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Military Records for Genealogy Research: Revolutionary War

OVERVIEW

Map, Attacks of Fort Washington by His Majesty's Forces, 1776If you've established that you had ancestors living in America between 1775 and 1783, there’s a good chance one or more of them participated in the Revolutionary War. 

According to the American Battlefield Trust, about 231,000 American men served in the Continental Army over the course of the war, including some Native Americans and African Americans (the numbers are highly uncertain, but the most reliable estimates count a little over 5000 African Americans and over 1000 Native Americans). Thousands of American "Loyalists" fought on the British side as well, including greater numbers of Native Americans and African Americans who hoped to gain their country and freedom, respectively, through the British (note: resources for researching Loyalist ancestors are described in our separate research guide Researching Ancestors who were Loyalists in the Revolutionary War).

The organization of the American forces was complicated. There were three distinct military units in the Revolutionary War: the Continental (federal) Army (established June 14m 1775); state units that were attached to the Continental army; and local state militia units that served wholly within a single state. This can make it difficult to determine whether the records of a particular serviceman are more likely to be held by the federal government (NARA) or by state governments. In some cases, for individuals serving in state units, there may be both federal and state records available. Spelling is another challenge. Be aware that spelling variations abound in this era, which means it may be necessary to check many possible alternative spellings of surnames, given names, and geographic places.For

Because they are centrally organized and available online, it makes sense to begin by researching the federal records available through NARA; if you can't find your ancestor, or to see if there may be additional records, check for state records in the location where he served and/or lived. The following resources may also be useful to determine whether a particular unit was attached to the Continental Army or was an unattached state unit:

ONLINE

AT NYPL:

FEDERAL MILITARY RECORDS (NARA)

Most of the original service records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed in fires in 1800 and 1814. However, substitute records were used to compiled service records, which are now available online. These records include both Continental troops and state troops that served as Continental troops. Generally, records include the name of solider, his starting and ending rank, military unit, muster and pay rolls, any disciplinary actions, and place and date of discharge

COMPILED MILITARY SERVICES RECORDS (CMSR'S)

1. Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War (Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Microfilm Publication M881).

  • Description of Records
    • Service records of individuals who served in the regular forces of the Continental Army, militia units assigned to the Continental Army, and volunteer units from the states. 
    • From NARA catalog record: "Most of the records of the American Army from the Revolutionary War era that were in the custody of the War Department were destroyed by fire in 1800 or in 1814. The War Department's Collection of Revolutionary War Records was begun in 1873 by means of purchase, gifts, or transfers from other agencies. The compilation of military service records was begun in 1894, under the direction of the War Department's Record and Pension Office. Information about individual soldiers was meticulously copied onto cards as a means of consolidating information about individuals, as well as preserving the original source documents, including muster rolls, pay rolls, returns, and other records."
  • Digitized Records available online

2. General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers (Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Microfilm Publication M860)

3. Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel and Members of the Quartermaster General and the Commissary General of Military Stores Who Served During the Revolutionary War (Record Group 93, War Department Records of Revolutionary War Records, Microfilm Publication M880)

  • Description of Records
    • From the NARA catalog record: "The compiled service records consists of a jacket-envelope for each sailor or civilian employee labeled with his name, rank, or profession. The sailors or civilian employees are typically described as having a rank or profession such as seaman, surgeon, lieutenant, quartermaster, pilot, carpenter, landsman, boy, or midshipman. Generally, each jacket-envelope contains only one or two cards with notations concerning date and amount of pay, and references to the source document from which the information was copied. The ships documented are the frigate Alliance, brigantines Dartmouth and Polly, sloops Independence and Montgomery, the schooner Putnam, and the ship Raleigh."
  • Digitized Records available online:
  • Indexes
    • Index To Compiled Service Records Of American Naval Personnel Who Served During The Revolutionary War, Microfilm Publication M879 -- currently only available at NARA

UNIT SERVICE RECORDS

1. Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 (compiled from Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Microfilm Publication M246)

POST-REVOLUTIONARY WAR SERVICE RECORDS

​​​​​​​1. Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Served in Volunteer Units During the Post-Revolutionary War Period, 1784-1811 (Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, Microfilm Publication M905).

Because the early US government was land-rich and cash-poor, veterans who served in the Revolutionary War were more likely to be compensated with bounty land grants than with pension payments. Prior to 1818, pensions were restricted to officers, severely disabled veterans, and widows of men who died in the war. Unfortunately, nearly all of the earliest pension files were destroyed by fire.

