Civil War Pension File: General Question

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scottrumph's picture
Civil War Pension File: General Question

I have a general question when citing to a document from a Civil War Widow's pension file retrieved from an online database such as Fold3.

Does your citation begin with the database information or the document information then followed by the database citation?

I have read EE sections on this and I have seen it both ways in a layered citation.

Thanks for any advice.



EE's picture


The longstanding practice among American researchers, when citing an archived document, is to begin the citation with the smallest element and work up to the largest (document > file > collection > series > record group > archives >city/state. You can see that pattern throughout EE, starting with these basics:

  • EE's QuickStart guide under "The Basics: Manuscripts & Online Images" which begins: "Most archived manuscripts follow a basic pattern: ..." 
  • The first three pages (3.1) of Chapter 3 "Archives," which lay out basic principles for citing archived materials in greater detail.
  • Chapter 3's first QuickCheck Model (p. 96) which diagrams the basic pattern for citing "Archived Manuscript Records."

Citing an online database is a different issue. A database at a website is a publication. Traditionally, publications start with the largest element (the creator) and works down to the smallest (the specific page or item of interest). In the humanities, publications follow the format that is also shown in QuickStart Guide, etc.:

Author, Title of Publication (Place of Publication: Publisher, date), specific page or item of interest.

If a publication has chapters by various people, with a general editor/author, then the chapter author and chapter title is added to the start of the string:

Chapter Author, "Title of Chapter," Editor, Title of Publication (Place of Publication: Publisher Sometimes, Date), specific item of interest.

A database at a website follows this same pattern:

Database Creator if one is identified, "Title of Database," Website author/creator, Title of Website (Place = URL : date), specific item of interest.

Using databases is also complicated by the fact that databases offer two basic kinds of material:

  1. database entries created in the modern era by the creator of the database 
  2. images of original documents (historic records)

Type 1:


If the database gives us only a "database entry" (an index entry, a typed abstract or extract, etc.), then we are not citing an original document, we are citing a derivative created by the entity that created the database. We're citing their interpretation of what the original says. Therefore, Layer 1 cites the database as a publication, while Layer 2 reports what the database says it got its information from.

Type 2:

If we are citing online images of the original, then our first layer cites the original and however much of the archival detail (file, collection, series, etc.) we can glean from what we are eyeballing. In Layer 1, we follow the basic form for citing original documents that are kept in archives. Then in Layer 2 we cite the database that delivered the images, following the standard format for citing a published source.

That said, some researchers who do their note-taking almost exclusively within relational database software (as opposed to creating research reports, articles, or books) have a different need. When they extensively use a specific database-with-images, they prefer to start the citation with the identity of the database so that their own software will automatically populate most of the details. Then in the "item of interest" field at the end of the template, they add all the specifics for a particular document, file, etc.  EE offers examples of this as well.

Pension examples, specifically

With specific regard to Civil War pensions covered at EE 11.40 “Pension Files:” 

  • p. 604 offers an example from the John W. Witters pension file. Because that’s an original record archived at the National Archives, it follows the longstanding format for archived materials. It starts with the smallest item (the document or the file) and works to the largest (the archive and its location).
  • P. 606, offers a John A. Shown pension index card. Because this is an item in a database published online, it follows the basic pattern for published databases.

“Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934,” database, ( : accessed 1 April 2015), [specific item of interest]; citing .... [the National Archives publication that Ancestry identifies as its source].

The Editor

scottrumph's picture

Thanks for the detailed response. Much appreciated.