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:
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.
For peace time and regular army service, a timeline of record creation might be:
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:
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
NOTE that most early Revolutionary War records were burned in fires of 1800 or 1814 in the War Department building.
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.
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!
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