In 1818, an act was passed granting service pensions to veterans who had served in the Continental Army or Navy for at least nine months. So many applications were filed that a new law was passed two years later, restricting pensions to those who could demonstrate financial need. Later, in 1832, benefits were extended to any veterans with at least six months of service in the Continental forces or a state militia, but by then, many veterans had already died. Laws governing widows’ pensions became more generous starting in 1836.

Be aware that there are multiple types of pension records: the most information will be found in federal application files, but there are also pension payment records, which are not typically found in pension application files. These records of payments made to either the veteran or his widow may provide additional details on where a family may have moved in the years after the war, death dates of veterans, widows, or dependent children, and sometimes the maiden name of a widow.

PENSION APPLICATION FILES

1. Case Files of Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Based on Revolutionary War Service, ca. 1800 - ca. 1912 (Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Microfilm Publication M804).

2. Case Files of Pension Applications Based on Death or Disability Incurred in Service between 1783 and 1861 ("Old Wars"), ca. 1815 - ca. 1930 (Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, not microfilmed)

  • Description of Records
    • Pension application files of Regular Army personnel ("Old War" refers to service in the Regular Army between the 1780s and the Civil War.) 
    • From NARA catalog record: "This series consists of the pension application case files relating chiefly to claims based on death or disability incurred in service in the regular forces between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. The claims concern service in the Regular Army, Navy, or Marine Corps during the War of 1812, Mexican War, Indian wars, and in a few cases, the Civil War."
  • Digitized Records available online

3. Old War Index to Pension Files, 1815-1926 (Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Microfilm Publication T316)

4. Name Index to Pension Applications Files of Remarried Widows Based on Service Before 1861, 1887 - 1926 (Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Microfilm Publication M1784)

PENSION PAYMENT RECORDS

Some of these records are now digitized, and these are listed first. The catalog records for these are particularly confusing, so some of the records listed as being only available at NARA may actually be included in the digitized collections.

Digitized Pension Payment Records Available online

1. Ledgers of Payments, 1818-1872, to U.S. Pensioners Under Acts of 1818 Through 1858 From Records of the Office of the Third Auditor of the Treasury, 1818-1872 (Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, Microfilm publication T718).

2. Final Payment Vouchers Index for Military Pensions, 1818-1864 ( culled from "Settled Accounts of Pension Agents, 1813–1899," Entry A1-712 in Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury).

Non-Digitized Pension Payment Records (available on-site at NARA only)

  • Registers of Pension Payments, 1789 - 1872 (Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, not microfilmed, NARA catalog record 2642440)
  • Registers of Pension Payments, ca. 1811 - 1868 ((Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, not microfilmed, NARA catalog record 2545102)
  • Register of Pension Payments, 1813 - 1866 (Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, not microfilmed, NARA catalog record ARC 2642336)
    • Note that included in these record are payments to heirs of Cherokee warriors
  • Pension Agency Payment Books, 1805–1909 (Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, not microfilmed, NARA catalog record ARC 2600765)
  • Records of Pension Payments, 1859 - 1901 [NAVY] (Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, not microfilmed, NARA catalog record ARC 2774843)
    • Unlikely to include Revolutionary War veterans

PENSION LISTS

At various times Congress requested lists of pensioners, which are available in print and in some cases online.

PENSIONS AWARDED BY STATE GOVERNMENTS

In addition to federal pension, some state governments awarded pensions to resident veterans. Printed indexes and in some cases, original records, are available at state repositories. The best starting point for most researchers is the multi-state index Revolutionary war pensions : awarded by state governments, 1775-1874, the general and federal governments prior to 1814, and by private acts of Congress to 1905 / Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck, available at NYPL.

For more information, see the State Military Records box, below.

The application files for federal bounty warrants are included with the pension application files, discussed on the adjoining tab. In addition, NARA holds the following records relating to bounty warrants:

1. U.S. Revolutionary War Bounty Land Warrants Used in the U.S. Military District of Ohio and Relating Papers (Acts of 1788, 1803, and 1806), 1788-1806 (Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management; Microfilm Publication M829)

  • Description of Records
    • NARA catalog record -- this collection consists of the actual bounty warrants, or certificates, issued to veterans of the U.S. Revolutionary War between 1789 and 1833
      • the Bounty Warrant applications are held together with the Pension applications, described under the Pension tab 
    • From Microfilm Publication M829 (available online through Ancestry): "On the 16 rolls of this microfilm are reproduced U.S. Revolutionary War bounty land warrants, dated 1879-1833, and related papers dated as late as 1880."
  • Digitized Records available online
  • Indexes

