| 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|
- 1 Revolutionary War and Frontier Conflicts (1775–1811)
- 2 Post-Revolutionary Wars (1812–48)
- 3 Civil War (1861–65)
- 4 Modern Wars, 1898 to the Present
- 5 References
- 6 External Links
Revolutionary War and Frontier Conflicts (1775–1811)
Some of the original service records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed by fire, but those that have survived are on file at the National Archives, compiled primarily from rosters and rolls of soldiers serving in the Continental Army, state lines, and militia units, with additions from correspondence and filed reports of military officers. These service records contain much more genealogical information than colonial records: name, rank, and military organization of the soldier. Included in some records are the name of the state from which the soldier served; the date that his name appears on one or more of the rolls; sometimes the date or dates of his enlistment, or the date of his appointment; and, rarely, the date of his separation from the service. His physical description, date and place of birth, residence at the time of enlistment, and other personal details are also included in some categories. For example, in the size roll for Captain Aaron Ogden’s Company, 1st Regiment of New Jersey, we find these men:
- WILLIAM JONES, private, 22, 5’4”; brown [eyes], fair [hair]; taylor [tailor]; b. & res. Woodbridge, Essex Co., enl. 15 June ’77.
- WILLIAM McMULLIN, private, 36, 5’8 1/2”; black, fair; laborer; b. Glenarm, Embrim, Ireland; res. Mendham, Morris Co.; enl. 16 Feb. ’78; deserted at Morris Hutts, 18 Apr. ’82, retaken 28 June ’82, 100 lashes.2
Revolutionary War service records are indexed, and microfilm and print versions of this index are widely distributed. The service records themselves can be searched at the National Archives or on microfilm at many libraries with strong genealogy collections. See table 11-1 for film numbers and titles.
Loyalists and German Auxiliary Troops
Many American colonists retained their allegiance to the British crown. Known as Loyalists, they probably comprised about one-third of the colonial population. In some areas they may have been in the majority. Some of them simply refused to support the revolutionary cause. Others took up arms against it. With the defeat of the British, many fled to other points of the Empire, notably to what was called Canada West (Ontario) and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
The British forces were also augmented by a large contingent of German auxiliaries imported to America to help suppress the rebellion. Inaccurately labeled mercenaries or Hessians, these troops originated not only from Hessen Kassel and Hessen Hanau, but also from Braunschweig, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst. Perhaps as many as 7,000 of the nearly 32,000 German auxiliary troops remained in North America.
There are many printed works of genealogical value pertaining to Loyalists and German auxiliary troops in the American Revolution. Consult the relevant bibliographies at the end of this chapter.
Post-Revolutionary Wars (1812–48)
There are federal service records for the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Mexican War. The information included, like that in the service records of soldiers in the colonial wars and the Revolutionary War, has been indexed and microfilmed.
The majority of the War of 1812 compiled service records are arranged by state or territory, thereunder by unit. If a unit’s designation did not include the name of a state or territory, such as the U.S. Volunteers, U.S. Rangers, Captain Bookers Company, U.S. Volunteers (Virginia), it will appear separately. Likewise, during the Mexican War, special units came from the Indian nations, the Mormons (Mormon Battalion), and from New Mexico (Santa Fe Battalion of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers). Each unit will have compiled its own records.
Some rosters of men who served from a particular state have been placed online by sate agencies. For example, the Ohio Historical Society offers “War of 1812 Roster of Ohio Soldiers” at http://www.ohiohistory.org.
Civil War (1861–65)
The first step in finding service records for a Union or Confederate volunteer soldier who served in the Civil War is The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) at http://www.civilwar.nps.gov/cwss.3 The CWSS is a database that identifies whether the serviceman was Union or Confederate, his state of muster, his unit and its function (cavalry, infantry, etc.), his regiment, and his rank. Clicking on the link to the veteran’s regiment provides a history, including muster in and muster out dates, the various other units to which the particular regiment was attached, and the regiment’s service history, including major battles. Also included is information on more than 1,200 Civil War soldiers and sailors who received the Congressional Medal of Honor; prisoner records of Union prisoners at Andersonville and Confederate prisoners at Fort McHenry; the location of every identified Civil War soldier buried in the cemeteries operated by the National Park Service; and details about the 10,500 battles and skirmishes fought during the War.4
Eventually, the names of all Union and Confederate Naval personnel will be included in the CWSS. The first phase was to enter the names of approximately 18,000 African American sailors from various historical navy documents. Information for each name includes at least some of the following: place of birth, age, complexion, occupation, height, place, date, and term of enlistment and rating. A chronological list of places or vessels and dates served, if shown on muster rolls, also appears.
Union Service Records
The Union soldier entries for the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) are from microfilmed Indexes to the Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers that are listed under “Index” in the attached chart. Finding a soldier in the CWSS index at http://www.civilwar.nps.gov/cwss will provide enough information to order the service records from the National Archives. Use NATF Form 86, or order online at http://www.archives.gov.
