Military Records in the National Archives
This handout is an overview of a subject that requires many volumes to cover, many of them
not yet written. Military records containing genealogical information are found in many of the
record groups at the National Archives. The goal of this lecture is to give students an idea of what
information may be found in military records, what records may exist, and how to approach them. For
an overview from the National Archives' perspective, please read
"An Overview of Records at the National Archives Relating to Military Service."
[Information update:] This page was first posted in 1999, a very long time ago in Internet years. Providing a list of all online American military resources is now impractical, but
there are presently three major online collections that one should examine periodically:
- Ancestry's military collection can be searched in several ways. This is a link to
the Card Catalog filtered for military records.
- FamilySearch, a free website, has an amazing military records collection.
Note that some of these records are browse only images and some link to images on subscription sites.
- Fold3 focuses on American military records. It is a subscription site, but offers free content, as well, notably its growing collection of War of 1812 pension application files.
When dealing with any material found in the National Archives, ask yourself, "In what way did
my ancestor interact with the Federal Government?" This will give you the necessary clues as to what
records may exist. For wartime military service, the following is a timeline of record creation.
- Draft registration
- Conscription or voluntary enlistment
- Service records:
- Muster rolls
- Pay rolls
- Company records
- Medical records
- Courts martial
- Prisoner of war records
- Pension and other veterans records
For peace time and regular army service, a timeline of record creation might be:
- Fort records
- Courts martial
- Medical records
- Marriages, births, deaths, burials
- Muster rolls
- Pay rolls
- Pension and other veterans records
Remember that the records in any archive are stored by the creating body. Therefore, records
dealing with a topic as broad as the Revolutionary War, for example, will be found in many different
record groups. An abbreviated list of National Archives record groups containing records of
genealogical interest relative to the Revolutionary War would include:
- RG 15: Records of the Veterans Administration
- RG 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library
- RG 53: Records of the Bureau of the Public Debt
- RG 59: General Records of the Department of State
- RG 93: War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records.
- RG 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's - 1917
- RG 217: Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury
- RG 360: Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the
Constitutional Convention. These records are now available on the subscription site Fold3.
To get an idea of the record groups in which you might find information, try searching the
Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. If you are not familiar with the search
possibilities on the National Archives web site, click on the red question mark and try the exercise.
When searching military records, it is very important to search for all family members. Your
ancestor may not have served in the military, but he may have signed an affidavit or be mentioned in a
record which is found in a relative's pension file. These records may contain a wealth of information
about an entire family, not just the soldier.
Conflict Implies at Least Two Sides
Although this discussion focuses on U.S. soldiers, your ancestor may have served in another country's
military. The records created by his or her service will be similar to those created in this country. You
will need to explore the relevant country's web sites, genealogy how-to's, online record indexes and
images, and records microfilmed by the Family History Library.
The American Civil War is a specialized conflict. The Confederacy no longer exists, so where do you find
your Confederate ancestor's records? Some of the sources will be found in the following lists, but you
can read a brief discussion of the records, and a few tips, on my page, "Confederate Records."
My Preliminary Search Strategy
Because pension and bounty land warrant applications contain the greatest amount of
genealogical information, I begin my search in the indexes to these records. I search first for an
ancestor and male siblings of an age to have served in a given war. If spouses of sisters are known, I
also search for them. With the exception of the Revolutionary War period and a small group of Civil
War records, pensions are textual records and must be requested from the main branch of the National
Archives. When viewing these records at the National Archives, what you receive are the actual files,
not microfilm copies. Handle them carefully. Study all pages in a file, carefully noting all names,
including witnesses, and all places. If you order a pension record from the National Archives, order
the complete file. When questions arise about the family as your
research progresses, you will have the papers for reference. Contents of a pension file vary widely,
but all include proof of service. In addition, you may find information on marriage,
children, parents, siblings, residences, and death.
If a pension is not found, search the indexes to the compiled military service records (CMSR)
for the appropriate war. If your ancestor and/or siblings are found, order the service records (some may
be microfilmed). Although these records do not give as much genealogical information, they may
include enlistment papers and discharge papers, as well as hospital records or company records of
interest. You may find such information as description, occupation, age, and place of birth. If a soldier
died in the service, you will find date, place and cause of death, and may find name and address of next
of kin. Even if a pension is found, you should also request the corresponding service records. You
may find additional information in them.
