The 4th of July makes me think about my childhood hometown, Bristol Rhode Island, and the parade that's been held there since 1785. It's an event marked by family gatherings and of course, a long walk along the parade route. Even though I no longer live there, I can't escape the draw of THE parade. This year I took my kids to see the usual assortment of floats, fire trucks and politicians, as well as historical re-enactors. The military division featured quite a number of service men and women. As they walked by in their uniforms it made me think about the military history of my family.
Identify the Candidates
As a child, my paternal grandmother told me an ancestor had fought in the Civil War. That comment led me on a hunt to find evidence of that participation. I contacted the National Archives for military service records and pension files and discovered that not one but two ancestors fought in the conflict. One for only a few months, but the other spent time in several different regiments until he was shot in the hand and disabled. Among other things, his pension application included the surgeon's remarks on his injury and an account of the birth of his youngest daughter.
This simple tip from an elderly family member inspired me to start researching my family. To locate your family's military involvement start by asking about past and present military service then begin following the bread crumbs to the documents. Here are a few things to consider.
Searching for Proof
Finding evidence of those servicemen and women is relatively easy these days. Talk with family members, visit libraries, and search online for documentation related to their service. You'll discover enlistment papers, letters, photographs and maybe even a large pension file full of genealogically useful information.
A group of students at my local high school interviewed World War II veterans for a class project. Follow their lead and interview the members of your family about their memories of military service. A few questions about where and when they served could become an afternoon of listening to stories and looking at photos.
Explore the wide range of manuscript and print documents available in repositories in James C. Neagles' U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal & State Sources.
While you're looking for paper documents don't overlook photographs. A picture of a man or woman in uniform can identify the unit they served with.
See what's new online by searching the military databases on Ancestry.com or use Cyndislist.com for websites related to military organizations. When I locate new data on an ancestor one of the first things I do is search Google.com using their regimental information.
Preserve the Memories
In previous articles, I've discussed preserving documents and photographs using acid- and lignin-free enclosures and boxes keeping everything in an area of your house with a stable temperature and humidity.
Read About the Past
Whether you're researching ancestral service in a colonial conflict or in a contemporary one, you'll find plenty of background reading material by visiting the history section of any bookstore. Since its July, there are extensive displays of publications on the American Revolution. This summer I'm spending a lot of time in the car so I'm listening to David McCollough's, 1776 on CD (narrated by the author). There is also a new book on Martha Washington (Martha Washington: An American Life) by Patricia Brady (Viking, $24.95). To read about other women check out Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (Harper Collins, $14.95).
Good luck with your research this summer. These lazy, hazy months can still be productive by mingling with family at reunions or spending a cool afternoon in an air conditioned library. That's what I'll be doing while I wait for the next years parade.
Maureen is the author of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Family Tree Books, 2005) and Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway, 2001). E-mail Maureen at firstname.lastname@example.org.