The service records contain enlistment papers, muster rolls, prisoner-of-war papers, death reports, and others. Enlistment papers often contain a description of the soldier and the place where he enlisted.
The compiled service records have only been microfilmed for a fraction of the states and territories. A list appears in the attached chart. Note that some of the titles pertain to southern states, such as Alabama and Arkansas. Although these states belonged to the Confederacy, the service records in this collection are for the men who volunteered for the Union Army. With the exception of South Carolina, every state, including those in the Confederacy, raised Union volunteer units.
If the name you are looking for does not appear in the CWSS database, consult The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861–1865, edited by Janet B. Hewett.5 This is the printed version of the Union state, territorial, U.S. Colored Troops, and regular army indexes, but it does not index the Veterans Reserve Corps.
Union Draft Records, 1863–65. The U.S. government enacted a draft in March 1863, creating a pool of men age twenty to forty-five who were subject to conscription. Assuming they were physically fit, the law affected white citizens as well as most aliens who had declared their intention to naturalize. The draft records include consolidated lists and descriptive rolls which give a man’s name; place of residence; age as of 1 July 1863; occupation; marital status; state, territory, or country of birth; and the military organization (if a volunteer) of which he was a member. Occasionally a personal description or place of birth appears on the descriptive rolls. The records are among the collection of the Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (RG110) and have not been microfilmed. They are filed by state and thereunder by congressional district. To determine the number of the congressional district for the county in which a man lived, consult Kenneth C. Martis’s The Historical Atlas of United States Congressional Districts 1789–1983.6
Case files of drafted aliens concern only aliens who were drafted and released from 1861 to 1864. The files may include name, district from which drafted, country of citizenship, age, length of time in United States, and a physical description. The files are in alphabetical order by surname in the collection of the Department of State and are available only at the National Archives.7
Exemption Lists. Names of men who were ineligible to be drafted may be found in area newspapers of the period. These tended to be published by county. The names are grouped by reason for exemption, including age, physical or mental disability, paid commutation (in certain years a draft-eligible male could pay a prescribed sum in lieu of serving), sending an acceptable substitute, or having other persons totally dependent, such as a widowed mother or motherless children under twelve years of age.
Confederate Service Records
When Richmond was evacuated by the Confederate government in April 1865, the centralized military personnel records of the Confederate Army were taken to Charlotte, North Carolina, by the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General, Samuel Cooper. When the Confederate civil authorities left Charlotte after agreeing to an armistice between the armies in North Carolina, President Jefferson Davis instructed Cooper to turn the records over, if necessary, to “the enemy, as essential to the history of the struggle.” When General Joseph E. Johnston learned, after the armistice, that the records were at Charlotte, he turned them over to the Union Commander in North Carolina, saying, “As they will furnish valuable materials for history, I am anxious for their preservation, and doubt not that you are too.”
The Confederate records surrendered or captured at the end of the war and taken to Washington, D.C., have been augmented by other records collected or copied in later years. In 1903, the War Department began to compile a service record for each soldier by copying the entries pertaining to him in these records. The result is an immense file of “compiled service records,” from which inquiries about Confederate soldiers are answered. Because of the efforts made over many years to incorporate all available information into this file, it is by far the most complete and accurate source of information about Confederate soldiers. This collection, held by the National Archives, is identified as the compiled military service records of Confederate officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men.
The compiled military service record of a Confederate soldier consists of one or more card abstracts and usually one or more original documents. Each card abstract entry comes from such original records as Confederate muster rolls, returns, descriptive rolls, and Union prison and parole records. If the original record of a soldier’s service was complete, the card abstracts may serve to trace his service from beginning to end, but they normally do little more than account for where he was at a given time. The compiled military service record may provide the following information of genealogical interest: age, place of enlistment, places served, place of discharge or death, and often, physical description.
To access the above described service records, locate the soldier’s entry in the CWSS at http://www.civilwar.nps.gov/cwss. The reference will provide the state from which the veteran served, his rank, and the regiment. This information may then be used to view the microfilmed records or to order the records from the National Archives. To order the records, use NATF Form 86, or order online at http://www.archives.gov. The Confederate soldier entries in the CWSS were drawn from the Consolidated Index to Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers.8 Copies of these 553 rolls are available at the National Archives and at the Family History Library as well as major repositories. The attached chart provides a state-by-state summary of the microfilm.