For wars that predate the Civil War, if a service record is found, but no pension is found, search for
bounty land warrant applications. Most of the Revolutionary War bounty land applications are interfiled on
M804 with the pension applications. Most of the remainder are grouped under the "Unindexed" Bounty
Land Warrant Application Files. These latter records are requested by name of soldier, company, captain and war.
The contents of these files are similar to pension files. They will include proof of service, residence, and may
include marriage, children, and death information. Because the first pension for service act for the War of 1812
was passed in 1871, there are relatively few pensions issued for this war. The bounty land warrant
applications are correspondingly more important.
If you find a service record for an ancestor, it is also useful to search for pension applications of
soldiers from the same company. For Union soldiers, there is a pension index organized by regiment,
then company, then soldier's name (T289). You may find relatives or neighbors in this index. Their
pension applications may include information on your ancestor. For other wars, search unit histories or
muster rolls for names of fellow soldiers. Correlating these names with the census records of your ancestor
will tell you which of the soldiers are possible neighbors and relatives.
Information on pensioners from the Revolutionary War period may also be found in the Final
Payment of Pension Files, part of Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of
the Department of the Treasury. These records are organized first by state and then alphabetically
by the name of the soldier or his widow. They are textual records and must be ordered through the
military archivist in Room 410. These requests are processed Monday through Friday only.
There is an article on NARA's Civil War Records site called
"Compiling a Soldier's History."
Read this for more ideas on military records search strategies.
If nothing is found in any of these records, don't give up. The National Archives has many more
records which may show military service. In addition, there are records created on the state level which
are usually held in the state archives.
Records of Military Service
Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During
the Revolutionary War (RG 93). Index, M860. (images available, Fold3) Note that there are additional indexes for volunteers from Connecticut,
Georgia, and North Carolina.
Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel and Members of the Departments of
the Quartermaster General and the Commissary General of Military Stores Who Served During the
Revolutionary War (RG 93). Index, M879. (browse only images available, Ancestry)
- M246: Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 (images available, Fold3)
Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served from 1784 to 1811. Index, M694.
Index to Compiled Service Records of Individuals, War of 1812. With a growing number of exceptions, actual records are not on microfilm.
Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served during Indian Wars and Disturbances.
NOTE the Indexes to Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteers are arranged by name of war or disturbance.
Search these in addition to M629.
- M616: Index to Compiled
Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the Mexican War. Some compiled service records have been microfilmed.
- The Index to Compiled Military Service Records, Civil War, are arranged by state. Some of the compiled service records have been microfilmed.
Consolidated Index to the Compiled Military Service Records of Confederate Soldiers. Note that these service records have
General Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the
War with Spain, 1898-1901. There are additional indexes arranged by state. Only Florida
service records have been microfilmed.
Index to Compiled Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the Philippine Insurrection, 1899-1902.
No service records on microfilm.
- M233: Registers
of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914 (arranged chronologically by year, then first
letter of surname, then month and date) (images available, Ancestry)
- RG 94, Entry 91:
Enlistment Papers of the Regular Army, 1798-1912 (textual)
- T1118: Muster Rolls of the U.S. Marine Corps, 1798-1902
- T977: Muster Rolls of Officers and Enlisted Men of the U.S. Marine Corps, 1893-1940
T1118 and T977 have been digitized and indexed by Ancestry.com as U.S.
Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1940
- With some access limitations, military personnel records from World War I on are available through the
National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. See "Military Records Holdings at the
National Personnel Records Center" for information on these records and "
How to Request Military Service Records or Prove Military Service" for information on obtaining them. You should
note that about 80% of the personnel records from World War I and World War II were destroyed in a
fire at the National Personnel Records Center. Click
here to read more about this fire, the destroyed records, and the effort to find substitute records.
- As of 22 October 2007, the Official Military Personnel Files
of all military personnel who served and were discharged, retired or died while in the service, prior to 1946, were opened to the public
by the National Personnel Records Center. Note that copy fees are waived for the veteran or primary next of kin.
- Published records and records held in the states may substitute for missing World War I personnel records. Visit my
page, "Recreating a World War I Soldier's Service."
An earlier version of NARA's website included an online publication of its Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of NARA
Microfilm Publications. That option is no longer available, so I have no easy way to to link the
student from this page to NARA's wonderful background information on the relevant history and the creation of these military records.
