The military history of the United States dates back more than 300 years, if you include colonial times. Almost all of those conflicts were with the British, the French, the Spanish, or the Native Americans.
The main exception was, of course, the Civil War. With each new conflict, American soldiers became better fighters, thanks to both training and technology. They started out using primarily hunting and wilderness survival tools. However, by World War II they were using sophisticated weaponry, aircraft, ships, and submarines.
It’s clear that military records can be useful for tracking ancestors who were in the military. However, they can also be useful for finding information about ancestors who were not in the military at all.
That’s because military records for close relatives, such as fathers, sons, or brothers, can lead to information about the ancestor in question. Not only that, but military records may list wives, widows, and children of the person who served, which can allow the researcher to pinpoint multiple family members and their relationships to each other.
Some military records are also useful purely for their historic value, since they may describe specific military battles, locations, or procedures. So, they should never be overlooked by researchers.
There are at least some records still available from every war involving the United States or the colonies. However, many records are damaged or missing. Also, the records were not always recorded in a uniform way.
Tips for General Military Records
Pension records and other military records are rich in genealogical information. In fact, they are some of the most sought after research materials. They can include things like names, addresses, birthplaces, and family relationships. One good place to contact to find such records is the library of Congress.
Researchers should note that local military records were recorded, as well as state and federal records. Therefore, there may be multiple records available for the same person. Records exist for all time periods, whether wars were going on or not. Those records can help researchers to understand the lives of the people who served or were relatives of those who served.
Nearly every family in the United States has had one or more family members serve in the military. Pension files, service files, and regimental histories are full of details about military actions and the members who participated in those actions.
Luckily, many of those records have been preserved, copied, and published over they years. So, they are available in various repositories across the country. Many of them can even be researched online.
If you want to find information about a person who served in the military, you really should know their name, when they served, the branch in which they served and, if possible, their rank. You should also be aware that enlisted records and officer records are often kept separately.
The more information you have about the service member of interest, the better. Luckily, you may have an advantage when it comes to those who served in the military. Often, military family members are revered as heroes. Pictures, letters, and stories about them are often passed from one family member to the next. Although, some details can get a bit hazy with the passage of time. Nevertheless, the more information you can learn from the person’s family and their personal documents, the easier your search of military records will be.
There are many places where you can look for information about members of the military. Personal journals and letters are wonderful sources of information. Medals can also tell you a lot about when a person served, what their rank was, and what sorts of honors and achievements they received while serving. Swords, photographs, newspapers, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia can also give you valuable information about a person.
Creating a Time Line
One of the best ways to pinpoint a person’s military service is to create a time line of their life. For example, if you know that a person was born after a certain war ended, clearly they did not serve in that war. Also, if you know where a person was living at a given point in time, you can determine where they might have spent their military time. When creating a time line of events, consider the minimum and maximum age requirements for military service at that time. In the case of the Civil War, a person’s residence can also help you to determine whether they may have served on the Union or Confederate side. So learning a person’s place (or places) of residence is a vital part of researching their military history.
Searching Hometown Records
If you are trying to find records about those who served in the military, you should search files in their home towns. Local military members are often honored in newspaper articles. Some of them may even have monuments constructed in their honor in their home towns.
Many groups have published military histories over the years. Many times those publications discuss the general military presence in the local area throughout the years. However, they also often mention specific members of the military who served. Approximately 5,000 county military histories from across the country are listed in P. William Filby’s A Bibliography of American County Histories. Other histories can be found in almost every United States county and most of the cities and towns in the country.
Local historical societies and public libraries may also have amassed their own collections of local documents, which can provide a historical look at the area’s military veterans. Many of those documents are personal journals, letters, or transcripts, which can help the researcher to go back in time and get a more complete image of military life during the era of interest.
Military Graves and Cemeteries
Nearly every cemetery in the country is home to one or more military graves. The information on those graves, such as rank and date of service, can be quite useful to researchers. Cemetery records may also list where a person died and whether or not their body was transported home from overseas. That information can further pinpoint where they might have served.
Court Records Mentioning Members of the Military
Most counties carefully recorded military discharges in court records. Some kept them separated and indexed, while others included them in with naturalizations, deeds, and other documents. Some of those records included just the names of those who served from a given area at a given time, but others may contain more biographical information.
Military Records in Major Archives
The National Archives and Records Administration holds all federal military documents that are considered to be “archival.” However, not all military records are handed over to the archives. Only those that have administrative or historical value can be found in that collection.
Many other major archives and libraries have microfilmed federal military records available, thanks in large part programs that allow microfilms to be rented. A list of those microfilms that are available through rental can be found in Heritage Quest, a division of AGLL, Inc., PO Box 329, Bountiful, UT 84011-0329. In order to request information from military service records or enlistment registers, you must provide the following information:
- The Full Name of the Soldier
- The Time (or War) During Which They Served
- The State in Which They Served
- If Civil War, the Side on Which They Served (Union or Confederacy)
Researchers should also be aware that separate forms must be filed requesting information from the bounty-land, pension, and military service files. One form cannot be used for all three. NATF form 80 (Order for Copies of Veterans Records) can be used to request information about military members who served prior to World War I. In order to get that form, researchers should send requests to National Archives and Records Administration, General Reference Branch, Washington, DC 20408.
Inquiries about army officers who stopped serving after 1912 should be sent to Military Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132 using standard form 180 (Request Pertaining to Military Records).
Military Record Accessibility
If you want to research military records, you must first learn which records are available and how to access them. U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present by James C. Neagles is an excellent resource. It can provide information about the following types of military records and where to find them:
- Records of State Militias and the National Guard
- Records of the Army, Navy, and Other Branches of the U.S. Military
- Records of the Military Academies
- Post-Service Records
- Bounty-Land Grants
- Bonuses and Family Assistance
- Soldier’s Homes
- Military Burials
- Military Installations
- Censuses of Veterans
- Civilian Affairs