If no record can be located in the CWSS, there is another set of Confederate records: those which were never identified as pertaining to a specific soldier or were not used in compiling the service records when the government ceased that project. The Unfiled Papers and Slips Belonging to Confederate Compiled Service Records are contained on 442 rolls in alphabetical order.9
A comprehensive printed source is The Roster of Confederate Soldiers, 1861–1865, edited by Janet B. Hewett.10 See also Hewett’s Supplement to the Official Records.11
Confederate Deaths as Prisoners of War
Approximately 28,000 Confederate soldiers, sailors, and citizens died as prisoners in the North. While federal legislation from 1867 to 1873 provided for the reburial of Union soldiers in national cemeteries and for durable headstones, this early legislation made no specific provision for Confederate dead. Their graves were sometimes given thin headstones with a grave number and the soldier’s name. Other Confederate graves were marked with wooden headboards that disintegrated, although the names were often preserved in cemetery burial registers.
Finally, in 1912, a typescript register of Confederate soldiers and sailors buried in federal cemeteries was compiled in accordance with a 1906 statute, to provide for marking the graves of Confederate soldiers and sailors who died in Union prisons. The register has been microfilmed as Register of Confederate Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in Federal Prisons and Military Hospitals in the North, 1861–1865 and is now part of Record Group 92.12 Record Group 92 also includes some records of the Office of the Commissioner for Marking the Graves of Confederate Dead not reproduced on the microfilm: the commissioner’s incoming and outgoing correspondence and other burial registers, lists, and correspondence pertaining to particular cemeteries.
The War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, includes registers of deaths in Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War 1861–1865.13 Particularly useful is a two-volume series of registers of prisoner deaths compiled by the Office of the Commissary General of Prisoners (rolls five and six). The volumes are alphabetically arranged by name of deceased and show the name; rank; regiment; company; place and date of capture; place, date, and cause of death; and number and locality of grave for each individual. The information in these registers may be used to supplement the information on the Register of Confederate Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in Federal Prisons and Military Hospitals in the North, 1861–1865, but burial information is frequently unavailable or obsolete.14 Rolls ten through twelve are a five-volume series of registers of prisoner deaths compiled by the Surgeon General’s Office and arranged by the states in which the deceased served. They contain most of the information described previously.
State Confederate Records
The War Department Collection of Confederate Records is not complete, even though great efforts were made to assemble all official information. A soldier may have served in a state militia unit that was never mustered into the service of the Confederate government. Records of service in such units, if extant, may be in the state archive or in the custody of the state adjutant general. Since the federal government of the United States did not pay benefits to Confederates, pensions and other state benefits are recorded only in state records (see Confederate Pension Records, following). The Family History Library has the largest collection of microfilmed state Confederate records. The call numbers for ordering the microfilms through family history centers are most easily located in the catalogue.
Military Academy and Court Records
Two additional categories of Civil War–era records require mention: military academy records and Reconstruction court records. Many Confederate officers received their early training in Southern military academies. Others attended West Point and had to choose which side to support. For information on military academy records, consult Bvt. Major-General George W. Cullum’s Biographical Register, Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York; Stanley P. Tozeski’s Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. Military Academy; and Jon L. Wakelyn’s Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy.
Court records created during Reconstruction may also reveal personal information about those who served the Confederacy. The confiscation of land by the Reconstruction government led to lengthy and bitter court battles. And some of those who were prosperous businessmen or farmers before the Civil War found it necessary to file bankruptcy during the Reconstruction period. Although these records are seldom used by family historians, they can yield numerous details about Southern soldiers even though they are not technically military records. Bankruptcies and other court records are discussed in chapter 7, “Court Records.”
Modern Wars, 1898 to the Present
Service records for soldiers serving in the armed forces after the Civil War are not as readily available as for earlier conflicts because of lack of microfilming or, for World Wars I and II and later, privacy restrictions.
Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection
Most of the volunteers who fought in the Spanish-American War were from the states of Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One well-known regiment, however, was made up of volunteers throughout the country: the Rough Riders, men of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment who served in Cuba under Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. The compiled service records for 1,235 Rough Riders may be viewed online at the NARA website, http://www.archives.gov. An index and instructions for its use accompanies the records. Indexes to the compiled military service records for the rest of the volunteers in the 16,000 man army are listed in the attached chart.
The outbreak of hostilities in the Philippine Islands in February 1899 required volunteer forces to reinforce regular U.S. Army units and replace Spanish-American troops still serving there. These volunteer units raised for the Philippine insurrection bore “U.S. Volunteer” designations and not state designations. Therefore, volunteers who served in the Philippines in a regiment bearing a state designation will be found in the Spanish-American compiled service records, while those who served in regiments designated as “U.S. Volunteer” will appear in the Philippine Insurrection compiled service records. The Philippine Insurrection is the last conflict in which the War Department compiled military service records for volunteers.
The indexes to both collections are shown in the attached chart. There are no privacy restrictions on these records. NATF Form 86 should be used to order service records.
