Military Monday: Researching a Civil War Veteran Using the 1890 Census

My Civil War-era ancestor, John Henry Wilson (1823-1905), was one big brick wall. Back in the mid-1980s my great-grandma Winnie (Wilson) Mesplay had given us his photograph, with some handwritten names penciled on the back, and told us he had been a teacher and Justice of the Peace in Jasper County, Missouri. She thought he may have been a soldier during the Civil War, but she didn’t know where he came from or anything about his military service. He died in 1905, five years before the state of Missouri started making death certificates.

John Wilson - Teacher & Justice of the PeaceWILSON J H @ Carterville Cem crop

I already knew how to research Civil War pension files for Union veterans, but we didn’t even know what side John Henry Wilson fought on. And with a name like “John Henry Wilson,” how would I ever identify the right person in the records? I tried searching for “John Wilson” in The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database – there were over 800 Confederate soldiers with that name, and over 2,000 Union soldiers!

If I could find out what unit he served in, that would help me narrow in and see if he had a pension, or other military service-related records that might help me get to know this man a little better.

Many veterans’ gravestones will list their unit. We knew he was buried in Carterville Cemetery, and my dad had taken a picture of the headstone during his last visit. Unfortunately, nothing about John Henry Wilson’s military service is carved on his stone.

I called the reference desk at the Carterville Library and gave them John Henry Wilson’s date of death. The librarian there got back to me with two different death notices from different local newspapers, and she suggested I contact the Joplin Public Library as well. The reference librarian in Joplin emailed me a third death notice.

Wilson J H obit Joplin News Herald 17 Sep 1905 crop

Interestingly, one of the three newspapers referred to him as “Judge Wilson.” But none of the death notices stated anything about where John Henry Wilson had come from, what unit he served in, whether he was a member of a veterans’ organization, or on what side he fought – if he had fought at all.

Dead end. Until I found out about the 1890 census Veterans’ Schedules.

You may have heard that the original 1890 federal census pages were destroyed in a fire in 1921 at the Commerce Department building in Washington, DC. Well, it’s true. For many families, the twenty-year gap between the 1880 and 1900 census records creates a serious roadblock in research. But several “fragments” of the 1890 census survived, and one of the most useful sections of the remaining 1890 census are the Veterans’ Schedule pages, which are searchable on both and

Wilson 1900 census

I had already found my third great-grandfather, John Wilson, in the 1900 census. He was listed in the household of his recently widowed daughter-in-law, Ida (Coffer) Wilson, my second great-grandmother, and her five young children (including my great grandma Winnie, who was seven months old). His place of birth is given as “Virginia” – and Virginia is also given as the place of birth of the father of Ida’s children. (He was John Wilson’s son, Henry Plummer “Plum” Wilson, my second great-grandfather).

Henry Plummer Wilson crop revIda with Anna & Linn 3crop

Since John Henry Wilson was in Jasper County in 1900, I decided to look for him in the same place in the 1890 Veterans Schedule. This schedule includes the name of the veteran (or his widow), his rank, company, regiment, dates of enlistment and discharge, and information about any disability.

Wilson 1890 familysearch

The census taker for Carterville, who enumerated 12 pages of veterans, may have been confused about which veterans he was supposed to record. He (or someone) drew lines through several of the names and marked “Conf.” beside those names. Confederates.

So, John H. Wilson was a Confederate veteran. But beside his name, the spaces for his company and regiment are left blank. Still no regiment, but I’m getting warmer. He fought for the South, and he had a son born in Virginia in the 1850s. I’ve narrowed down my search.