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Military Records for Genealogy Research: Types of Military Records

OVERVIEW

New York Service Records, Spanish American WarThe types and availability of military records vary by conflict, but generally fall into the following categories:

  • Military Service Records
  • Military Pension Records
  • Bounty Land Grants
  • Unit or Regimental Histories

Service records should be available for all or most individuals who served in the military, but not every serviceman became eligible, or applied for, a military pension or bounty land grant.

Understanding the distinctions between these record sets will increase your chances of finding relevant records. A general overview is provided below; for specific information about the records available for a given conflict, see the adjoining tabs.

ORGANIZATION OF THE U.S. MILITARY

Before delving into the types of military records, it's useful to have a basic understanding of military organization. 

1. Militia and National Guard

Local militia units, now known collectively as the National Guard, are the oldest military organizations in America. Militia units were organized as early as 1636, to protect colonial towns and counties, and continued to exist until 1903, when legislation transformed these locally operated organizations into the federal National Guard. Although operating under federal authority and control, each state maintains its own National Guard that is subject to the orders of the state governor. For that reason, National Guard units are often called upon to assist in controlling riots and other domestic disturbances or to offer other emergency aid.

Records of militia may be held at the state's National Guard headquarters or (for older records), in state archives or historical societies.

2. Federal Military

The U.S. Military is organized into the following branches:

  • Army -- the first national army (known as the Continental Army) was formed in 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution.
  • Navy -- the Continental Navy, formed in October, 1775, operated throughout the Revolutionary War, and the U.S. Navy was created in 1794
  • Marine Corps -- although closely related to the Navy, the Marine Corps was initially created in 1798 as a semi-autonomous unit. In 1834, it was placed within the Navy Department, where it remained until 1952 when it was again recognized as a separate service.
  • Merchant Marines -- seamen on private vessels have, voluntarily and involuntarily, been involved with wartime activities, and there are some records documenting this type of service, including "seamen's protection certificates," crew lists, hiring lists, etc.

Although volunteer servicemen and draftees were generally attached to the U.S. Army, the service records of volunteer soldiers and officers are maintained separately from those serving in the regular Army. Pension records may or may not be segregated. Details are available on the tabs relating to specific conflicts.

Types of Military Records

ONLINE GUIDES

PRINT GUIDES AT NYPL

FEDERAL MILITARY SERVICE RECORDS

1. Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR'S)

It wasn't until well into the 20th century that the military began keeping a personnel file for every service person. Prior to this, military service was recorded only on collective lists, such as muster rolls, payrolls, and various types of rosters. This meant that the only way for officials and other researchers to find information about an individual soldier was to comb through these various records, filed across different departments and divisions. It became apparent that a more centralized system was needed, one that would enable rapid and efficient checking of military and medical records in connection with claims for pensions and other veterans' benefits. To address this issue, in the 1890's a project was initiated to compile the information scattered across many disparate sources into individual records of service. These Compiled Military Service Records (often abbreviated as CMSR or CSR) were created for volunteer soldiers and officers serving in all conflicts prior to WWI. For the Revolutionary War, CMSRs were created for the Continental Army and many Revolutionary War-era state units; for post-Revolutionary War conflicts, CMSR's were created only for volunteer forces, not for officers and enlisted personnel of the Regular Army.

A CMSR is an envelope (called a jacket) containing a set of cards that record information about an individual’s military service. The jacket lists the soldier’s name, rank, military unit and a series of card numbers. They are called "compiled" because the information on them was transcribed by government employees, who went through old military records (including payrolls, muster rolls, regimental returns, descriptive books, and hospital rolls) and copied the information onto cards (one card per original record) so it would be available in a single file. The abstracts were so carefully prepared that it is rarely necessary to consult the original muster rolls and other records from which they were made. In some cases, CMSR's also include personal papers, such as letters. 

The amount of information contained in a CMSR will depend on the surviving records of an individual soldier or his unit. They typically provide age at enlistment, rank, unit, date mustered in and mustered out, and basic military information. They may list a person's place of birth, where they enlisted, and a basic physical description. They sometimes note when a person was sick, absent, or deserted. If a person died while in service, that will be noted.

Note that the numbers that appear on the jacket simply refer to the numbers of the cards within. A separate card was prepared each time an individual name appeared on a document. Each card was numbered on the back, and these numbers were entered onto the outside jacket containing the cards. 

It can be challenging to verify that your ancestor is the person identified on a CMSR. Misspellings are common, so be prepared to search multiple spellings. It's also not uncommon to find listings for multiple individuals who could be your ancestor. Some volunteers did serve in more than one unit, in which case they may have multiple CMSR's, but don't assume this is the case until you have verified the identifying information.