BOUNTY WARRANTS AWARDED BY STATE GOVERNMENTS

In addition to the federal bounty warrants, nine state governments adopted similar policies, making their own land grants to veterans who served in the state militia: Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. Unlike the federal bounty land records, however, these state records are not centralized; instead, they are found in the various states in the form of manuscript records and printed indexes. The best starting point for most researchers is the multi-state index Revolutionary War bounty land grants : awarded by state governments / Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck  (also available online through Ancestry as Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants but NOT included in Ancestry Library Edition)

For information about locating state pension records, see the State Military Records box below

1. Numbered Record Books Concerning Military Operations and Service, Pay and Settlement of Accounts, and Supplies in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records (compiled from Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Microfilm Publication M853)

  • Description
    • Compiled from original war department records including orderly books, oaths of allegiance, lists of men and officers in state regiments, quartermaster accounts, correspondence, supply records and many more military records relating to the Revolutionary War.
    • More detailed descriptive information is available in NARA Microfilm Publications Pamphlet Describing M853
  • Digitized records available online

UNIT HISTORIES

GENERAL INDEXES 

Official indexes to federal military records are listed under the appropriate record group. The following additional indexes may also be useful:

SPECIAL GROUP INDEXES / HISTORIES

Note that in addition to national indexes, there are many indexes and abstracts relating to soldiers and officers of individual states. Often it may not be clear from the title if these works relate to state military records or are indexes of the federal military records of soldiers serving from the state (for example, Pennsylvania pension abstracts of soldiers of the revolutionary war, war of 1812 and Indian wars / Lucy Kate McGhee). For more information on these indexes, see the State Military Records box, below.

ARMY, NAVY AND MARINES

UNIFORMS

SUBJECT HEADINGS

Although the records of lineage societies are not "official" federal records, they are included here because they are national in scope. If you have traced your lineage back to colonial ancestors, it's worth checking the records of the Revolutionary War lineage societies to see if any of your predecessors filed an application for membership. If the database includes someone matching your criteria, results will display the personal details and type of service. A complete copy of a member’s application and supporting documentation (when available), can also be purchased, and often contains invaluable genealogical information.

DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

​​​​​​​SONS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

  • Patriot Research System (PRS)
    • Similar to the DAR database described above
  • Other records available online
    • Ancestry -- U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970
      • "These 145,000 applications with 1.2 million records can give you a direct link to an ancestor who served the cause of freedom during the Revolutionary War Era. Applications require a pedigree and accompanying information to demonstrate a generation-by-generation link to a patriot ancestor. Genealogical information submitted may include references to Revolutionary War pension files, baptismal records, marriage records, cemetery records, census records, family Bible records, deeds, court records, documented family and local histories, and copies of applications to other lineage societies. Applications also typically include a short summary of the ancestor’s service. These records can be an excellent source for names, dates, locations, and family relationships. Applications can be searched by name, place and date of birth and death, and application year."

  • Printed indexes available at NYPL

STATE MILITARY RECORDS

ONLINE:

  • FAMILYSEARCH RESEARCH WIKI ARTICLES
    • The FamilySearch Research Wiki includes articles on military records of each state (for example, New York Military Records). To locate articles for other state, type in [name of state] military records in the search box. Note that Federal service records for soldiers within a state are often included in these articles

PRINT GUIDES AT NYPL

PRIMARY RECORDS

ABSTRACTS AND INDEXES AT NYPL

If your ancestor served in the state militia or volunteer regiment, records relating to his military service (typically muster rolls or payment records) may be found at the state archives, state historical society or state adjutant general's office. In addition, state governments offered their own pensions and bounty land warrants, and any surviving records of these will also be found at the state repository, rather than the National Archives. 

Many of these organizations have finding aids or descriptions of the records available online, including the following (note that this list is representative, not exhaustive):

To find similar resources for your own state, try an internet search for the State Archives and/or State Historical Society, or do a search for [name of state] revolutionary war records. If you can't find what you are looking for, contact the relevant state repositories and ask whether they have local military records.

In some cases, state Revolutionary-era military records have been digitized and are available online, including the following:

Links to some additional digitized state records are available at Online Revolutionary War Indexes and Records. Be aware that many of the state military "records" digitized on Ancestry are actually reproductions of the printed indexes, rather than collections of original documents.

RESOURCES AT NYPL