Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub


Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub


Ancestry® Family History
Learning Hub

U.S. Military Records

Some war stories get passed down through generations, others may never have been shared, and still more are likely to have been lost over time. But by exploring your ancestor’s service through old military records, you can start to piece together—or expand upon—their stories.

For instance, you might learn how your grandfather got wounded in the Korean War, how your great-grandfather got that scar that shows up in old family photos, or that your Civil War ancestor was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg.

What Information Can Historical Military Records Provide?

Each type of U.S. military record can illustrate different aspects of your family member’s military experience. You may find stories of heroics that some people were too modest to pass on to their descendants. But you might discover a traumatic experience through prisoner-of-war records, which could explain gaps in your family's history and why your ancestor didn’t want to talk about their time during the war. Or you could learn that your ancestor’s time in a military hospital—in a location far from home—suggests how your great-grandparents may have met.

Here’s the information you’ll typically find in U.S. military records:

  • Enlistment and muster information: These show dates when a person first joined (or left) the military and may provide facts about where and when they did basic training. You could also learn that an enlistment date occurred shortly after your relative got married—just days before they headed overseas or into combat.
  • Branch of service and unit: Was your relative a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard? You can get a greater understanding of what type of service or combat your relatives might have experienced by knowing where they were stationed and what battles they participated in, if they served during a conflict period.
  • Military ID number: This is the key to tracking down further information about your specific relatives and ancestors because every military member has a unique ID that should be on all their records. If you’re looking for someone who has a common name, like John Smith, that ID number can help you make sure you’re looking at the right person.
  • Next-of-kin or emergency contact information: Leverage this information to discover the relationships between your relatives from the past. Perhaps you'll learn that an ancestor listed his married sister as his next-of-kin, suggesting that they had a close bond.
  • Descriptions of physical characteristics: Draft cards for World War I and World War II typically include this information. Learning that your relative had, for instance, a scar on his cheek may help you identify someone in an old family photo. Seeing a description of height and weight in old military records can help you understand why some members of your family are so tall or that gray eyes run in the family.
  • Notations about injuries: Some records can contain a summary of hospital stays. You may be able to trace when your ancestor was injured or disabled in the line of duty, answering questions you might have had for years. Descriptions about war injuries can also be found in notes about why someone was awarded a medal for exceptional bravery, for example, as that act of bravery could have resulted in severe wounds.

Are Military Records Public?

United States military records become public 62 years after a member of the military leaves the service. For example, say your great-great-uncle was a member of the U.S. Navy who was discharged in 1945 at the end of World War II. His military records became accessible to the public in 2007. This time restriction can also explain why public records can be scarce for those who started a military career during the Korean War or those who served during the Vietnam War.

Loss of Military Personnel Records

Unfortunately, not all historical military records have survived. One major loss occurred in 1973 when a fire wiped out about 18 million military records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

There is no complete list of which records were lost during this devastating fire, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that two branches experienced the greatest loss of records: the Army and the Air Force. Your search for historical military records could be more challenging if you’re looking for records about Army veterans (discharged between 1912 and 1960) and Air Force veterans (discharged between 1947 and 1964). Not all records for these branches were destroyed, but it’s estimated that at least 75% were lost.

Making History Personal Through Military Records

Diving into military personnel records from times of conflict opens doors to understanding your ancestor’s role in major historical events. And it’s not just about one of your family member’s war experiences, as that service likely impacted others in the immediate family. For example, during the U.S. Civil War, did multiple brothers serve? And did they serve on the same side? And might a wife or mother have needed to take on extra responsibilities while her spouse was away?

