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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:

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Prologue article on "Civil War Court Martial Records"

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
  • Discharge
  • Pension and other veterans records
  • Burial

For peace time and regular army service, a timeline of record creation might be:

  • Enlistment
  • Fort records
    • Courts martial
    • Medical records
    • Marriages, births, deaths, burials
  • Muster rolls
  • Pay rolls
  • Discharge
  • Pension and other veterans records
  • Burial

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:

NARA Search Exercise

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

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War of 1812 Genealogical Records

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Military Resources: Blacks in the Military

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"The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War"

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"Civil War Records: An Introduction and Invitation"

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"Women Soldiers of the Civil War"

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Researching Military Men in the Spanish-American War

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World War I Service

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World War II Army Enlistment Records File

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Korean and Vietnam Conflict Casualties
  • M881: 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.
  • M880: 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)
  • M905: Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served from 1784 to 1811. Index, M694.
  • M602: Index to Compiled Service Records of Individuals, War of 1812. With a growing number of exceptions, actual records are not on microfilm.
  • M629: 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.
  • M253: Consolidated Index to the Compiled Military Service Records of Confederate Soldiers. Note that these service records have been microfilmed.
  • M871: 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.
  • M872: 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."
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NARA Microfilm Publications Exercise

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

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Journals of the Continental Congress

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.

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Search NARA's Microfilm Publications
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.

  • M804: 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 Ancestry.com.
  • M910: Virginia Half Pay and Other Related Revolutionary War Application Files
  • T718: 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.
  • M313: 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.
  • M848: War of 1812 Military Bounty Land Warrants, 1815-1858 (under acts of 1811, 1812 and 1814)
  • "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, and state.
  • 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

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"The New York City Draft Riots of 1863"

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 military.

Other Military Records

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"Honoring Our War Dead"

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
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For further information on military records research, visit these sites:
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These web sites contain searchable databases. Also visit these sites:




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