Instead, you must browse or search the microfilm collection from NARA's
"Order Reproductions" page. There's good news, however. Once you find the microfilm of interest, NARA's corresponding
descriptive pamphlet is available for downloading in PDF format. A sidebar shows what NARA regional branches hold copies of
each microfilm publication. You must become familiar with this area of the NARA website!
The question mark on the left will take you to this week's online homework assignment.
Pensions and Bounty Lands
Whereas, in the course of the present war, some commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the army and navy, as also
private soldiers, marines, and seamen, may lose a limb, or be otherwise so disabled as to prevent their serving in the army or
navy, or getting their livelihood, and may stand in need of relief:
Resolved , That every commissioned officer, non-commissioned officer, and private soldier, who shall lose a limb in any
engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable afterwards of getting a
livelihood, shall receive, during his life, or the continuance of such disability, the one half of his monthly pay from and after the
time that his pay as an officer or soldier ceases; to be paid by the committee as hereafter mentioned...
The above quote comes from a resolution of the Continental Congress dated August 26, 1776. This marks the beginning of the American pension
system. These early pensions were administered by the states. Administration was transferred to the federal government in
1789. Evidence of early service may be found in payrolls, muster rolls, petitions, etc. in the Papers of the
Continental Congress, M247 and M332.
There are several types of pensions:
- Disability or invalid pensions
- Pensions for service
- Pensions for widows or other dependents
NOTE that most early Revolutionary War records were burned in fires of 1800 or 1814
in the War Department building.
Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900
(RG 15). Arranged alphabetically. (images available, Fold3) See also M805: Selected Papers. M805 is
available online through HeritageQuest's "Search Revolutionary War". You can access
these records through the
Pleasanton Library's website by clicking on "Heritage Quest at Home" and entering your
library card barcode number.
- Nine states granted their soldiers bounty land for Revolutionary War service. An index to those
records can be found in Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants, by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck (Baltimore:
Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998). This book is available at the Pleasanton Library or through
Virginia Half Pay and Other Related Revolutionary War Application Files
Ledgers of Payments, 1818-1872, to U.S. Pensioners Under Acts of 1818 Through 1858,
from the Records of the Third Auditor of the Treasury (RG 217) (images available, Ancestry.com,
U.S. Pensioners, 1818-1872).
- Final Payment of Pension Files (
RG 217). With the exception of Georgia files, microfilmed as M1745 and M1746, these
files are textual records. Request by name of pensioner and state. Don't forget to search also under widow's name.
Images of the card index are available on Fold3.
- The bulk of the bounty land warrant application files are interfiled in M804.
Note also M829:
U.S. Revolutionary War Bounty Land Warrants Used in the U.S. Military
District of Ohio and Related Papers (RG 49). Also, warrants surrendered for scrip
in response to various scrip acts (1830, 1842, 1852) have not been microfilmed. They are part
of RG 49 and are requested by application number. Consult an archivist to obtain these
numbers, or order online.
Index to War of 1812 Pension Application Files. Actual pensions are not on microfilm, but they are being digitized by Fold3. Viewing the images in this collection is
free, thanks to funding by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Check out the images available.
This index is available through Ancestry.com as War of 1812 Pension
Application Files Index, 1812-1815.
War of 1812 Military Bounty Land Warrants, 1815-1858 (under acts of 1811, 1812
- "Unindexed" Bounty Land Application Files are arranged alphabetically and have not been microfilmed.
On location at Archives I, request with name of soldier, company and regiment - information obtained from the
Compiled Military Service Records [CMSR]. Order online with name of soldier, war, branch of service,
- T318: Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892-1926.
- T317: Index to Mexican War Pension Files, 1887-1926.
- T316: "Old War" Index to Pension Files, 1815-1926.
- T288: General Pension Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (RG 15). (images available,
Ancestry.com). If the file was active after 1934,
the pension is still held by the Veterans Administration.
- T289: Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 & 1900
(images available, Fold3)
NOTE that Confederate pensions were issued by the respective states, not the federal government.
Search for them in the respective state archives. For further information, see NARA's Confederate Pension Records Research Guide.
- M850: Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933.
Military Draft Records
The federal draft system was created by an act of Congress March 3, 1863. Men aged 25-40
had to register. Males aged 20-35 and unmarried males aged 35-45 had to serve unless physically
disabled. Males aged 17-20 could serve only with permission of a parent. Both the consolidated lists
and the descriptive rolls are part of RG 110
and have not been microfilmed. Records are arranged by state and thereunder by congressional or enrollment
district. Consolidated lists give name, place of residence, age as of 1 July 1862, occupation, marital
status, state or country of birth, and military organization if a volunteer.
