An army of volunteers is mustering across the nation to work on a computer project to help Americans answer the question: "Did my great-grandfather fight in the Civil War?"
During the next two years, hundreds of genealogists, history buffs and others will be typing the names of 3.5 million blue and gray soldiers onto computer diskettes.By early 1996, Americans will be able to find out their ancestors' links to the war by searching for their names and regiments on computers at the National Park Service's 28 Civil War sites.
"It's been estimated that up to 100 million people may be descendants from Civil War soldiers," said John F. Peterson, project manager for the Civil War Soldiers System, which was formally announced Wednesday at a news conference at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
"Once people find out through this database what regiment and battle their ancestors fought in, it will give them a personal connection to a great, historical event like the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg."
The project is being guided by the park service and the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit foundation, with help from the National Archives, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the Genealogical Society of Utah, a corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"So many people fought in the war in this country," said Curt B. Witcher of Fort Wayne, Ind., who is helping coordinate the project. "To someone who has relatives living in this country from 1860 to 1870, the likelihood of their involvement in the war is very, very great."
Starting this month, volunteers from Virginia to the West Coast will begin transcribing military information from copies of 5.4 million handwritten records penned after the war.
Thomas E. Daniels, a spokesman for the Genealogical Society of Utah, said Wednesday, "Our principal role will be to provide technological support. We are excited about this project and . . . feel it will provide a major genealogical research tool that will be of great benefit to a large segment of the U.S. citizenry."
The original records, on index cards, are stored at the National Archives, which receives nearly 1,500 inquires each week relating to Civil War records.
An estimated 3.5 million soldiers fought in the war, but because some soldiers are listed more than once, there are 5.4 million cards on file. In the interest of accuracy, the information on all the cards will be entered into the computer twice. Each card contains a soldier's name, rank, regiment and sometimes his company's name.
Once the full list is made, it will be easy to spot duplications. Historian James McPherson of Princeton University said the project might actually help determine exactly how many people fought in the war.
"Nobody really knows exactly how many men there were," McPherson said.
Genealogists, amateur and professional historians, Civil War buffs and members of scores of patriotic organizations have volunteered to type the names on personal computers at their homes or offices or at regional branches of the National Archives.
Park service officials estimate that the volunteer work will save at least $4.5 million.
"Interest in genealogy continues to grow. At the same time there is an equally high and sharp interest in the Civil War," Witcher said. "We have a project that captures the excitement in both arenas. I don't think you could ask for a better marriage."