by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ph.D.
Throughout its brief history, the United States has been involved in major world wars, numerous Indian wars, police conflicts, various NATO and humanitarian actions, civil disorders, and international disputes. U.S. aggressive actions date from 1675 to the present. It is, therefore, a rare generation of American men and women who have not been inspired or required to fight, who have not registered for war, shown up for training, or even misled authorities to avoid service.
Many of us have undoubtedly grown up hearing heroic war stories recounted over and again. The excitement of these stories has inspired many family historians to learn more about their family members’ military service. Others want to document the service of an ancestor to join a patriotic society.
Because the military, being the archetype of bureaucratic organizations, has kept detailed records, these records are an invaluable source of information about servicemen and women and the families they may have left behind. Aside from the additional information to family stories, consider what these records represent in the history of the world.
Lest We Forget
Military research includes a variety of records. There are records of military units, records of individual soldiers who served—including career and voluntary records, records of prisoners of war, and records of civilians who were involved in wartime activities. Finally, there are veteran benefit records which are sometimes most valuable to family historians.
Military Unit Records
Many military records, generated during both peacetime and war, document the business of the military unit. These records may include pay records, correspondence, records of orders, and reports of activities and events that the unit encountered.
For some wars and units, researching its records can generate documents of the activities and battles of the military unit. These records may contain little or no personal information about the personnel in the unit. For example, some earlier wars have compiled event cards that develop a rough chronology of some units. This information was taken from muster rolls and returns. Unfortunately, records for all wars and units are not available—there are none for the Revolutionary War.
Enlisted Military Records
A host of records on regular service men and women exist that include letters, indexes of correspondence, medical reports, muster rolls, and court martial documents. These records date from the colonial wars to the present time. Officer’s records may include rosters of officers and reports of military posts, camps, and stations. Post returns date from the early 1800s to 1916.
The Record and Pension Office also has a consolidated name index which dates from 1775 to 1904. The Adjutant General’s Office has records on enlisted soldiers dating from 1848 to 1889. There are also records on the Colored Troops Branch that date from 1863 to 1889 that may include records of enlisted personnel.
The National Archives has a number of early regular Army records that may be of interest to the family historian. For example, its collection of cadet applications for the U.S. Military Academy date from 1805 to 1866. Enlistment registers date from 1798 to 1912. A soldier’s service record may be derived from pay records, muster rolls of the military unit, medical records, court martial records, and pension and benefit records.
Similarly, service records for volunteer soldiers range from the colonial wars to the present day. These records include information from a variety of sources. Abstracts of records exist in the National Archives that range from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. This information was abstracted onto cards from muster and pay rolls, rank rolls, hospital and prison records, etc. and were organized in a system called "Compiled Military Service Records." The record may show the person’s name, rank, unit, date of entry, and discharge or death. It may also include more personal data such as age, a physical description, and place of birth and place of enlistment. Pay close attention to the date and place of enlistment and compare it to others who enlisted at the same place. These men are often family members or from the same geographic area.
If your ancestor does not appear on one of these lists, there may be a number of reasons. A soldier may have been in the regular army or in a unit from a state other than the one where he lived. He may have served under more than one name or used different spellings of his name. Then, it is possible that accurate and complete records may simply not have been kept or were destroyed or lost.
Some things to keep in mind when researching military records where the information was abstracted onto cards:
Veteran and Post-Service Records
One of the most commonly used military records tells researchers about the activities of military personnel after their service was over. These records include applications, surveys, grants for bounty land warrants, etc. Military associated medical records and records of veteran’s homes may also help to illustrate the veteran’s activities during service.
Some of the most popular military records seems to be the service pension records. These records are typically rich sources of data for family information. The pension may identify the dates of service, some of the highlights of the service, and the type of disability, if any, that the veteran suffered from. Finally, and most importantly, pension records may include information about the veteran’s family and relatives. Pay special attention to any fellow comrades in arms as they may be relatives and/or family friends that help to connect a family or veteran to a particular area.
Pension records can exist outside of military units. In Kentucky, for example, depositions or other sworn statements of military service are often recorded in the County Clerk’s Minute or Order books. These very rich record sources may include vivid details of the service as well as activities and movements of the family after the service. Also, they may include the circumstances and physical health of the veteran at the time of service and at the time of the deposition. These affidavits can be recorded in nearly any court of record.
Other post-service records that should not be overlooked include soldier burial, headstone applications, cemetery records, and amnesty and pardon records.
Most military records of units will include records of persons who served or supported the unit in a civilian capacity. These records can be found in the correspondence records of the unit, which are often indexed. Again, some record of civilian participation or support for the war efforts may be found in the civil courts in the area where they lived. These records have such importance that the DAR, for example, uses this criteria as a measure of support for the revolution and allows membership into the Society on this basis alone. Key examples of people who may be in this category include ministers.
The census is an often overlooked source of information on military service. A census of military service men exists in the 1840 Federal Census which includes the veteran’s name, age, and residence. And, while a 1921 fire mostly destroyed the 1890 census, it contained information about the person’s name, rank, company, regiment or vessel, length of service, and disabilities associated with the service. The listing of widows of Union veterans survived for some states.
For the 1910 census, enumerators asked every male over fifty years of age who were born or immigrated to the country before 1865 if they were a survivor of the Civil War.
The tremendous courage and discipline required of those who served in military actions often moves and inspires us. As a result, it is easy to forget the terrible sacrifice required by war: the hardships, the anxiety of separation, the fear of death and mutilation, the disruption to one’s life and family, and the emotional scars that may never heal. Researching the military records available will help us remember those times as well.
Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ph.D., has been researching her family history since 1978. Her special interests include oral histories and social history.