A useful, detailed overview of the information included in CMSR's is provided by a series of articles written by NARA archivist Claire Prechtel-Kluskens:

2. Service Records for Regular Army Personnel

For military service after the Revolutionary War, CMSR's were generally not created for regular Army personnel (i.e., career soldiers). A helpful introduction to finding service records for these individuals is available in Claire Prechtel-Kluskens' article U.S. Regular Army Registers of Enlistment and enlistment papers,1798–1914.

The first place to look is the Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798 - 1914, which are available online at Fold3, Ancestry and FamilySearch (see specific conflict tabs for details) and on microfilm (through 1897) at NYPL. Enlistment details include:

  • name of soldier
  • age at time of enlistment
  • birthplace
  • date of enlistment
  • assigned unit
  • physical description

Regular Army officers should be identified in Francis B. Heitman's Historical register and dictionary of the United States Army, from its organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903, available online through HathiTrust (1903).  

Another useful source for researching ancestors who served in the Regular Army is Historical register and dictionary of the United States Army, from its organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903. By Francis B. Heitman. Published under act of Congress approved March 2, 1903. This is a two-volume work. Volume one contains lists of politicians, Regular Army and volunteer officers. Volume two contains additional lists of officers organized by war and a chronological list of battles, actions, etc., in which troops of the Regular Army have participated. It is available at NYPL and online through HathiTrust (details at link).

STATE MILITARY SERVICE RECORDS

There is no central repository for military service in state militia and volunteer regiments that were not attached to the federal army. Each state kept its own service records, which, if they survive, may be available available at the state archives, state historical societies, or state adjutant general’s offices. If a state unit was mustered into federal service, the federal government may have sent copies of records to the office of the state adjutant general. For more details, see the tabs for specific conflicts.

Even ancestors who didn't serve in the military may have been drafted. If you have adult male ancestors who were living in the U.S. during or after the Civil War, when the first national draft was authorized (in 1863), they may well have been required to register with the federal government. Enrollment and Draft information include name residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, and other information, and will also provide a tangible link between your family and American history.

For a helpful background information about specific draft records, see the following NARA articles:

The U.S. government authorized pensions for veterans of the Revolutionary War and subsequent conflicts under a variety of laws setting out a continually changing set of rules for eligibility. If your ancestors applied for one of these military pensions, the resulting records are potentially the richest family history resource you'll find.

There were three principal types of military pensions. "Disability" or "invalid pensions" were awarded to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty; "service pensions," to veterans who served for specified periods of time; and "widows' pensions," to women whose husbands had been killed in the war or were veterans who had served for specified periods of time. Typically, the pensions authorized in the years immediately following a particular conflict -- when many soldiers were still alive -- were limited to disabled veterans and/or the widows of veterans killed in service. Pensions based on service, rather than death or disability, were often not authorized until decades after the conflict, when the pool of applicants had significantly dwindled. Knowing the laws in effect during the life of the veteran you are researching can be helpful if you are having trouble finding a pension file or determining whether it's the right one.

PENSION APPLICATION FILES

To qualify for a pension, a veteran or surviving member of his family had to file documents proving that they met the requirements set by the law in effect at the time of the application. The type of documents included will vary depending on the nature of the pension authorized. All applicants had to provide information about their military service, at least identifying the veteran's regiment and approximate dates of service so that government officials could verify this information with their own records. Disabled veterans were required to document their physical hardships; widows had to provide proof of marital status and perhaps financial need; those filing on behalf of children might be required to submit birth certificates. The types of documents submitted might include affidavits from fellow soldiers or neighbors, letters, discharge papers or other service confirmations, marriage or birth records, physical examinations and more -- all of which are collected in the pension application file. The result is a genealogical treasure-trove, even for a pension application that was not approved.

Many federal pension application files have been digitized and are available online. Those that haven't been digitized can be ordered online from NARA. For specific details, see the tab relating to the conflict in which your ancestor served. 

PENSION PAYMENT RECORDS

While application files are the richest source of genealogical data, and should always be located first, payment records can provide additional details that are not included in the application files. As Claire Pretchel-Kluskens explains in the helpful article Follow the Money, "the records created and collected by the Treasury's accounting officers are rich in data and worth exploring even though identifying and searching through them requires much time and patience." They can help you trace your ancestors' movements, clarify family relationships, and provide insight into their financial circumstances. Some of these records have now been digitized, greatly facilitating this type of research. For details, see the tabs relating to specific conflicts.

STATE PENSION RECORDS

State governments also authorized pensions for veterans of some conflicts, and may have other records relating to pensions of local veterans. These are generally held by the State Archives or State Historical Society. Additional details are available at the tabs relating to specific conflicts.

