Overview of Military Records
| Researching Military Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Military Records|
|Records of Veterans' Benefits|
|Miscellaneous Military Records|
|List of Useful Military Resources|
Military endeavors span the history of America. From King Phillip’s War in 1675–76 to the Gulf Wars of the twenty-first century, every generation of our ancestors who have lived in this country have been involved in or affected by conflict. Participation ranged from 125,000 in the Philippine Insurrection to an estimated five million in the Civil War. Many others who did not serve created draft registration records. Involvement was not limited to white native-born males but included the newly-arrived foreign born of all ethnic groups as well as minorities, American Indians, blacks, and in certain instances, women. The abundance and variety of records generated by military service, the distribution of veterans’ benefits, and the interaction with civilians provide a template of rich personal detail about service personnel, their families, and often, the general citizenry.
The first indication of an ancestor’s involvement with the military may come from family stories or from personal papers that have been retained. If there is no information of this type, or if the reference is so general that it lacks the specifics needed for further research, there are still avenues to explore to determine if there was a history of military service. Particularly for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, records associated with an individual’s death (death certificates, obituaries, funeral or memorial programs, and cemetery records and grave markers) will provide the evidence needed to conduct a search of military records. This chapter also presents ways to locate service, pension, and other types of military records when details such as rank or regiment are yet to be determined.
The uses and value of military records in genealogical research for ancestors who were veterans are obvious, but military records can also be important to researchers whose direct ancestors were not soldiers in any war. Collateral relatives of an ancestor, such as siblings or cousins, may have served in a war, and their service or pension records could assist in finding information on the family of the primary interest. Due to the amount of genealogical information contained in some military pension files, they should never be overlooked during the research process. Those records not containing specific genealogical information are of historic value and should be included in any overall research design. The wars considered in this chapter are grouped as follows:
|King Philip’s War||1675–76|
|King William’s War||1689–97|
|Queen Anne’s War||1702–13|
|King George’s War||1744–48|
|French and Indian War||1754–63|
|Revolutionary War and frontier conflicts||1775–1811|
Post-revolutionary wars to 1848
|War of 1812||1812–15|
|World War I||1917–18|
|World War II||1941–45|
|Gulf Wars & Conflicts (Desert Storm, etc.)||1990–|
At least some remnant exists of records for every war that the colonies and states were involved in; but, as with other records maintained in the United States during the first centuries of its existence, there is little uniformity of content or style in those records. The information that follows organizes sources and finding aids by war or conflict. Entries are divided into two principal categories: service records and records of veterans’ benefits. This is followed by some categories of miscellaneous records that supply genealogical information.
Colonial Wars (1607–1774)
Service records of soldiers in the colonial wars will be found in the collections of state and local agencies rather than those of the federal government. Colonial service records, if available, have more historical than genealogical information and usually provide only the name of the soldier and the colonial unit in which he served. They consist primarily of rosters, rolls, and lists that survived the wars and several repository fires. Most of these rosters and rolls have been published and can be found in genealogical and historical libraries throughout the nation.
Despite the scanty genealogical information these records provide, you should not ignore them. They may be sparse, but few records in general exist for this time period that can help you locate an ancestor. The presence of a soldier in a particular unit may be a valuable clue to his place of residence as well as useful in identifying his family in other records of the same location, even though there may be problems in distinguishing between two or more soldiers with the same name.
Early (Pre–World War I) United States Military Records in General
The greatest volume of original military records is held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Many pre–World War I records can be searched in person at the National Archives. Microfilm copies of significant pre–World War 1 collections and indexes have been microfilmed and many libraries have copies. The library with the largest collection of microfilmed U.S. military records is the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogists who have access to the microfilmed records can search them more efficiently by following the tables presented in this chapter. To effectively use the collection of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or one of its Family History Centers, check the current “U.S. Military Records Research Outline” which may be ordered or printed from FamilySearch.org. This provides a cross-reference from the NARA microfilm number to the call number assigned by the Family History Library.
The scope of content and the complexity of arrangement of the military records most often consulted by researchers is fully explained in Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States. Six chapters of this essential Guide are devoted to military records.
Genealogists most often seek information from three general types of records that are available from NARA: (1) military service records; (2) pension claims files; and (3) bounty-land warrant applications (granted only for service in the Mexican and earlier wars). Once a pre–World War I record (or records) is identified in an index, a photocopy request should be sent to the National Archives and Records Administration. Requests may be made online at the National Archives website, <www.archives.gov>, or by mail using NATF Form 86 for service records and NATF Form 85 for pension or bounty-land files. A search of these records cannot be completed without the full name of the veteran, his branch of service, the state from which he served, and the war in which he served. Expect an eight-week processing time before you receive the records. Details for ordering and printable forms are on the website.
In addition to original federal records, there are large collections of military records that document state military activity by service personnel. An example of these are the World War II bonuses that some states paid to veterans. Many of the records held at the state level are being indexed and digitized and placed online by state government repositories. Local and county-wide projects by volunteers and major databases by commercial enterprises have also contributed to the wealth of online resources. Because the list of important websites grows daily, only a few are listed at the end of this chapter.
Much information appears in manuscript and print form as well. Take full advantage of the excellent histories of military wars and conflicts, the personal written accounts of those who witnessed action, and published lists, such as the many Revolutionary War roster lists and other service records that may be found in historical and genealogical periodicals. For a list of titles of rosters for early wars, consult the chapter reference list.
There are three goals that will help the genealogist to discover information about a military ancestor: (1) acquire a view of historical context; (2) identify the original records that require searching; and (3) examine secondary sources, such as compilations of material not easily found elsewhere.
Hundreds of volumes pertain to the military history of the United States and to the service and pension/bounty-land programs that were in effect prior to the modern wars. These provide the setting and the conditions, legal and social, which your military ancestor would have experienced; hence, the historical context.
Records may be identified in two highly recommended sources: James C. Neagles’s "U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources", "Colonial America to the Present" and Anne Bruner Eales’s and Robert M. Kvasnicka’s "Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States".
Both describe in detail the specific records that hold primary evidence of military involvement. Also useful, although less detailed, are Trevor K. Plante’s "An Overview of Records at the National Archives Relating to Military Service," and U.S. Military Records in the Research Outline series published online by the Family History Library at FamilySearch.org. The essential website for finding information on federal records and finding aids is the website of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The final goal, to examine secondary sources, is accomplished by exploring transcripts, indexes, and compilations that bring together a variety of information. These may be published as online databases or in print, CD, or microform editions. While there is no known comprehensive bibliography to compiled sources, a partial list of printed materials and websites is provided at the end of this chapter.