Mount a Charge to Research Military Posts

“The men are healthy looking . . . and soldierly in appearance.  They march and maneuver well on foot, less so mounted, because many of them ride indifferently . . . The horses are generally indifferent.”

Well, that it explains it then.  When you’ve got an indifferent horse, you probably can’t help but ride indifferently—whatever that means. The subtleties of indifferent horses and riders may be obscure to most of us today, but it meant something to Lt. Col. J.E. Johnston when he composed his report in 1859 about Fort Stanton in New Mexico.

Col. Johnston further noted that “the hospital is the best in the department and larger than is necessary in so healthy a climate . . . the patients are comfortable as sick soldiers can be on straw beds.” Johnston’s report certainly paints a descriptive picture of the soldiers’ home away from home.

Many of our military ancestors served at forts all across the country. Even though your ancestor may not have been specifically named on the reports, tapping into the Returns from Military Posts, 1806-1916 can offer you clues about your ancestor’s life in the military. This database includes more than 1,500 microfilms of original post returns housed at the National Archives. 

Post returns, usually completed monthly by the post commander, chronicle the activities of the fort. The amount of detail on the returns varies from post to post, from year to year, and from form to form. In other words, you’re not quite sure what you’ll find until you scan the reports. My favorite returns include a written summary of recent events. Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson’s 1861 report from his command post at Albuquerque reviews the month’s activities including mustering in “spies and guides.”

You’ll have more luck finding your ancestor named on a return if he was an officer. The post commander usually listed each officer and any special duties performed that month. Plus, returns also noted the comings and goings of all officers, whether on detached service to another duty assignment, on leave, resigned, killed, wounded, or simply out of commission due to illness. This 1851 return from busy Fort Leavenworth details the various activities by the officers.

An enlisted soldier’s name usually only made it onto the returns when he did something notable. Desertion or being held in confinement awaiting trial merited a shout out from the commander. Soldiers who were discharged, transferred, or were killed or wounded in action are listed on the returns. The captain in charge at Fort Union in New Mexico notes in his 1854 report that Private William Arnold died “in an affair with the Apache Indians.”

Where Was My Ancestor Stationed?
How do you know at which post your ancestor served? Try typing his name into the database’s search box. But again, if he wasn’t an officer, you may not find his name in the index.

Other records offer clues about where your ancestor served. Check the U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914. The entries in this collection often note at which post your soldier enlisted and where he was when he was discharged. If your ancestor was a Marine, check the U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1940.

Also, study compiled military service records and pension records to discover where your ancestors were stationed. If specific forts aren’t mentioned, you can investigate the history of your ancestor’s unit and see where he may have been stationed.

Learning More
Numerous books have been published about historic forts. Search out histories and read about what your ancestor may have experienced. Also, many forts have websites with details about their history. Use your search engine to track down forts. Then plan to visit the forts your ancestors called home. Forts are frequently on my vacation itinerary. An ancestral relative of mine died at Fort Churchill in Nevada in 1863 after eating poisonous greens, of all things. The fort is in ruins today, but a visit there a few years ago helped me imagine what his life must have been like at that remote outpost. Some of the forts are maintained by the National Park Service, others are in state park systems, while others are preserved by private organizations. Still others are in danger of being lost forever due to neglect and decay. Think about what you can do to help preserve your ancestor’s military history and add “fort research” to your to-do list.

Professional genealogist and writer Mary Penner has just published the biography of a thirty-year Navy veteran, preserving his military experiences. Visit her website at

Explore Returns from Military Posts, 1806-1916 

Other articles in the 11 December 2011 Weekly Discovery 

13 Sources for Pre-Civil Registration Birth Information

Family History Tip: Hungarian Names 

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