For conflicts prior to the Civil War (including the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the ​Mexican War), the U.S. and some state governments also granted free land ("bounty land") to veterans as an inducement and/or reward for military service.

Bounty land warrants weren't automatically issued to every veteran who served. Conditions for eligibility changed over time: how much service was required, at what rank, how many acres would be awarded, whether the grants would be transferable -- these variables were governed by a series of enactments that made different veterans eligible for different amounts of land at different times. This means that veterans and/or their heirs might become eligible and apply for bounty land long after the end of the conflict in which they served.

The original federal bounty land act was passed in 1788, followed by additional statues which expanded eligibility to include more veterans and eventually, their heirs (widows, children, and sometimes parents). With a few exceptions, bounty land warrants were transferable, and most were sold by veterans on the open market. Until 1842, all land grants were located in specified areas in Arkansas, Illinois and Missouri, but after that grants were opened up to include any government land. 

The procedure for obtaining the land involved multiple steps and government agencies. First, the veteran had to file an application along with supporting documents. If the application was approved, the veteran received notice that a warrant (certificate) had been issued, entitling the holder to a specific amount of land (up to 320 acres). The holder of this warrant (the veteran or his assignee, often a land speculator) could then apply for the land patent (deed of original owner), which provided title to the land. This multi-step process resulted in three separate categories of records:

  • Applications
  • Warrants
  • Patents

BOUNTY WARRANT APPLICATION FILES

Federal bounty land application files have been preserved at NARA, and many are now available online. These files include some combination of the following information:

  • Name, age, residence, rank, military unit
  • Dates of joining and leaving the service
  • Personal description
  • Related names (heirs or assignees)
  • Marriage date

If the application was approved, the file will also include the year of the act under which it was granted, the number of acres, and the warrant number. If the application was not approved, it will have a register number.

BOUNTY LAND WARRANTS

After an application was approved, a warrant was issued awarding the specified amount of acreage. These warrants state the date of issuance, the name and rank of the veteran, the State from which he enlisted, and when applicable the name of the heir or assignee. Many veterans sold their warrants on the open market, often to land speculators, and where this occurred, a notation on the back of the warrant documents subsequent transfers. These military land warrants are now available online  Ancestry (and through Family Search if accessed at an authorized Family Search center)(see tabs for specific conflicts for details).

PATENTS

In the final step of the process, the warrant was redeemed (by the veteran, his heir, or, if sold, his assignee) and the warrant holder was issued a land patent. The land patent is the document which granted ownership of the land. After a patent was issued, subsequent sales or transfers of the tract were recorded like any other property, through deeds, wills or other types of transfers. Copies of the original patent based can be found online through a database on the  Bureau of Land Management website

This is a broad category that encompasses documents and publications generated to record the collective history of a military unit, rather than the records of an individual serviceman. The most common military unit is a regiment, but records and histories also exist for other military units such as brigades and companies.

PRIMARY SOURCES

  • Rosters, rolls and registers -- listings of servicemen in various military units or groups, such as the roster of a unit, a list of Prisoners of War, soldiers from a particular state, etc.

Because these are the records from which the Compiled Military Service Records were transcribed, they are described under the "Service Records" tab for each conflict

SECONDARY SOURCES

  • Battle histories -- if you discover your ancestor was involved in a particular battle, reading a detailed account of it can help you picture his experience
  • Regimental / Unit histories -- published accounts of particular military units often exist,  and may contain biographies of officers, rosters of soldiers in the unit, and even personal information about some of the individuals who served in the unit. NYPL holds over 2,500 regimental histories, relating to all conflicts.
  • Biographies, memoirs, diaries -- officers often recorded personal accounts of their military activities, so once you have identified the officers under whom your ancestor it's worth looking for these types of materials.

Information about these published regimental and other unit histories (including subject headings to use in our catalog) are included under the "At NYPL" tab for each conflict.  Official unit histories are available in the Army lineage series at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Military-related lineage societies can provide an additional, and often untapped, resource for locating information on veteran ancestors. Long-established organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, and General Society of the War of 1812 have stringent rules requiring members to prove descent from a veteran of the relevant conflict. As a result, they have accumulated rich collections of records relating to the military service of thousands of veterans, along with family trees that trace their descendants.

Most lineage societies allow access to their membership application files, and some are even available online. These include all the information necessary to document the applicant's direct descent from the veteran -- names, dates, locations and supporting sources. If you are able to find a connection between one of your own ancestors and a society member, the information from that person's membership application can provide an enormous stepping stone in establishing your ancestor's military service, and for your entire family tree.