tracing genealogy is becoming a fast-growing hobby and even "fashionable" with a Friday night TV show devoted to celebrity family histories, said Josh Hanna, executive vice president of Ancestry.com. The company sponsors the NBC show and invested $100 million in digitizing historical records.
"Family history, I can tell you as someone who's been doing this for 15 years now, used to be a hell of a lot harder than it is today," Hanna said. "It's become much faster, easier and cheaper to actually do a lot of this research."
At the Archives, filmmaker Ken Burns revealed a family discovery he made from the Archives records shortly after his 1980s PBS series, "The Civil War." He learned that his great-great-grandfather Abraham Burns was a Confederate soldier, which he called a "stunning discovery."
"He was 5-feet, 4 inches tall and had gray eyes, which I suppose is perfect for a Confederate," Burns said of the details he gleaned from the documents. "He stated to a copyist ... that he was a blacksmith in life and had been 'forced' to join the Confederate Army, which I don't think is quite accurate."
Burns said he traced his ancestor's capture in the newly created state of West Virginia in 1863 and how Abraham Burns was sent to a prison camp until the war ended. Burns thought all records disappeared after his great-great-grandfather was released.
Some of the newly digitized files show, however, that the once enemy captor later applied for a federal pension. That wasn't unusual for Confederate soldiers, Burns said, as most white citizens were welcomed back into society after the bloodiest war.
"This is not just the story of generals and presidents but a bottom-up story of so-called ordinary people who fought on both sides," he said, calling the Archives digitization project a lesson in democracy. "This place is really the ground zero for coming to terms with it."
New York TV anchor Cheryl Wills, who wrote a book about her great-great-great-grandfather Sandy Wills escaping slavery to fight with the U.S. Colored Troops, said she discovered her family connection about 150 years after the Civil War ended.
"I was just goofing around on the Internet _ I had no idea what I would find," Wills said.
What she found, though, was an extensive story about how Sandy Wills was sold into slavery at age 10 and later enlisted in Kentucky to fight with five other slave boys who were like brothers. She framed a copy of his military discharge paper.
Later findings weren't so proud. Wills said she found a pension application from Sandy Wills' widow, Emma Wills, which showed a pattern of discrimination against black widows. She was required to fill out a deposition to try to prove where she was born as a former slave and hired a lawyer to try to claim a pension.
"Look at her humble X on the bottom," Wills said, pointing to the signature line. "It kills my heart to see that X because that's government-imposed illiteracy. ... She just put her mark."
The family history was long forgotten, though, until Wills found the records online.
Newly published Civil War documents also include the names of some famous Americans who enlisted for the draft, including a 27-year-old Andrew Carnegie, A. Montgomery Ward and future President Grover Cleveland.
The digitization project is part of a five-year deal with Provo, Utah-based Ancestry.com worth millions of dollars. The public will have free access beginning Thursday for a week before a subscription is required to access the records.
Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said the federal agency doesn't have the money or staff needed to digitize all records itself.
Ancestry offers a 14-day free trial before requiring a paid subscription of $12.95 to $19.95 per month. The company has about 1.4 million subscribers who can search about 2 billion names.
Ancestry provides digital images of each record to the Archives free of charge, along with index metadata. After five years, the Archives can use the index and digitized records without any restrictions.
Burns said it's a "win-win" partnership for digitization that would not have otherwise happened in times of a tight federal budget.