World War I to Present
Records for military personnel who served within the last seventy-five years are restricted to the veteran, requesters with release authorization signed by the veteran or, if the veteran is deceased, the next of kin. Many of the federal records in this category are housed at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). Records protected by privacy laws cannot be copied or viewed by the public, but some information contained in the records can be provided. Also, records can become available at a later date, as happened on June 11, 2005, when the Archival Programs Division at the NPRC opened the following holdings:
- Navy enlisted personnel files for individuals who were separated from the navy between 1885 and September 8, 1939.
- Marine Corps enlisted personnel files for individuals who served between 1906 and 1939.
- A selection of approximately one hundred and fifty records of prominent individuals (persons of exceptional prominence) who have been deceased ten years or more. NPRC will add to this initial transfer on a regular basis.
Written requests for the above listed records will be processed on Standard Form 180, the same as for other military records from the NPRC. The form and information about requests may be seen at http://www.vetrecs.archives.gov.
Documents issued to the veteran at time of discharge (or to his or her next of kin, in case of death) usually contain important genealogical information. The NPRC encourages contacting the veteran or next of kin to get this information, or to get written authorization from the veteran or the next-of-kin of a deceased veteran. However, under the Freedom of Information Act (amended 1974), NPRC will release some information without the veteran’s authorization, such as an individual’s dates of service, branch of service, military education, decorations and awards (eligibility), present and past duty assignments (including geographical location), To determine what other details are available and to learn the process for obtaining the information, check the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/foia-info.html.
On 12 July 1973, a fire at NPRC in St. Louis destroyed approximately 16–18 million records from Official Military Personnel Files. Eighty percent of the army records for personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960, and seventy-five percent of the air force records for personnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964 (having names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.), were destroyed. When NPRC receives a request for service and separation verification, they reconstruct a file using alternative sources of documents from state and federal agencies, particularly the Department of Veteran Affairs. There are no plans at this time to reconstruct the records of deceased personnel where no benefits are owed.
World Wars I and II Draft Registration
Certain draft records were not in the fire. World War I draft registration cards for approximately 24 million men have been microfilmed and are available for searching. The cards give the full name of the registrant, date and place of birth, race, citizenship status, occupation and employer, personal description, marital status, and the name and address of the nearest relative (see figure 11-3). They are filmed as World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards by state, county or city, draft board, and registrant except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island which are arranged by divisions and counties. The World War I draft records have also been indexed and digitized and may be searched and viewed at Ancestry.com.
A special category of World War II draft registration cards exists for males born between 18 April 1877 and 16 February 1897. These cards are identified as being from the “Fourth Registration.” The cards give the name of the registrant, his residence, address, telephone number, age, place and date of birth, and the name and contact information of a person who would always know his whereabouts. The cards are arranged alphabetically by state, thereunder alphabetically by name of registrant. Original records for some states are available for viewing at National Archives regions: NARA’s Northeast Region in New York City holds cards for New York City, the state of New Jersey, and Puerto Rico, and NARA’s Great Lakes Region in Chicago has cards for men who lived in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Nine hundred and ninety-eight registration cards for Ohio men have been digitized and are available for viewing at http://www.archives.gov/research/arc.
World War II Army Enlistment Records
This series of computerized data files contains records of approximately 9 million men and women who enlisted in the U.S. Army between 1938 and 1946, including the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Enlisted Reserve Corps. The series does not include records for army officers, members of other military services, or enlistments from other time periods. In general, the records contain the serial number, name, state and place of residence, place and date of enlistment, grade, place and year of birth, civilian occupation, and marital status. The Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File at http://aad.archives.gov/aad is not complete but covers a majority of the army enlistments. Other World War II electronic records are being added to this site on a regular basis.
Regular U.S. Army Enlistments
If a search of the relevant index or indexes does not reveal a service record for an individual, remember that there was another capacity other than that of volunteer or draftee. The veteran could have served in the regular U.S. Army. The registers of enlistments for the period 1798 to 1914, except those for hospital stewards, quartermaster sergeants, and ordnance sergeants, have been microfilmed as Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798–1914. Prior to 1821, the records of officers are included as well. The records are arranged in subcategories of time blocks.
- George W. Cullum, Biographical Register, Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1891); Stanley P. Tozeski, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. Military Academy (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1976); and Jon L. Wakelyn. Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).
- See Mitchell Yockelson, "'I Am Entitled to the Medal of Honor and I Want It' Theodore Roosevelt and His Quest for Glory," Prologue 30 (Spring 1998), reprinted at www.archives.gov/publications/prologue.
- Trevor K. Plante, "Researching Service in the U.S. Army During the Phillipines Insurrection," Prologue 32 (Summer 2000), reprinted at www.archives.gov/publications/prologue.
- The National Personnel Records Center is located at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100.
- For more information on how to reconstruct information lost in this fire, visit the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration website at www.archives.gov/st-louis.
- World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, NARA microfilm M1509.
- Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914, NARA microfilm M233. Available to subscribers at Ancestry.com.