SALT LAKE CITY — As millions of Americans pay respects to their ancestors on Memorial Day weekend, FamilySearch.org is making it easier to find information on Civil War veterans, including those who "gave the last full measure of devotion."
FamilySearch added to the millions of records it provides free in its major Civil War collection, from Civil War service records of Union and Confederate soldiers kept by each state to census records that can help families track their war veteran ancestors beyond 1865.
The additions, and a new landing page for the collection, familysearch.org/civil-war, make it easier to find Civil War-era relatives than ever before. That makes it a major clearinghouse for information about American ancestors from 1861-65 and beyond, because the Civil War included 3 million soldiers in a country with a population of about 31 million.
More than 600,000 soldiers died, making the war between the states the costliest conflict in U.S. history.
"There are a lot of Civil War-related collections that don't say 'Civil War' on them," FamilySearch spokesman Paul Nauta said. "The average person won't think to look at those. We've aggregated all these collections together online so a novice can go and see the broad spectrum of selections to see if they can find their ancestors."
The revamped website improves navigation of the pages and provides instructional videos on searching for veterans of the war.
The videos are online courses by experts around the country and include information on subjects like "Finding the Slave Generation" and researching basic military records.
The FamilySearch Civil War page also provides records from the Freedmen's Bureau, including marriage and bank records and letters, making it possible to locate and learn about African-American Civil War-era ancestors.
After the war, veterans settled throughout the country. The 1890 census found 800 Union veterans living in Utah.
FamilySearch collection manager Ken Nelson said records like that add detail to family stories.
"Each soldier family has a story, and these stories are handed down from generation to generation," Nelson said in a press release. "When you want to get the particulars of what that service was, you start going to these government records that document the service."
The Civil War page also includes a FamilySearch Wiki with articles from contributors who share their expertise about records, events and even Civil War regiments.
Memorial Day's origins date to the end of the Civil War. Union veterans began to organize an annual event to honor the war's dead in 1866. The first official observance of what then was known as Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
The last Monday in May officially became Memorial Day in 1971.
The FamilySearch update is part of a major Civil War project that began several years ago. The organization announced in 2011 that it had posted millions of records from the war and that the project would last another five years.
"By all means, this is not all there is," Nauta said Friday. "This is a labor of love. We definitely have another year or two of research to do. It takes a lot of work to prepare these records and then to release them to our online volunteers for indexing."
FamilySearch is a free service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the largest genealogy organization in the world. Its Web pages and family history centers contain more than 3.5 billion records. More than 3 million people access its information each month.
FamilySearch adds more than 400 million records to its database each year.
FamilySearch works with collections at libraries, churches and archives in more than 100 countries to collect records, but it relies on tens of thousands of volunteers worldwide to take the raw records photographed and digitize them — type them into FamilySearch's database.
The process is called indexing. FamilySearch's website has an indexing tab for anyone interested in volunteering.
"We have a core 25 percent who just stay with it all the time," Nauta said. "They love it and have made it a part of their lifestyle. Others ebb and flow, based on the type of collections we're working on, like if records pop up from a state where their family has a history.
"We've probably had half a million volunteers over the last five years."