Three draft registrations were held during World War I: June 5, 1917, for all men aged 21 to 31;
June 5, 1918, for all those reaching age 21 after the first registration; and September 12, 1918, for
all men aged 18 through 45. These records are filed by the Selective Service Board of Registration and
are housed at the Federal Archives and Records Center, East Point, Georgia. They have been
microfilmed as M1509 and can now be found at the Archives I and NARA's regional branches. Maps showing local draft
board boundaries in large cities are located on Roll 107, M1547. Many of them are almost
illegible, so if you plan to use these maps, be prepared. These registration cards have been indexed and digital images can
be viewed at the Ancestry.com subscription site.
Note that these records do not include men already serving in the military, nor do they include any information on military service after registration.
The World War II Fourth Registration, the old man's registration, was conducted April 27, 1942, and
registered men born between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897. The original cards are held by each state's
regional archives branch. Microfilm copies for twenty-four states are available through the
Family History Library. To see
if your state is available, perform a subject search on draft registration. Although only
eleven states appear on NARA's online microfilm publications search, it's probable that additional
states' records are available. Ancestry.com
has indexes and digitized images available for sixteen states and Puerto Rico, and incomplete holdings for an additional five states.
Like the World War I draft registration cards, these records do not include men already serving in the
Other Military Records
- RG 92, Office of the Quartermaster General. Cemeterial Files. Application for headstones.
These are filed by state, then county, then cemetery and may refer to soldiers from any war fought in this country.
Within this record group you should look at Records of the
Memorial Division, 1828-1970 and Records of Graves Registration Organizations, 1917-1954.
Also look at M1845, Card Records of Headstones
Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903, images available on
- M847: Special Index to Numbered Records - War Department Collection of Revolutionary War
Records, 1775-1783 (RG 93)
- M1747: Index to Records Relating to War of 1812 Prisoners of War
- M1749: Historical Registers of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938
(RG 15), available on Ancestry.com as "
U.S. National Homes for Disabled Soldiers, 1866-1938."
- World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing Army and Army Air Forces Personnel. Click on "Search within this Series" to
locate volume images from a particular state.
- State Summary of War Casualties from World War II for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Personnel
- World War II Army Enlistment Records, Electronic Army Serial Number
Merged File, ca. 1938 - 1946, available through the National Archives'
Access to Archival Databases (AAD)
Remember, these pages are designed to get you started, not provide a comprehensive study of military
records. Even limiting the subject to those records held by the National Archives leaves such an extensive
body of material that I feel a brief summary of quick reference material is important. For more detailed
information on any of these records, please refer to various NARA publications or other reference works.
National Archives Website Areas of Particular Interest: Become Familiar With Them!
Subscription Sites Holding Important Digital Images of Military Records
- Things move quickly in this Internet age, so keep up-to-date on the progress of the
digitization of National Archives records.
There are really too many important military databases on this site to list. Check this catalog listing.
Like Ancestry.com, this site now has too many important military records to list them all here. Browse
the site for titles in addition to those in these featured collections.
- Heritage Quest [Access via the
Pleasanton Library (or your local library)]
- M805: Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900:
For further information on military records research, visit these sites:
These web sites contain searchable databases.
Also visit these sites:
- The Military History Institute's Army Heritage Collection Online
I don't consider this an easy site to navigate, but the Institute's holdings are impressive.
- The Library of Virginia's Digital Library Project: Guide to Military
- The American Civil War Research Database (Subscription site)
Some of the material on this website can be accessed through Ancestry.com as
U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865.
- The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, a growing site
developed by the National Park Service
- Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War National Graves Registration Database
- The American Battle Monuments Commission, a site that includes lists of about
one third of the World War I, World War II, and Korean War deaths.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nationwide Gravesite Locator
- National World War II Memorial
- The United States Navy Memorial has a listing of more than
600,000 Sea Service individuals in "The Navy Log."
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Page
- The Medal of Honor Citations
- Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress focuses on soldiers of
World War I and later. Some of the entries include photographs and audio interviews. This project may be replicated
on the local level. To find these local collections, Google "Veterans History Project" and search for your
location of interest.
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at