The records on Ancestry span the time period for these specific conflicts:

  • Revolutionary War: For this pivotal event in U.S. history, you can explore multiple collections that encompass all 13 colonies. In addition to war records, you'll find pension and bounty-land applications to add to your knowledge, as well as the lineage books of the Daughters of the American Revolution and records of the Sons of the American Revolution.
  • War of 1812: Records related to those who served in the War of 1812 range from pension records that can show where your ancestors settled after the war to biographical sketches and correspondence. You'll also find muster rolls, cemetery lists, and lists of volunteers to fill out your historical research.
  • Mexican-American War: Records for this conflict often overlap with those from the Black Hawk War and the War of the Rebellion in Nebraska. From these records, you can find out whether your ancestor was wounded and hospitalized, and you may even discover personal papers among the war records.
  • Civil War: No matter which side your ancestor fought on during the war, you'll have a wealth of data to explore. These Ancestry® collections include more than 18 million names, including more than 1 million records for the U.S. Colored Troops. Dig through soldier profiles, pension and POW records, and post records for the Grand Army of the Republic.
  • Spanish-American War: Records pertaining to this conflict include letters from soldiers to their loved ones at home, as well as military ID cards, lists of volunteers and cadets, and histories of specific military units. This was the first overseas U.S. war in which all-Black units played a significant role, so you might learn about your ancestors’ by reading up on the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • World War I: This collection contains online records of more than 24 million draft cards from the period, commemorating the first nationwide military draft. You can expand your search beyond the service members in your family by exploring the Mother's Pilgrimage database that honors Gold Star Mothers and women who visited their loved ones' graves in Europe.
  • World War II: These records may complement family history stories you’ve heard from grandparents and great-grandparents. On Ancestry, you can search through enlistment records, draft cards, images of gravestones and memorials, images from the Stars and Stripes newspapers, and even newsreels from the period. You can also dive into specifics, such as what Pearl Harbor meant for your family.
  • Korean War: Ancestry lets you explore records from military cemeteries from all over the country, along with military service cards, naturalization records, muster rolls, hospitalization records, and veterans' questionnaires, all of which can help you fill in the gaps in your relatives' war stories.
  • Vietnam War: Records for this conflict include military cemetery records in addition to Navy cruise books, muster rolls, casualty records, and lists of awards and decorations. Keep in mind that information for this period is more limited because some records may not yet be publicly available.

What Military Records Can I Search for at Ancestry?

Military records on Ancestry are generally grouped by type rather than conflict, so it’s worth exploring different categories to see what you’ll find. Across categories, you can find records starting from the 1790s. For instance, you may find news items, photos, or military histories that relate to a specific unit or battle.

The main military personnel record categories you can search on Ancestry include:

  • Draft, enlistment and service: Birth information, physical descriptions, residence, enlistment and discharge dates, rank achieved, and more. The draft card and draft registration card collections for World War II alone contain more than 68 million items.
  • Soldier, veteran and prisoner rolls and lists: This rich group contains an incredibly wide range of information. You’ll find muster rolls, hospital admissions, prisoner of war information ( including release and exchange) as well as passenger lists from the U.S. Army Transport Service for World War I.
  • Casualties: This category covers POW/MIA information through 1975, hospital admissions files for the WWII and Korean War period, and lists of headstones for U.S. military cemeteries on foreign soil as well as national cemeteries located in the United States.
  • Awards and decorations: Records in this collection can provide further details about why someone was awarded a specific medal or honor. You may learn new information about particular acts of bravery.
  • Pension records: These can be a treasure trove of genealogical information. They typically include the names of spouses and children, along with depositions from family members.

Pro tip: Due to the overall volume of military personnel record collections on Ancestry, you may want to use filters to focus on specific dates or states. Adding a keyword to your search can also help you hone in on specific conflicts or branches of the military.

Discover Your Family’s Role in Historical Events

When you dive into the Ancestry military record collections, you can gain new insights into your family history about an individual's involvement in serving their country. But even more, you can learn how your family history connects to pivotal events in U.S. history.

Start by exploring your ancestors' military records on Ancestry. You may then want to explore further on Fold3®, the Ancestry military-centric platform.



“The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed May 18, 2023.

“Reconstruct military records destroyed in NPRC fire.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed May 18, 2023.

“Veterans' Service Records.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed May 18, 2023.

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