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Military Records for Genealogy Research: Where to Find Military Records

OVERVIEW

Although there has been a push in recent years to digitized military records, many remain undigitized. On this page you'll find:

  • Tips on how to navigate the main databases for online military records
  • Information about where non-digitized records can be found and how to order them 
  • A description of the many print resources available at NYPL to further research in military records, including indexes, abstracts, and research guides

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC, interior view of stacks

ONLINE DATABASES

A growing number of military records are being digitized, which means most researchers can begin their military records research online. However, it's important to keep in mind the following:

  • Many military records have not been digitized, so the records available online are far from being complete
  • Military records only become publicly available 62 years after their creation -- before that period, access is granted only to a spouse, parent, child, or sibling of a veteran
  • Online records may include both federal and state military records
  • You'll have a better chance of success online if you understand which records you are searching

The main websites with military collections are:

  • Fold3 -- available on-site at NYPL's three research libraries
  • Ancestry Library Edition -- available on-site at all NYPL locations (and at many other public libraries)
  • FamilySearch -- free but registration is required 

The same set of military records may be available on more than one of these platforms, often with different titles. To avoid confusion, this guide is organized as follows:

[NAME OF ORIGINAL RECORD SET, including identifying numbers] -- most of the federal military records held by NARA were microfilmed before being digitized, and each microfilm was assigned a publication number (for example, M881, M246). Since the digitized records are frequently labeled with titles that differ from the original NARA titles, these microfilm publication numbers are the best way to determine which records you are looking at so that you can avoid duplicate search efforts and identify sources you have not previously seen.

  • Description of Records -- with link to catalog record or finding aid at NARA (or the relevant state repository)
  • Digitized Records available online 
    • For each platform where the records are available, the title of the collection is provided with a link
    • IMPORTANT: Note that unless you are signed into a personal subscription to the relevant platform (or into your free account on FamilySearch), you will not be able to search the records directly from these links.
    • The link will take you to a description of the records, but to access them using the Library's subscription to the platform you will have to search for that particular collection using the platform's card catalog
    • Fold3 and FamilySearch are only available onsite so a librarian will be available to help you
  • Print or microfilm indexes at NYPL
    • Where NYPL holds corresponding records or indexes, these are also listed
    • Bear in mind that it can be easier to identify misspelled names in these sources than to guess at possible misspellings online, so if you are having trouble locating a person consider using these sources (see also the "At NYPL" tab in the Non-digitized Military Records box, below)

Note that where the same record set is available on multiple platforms, there are times when you might want to consult more than one site. Each platform has its own search algorithms and may have transcribed the records separately, which means it may be easier to find the person you're looking for on one platform than another. Image quality can also differ dramatically, so it can help to check another platform if the image you find at the first site is difficult to read.

Because new military records are being digitized all the time, it's impossible to provide a full list of everything that is currently available. The following NARA webpages provide useful overviews, but may not be updated regularly:

In addition, some researchers may find relevant records through the FamilySearch Research Wiki article U.S. Military Online Genealogical Records.

Fold3 is the only major database focused primarily on military records (although it also includes other records such as city directories and naturalization records). The vast majority of these are U.S. Military Records from the National Archives.

Links to specific Fold3 collections are provided in this guide at the tabs relating to specific conflicts, but, as noted elsewhere, the records cannot be accessed from these links unless you are signed into a personal Fold3 subscription. The easiest way to locate the specific collection when you are using the Library's subscription, and to locate any additional military records that may become available, is to use Fold3's "browse" feature. 

To begin, browse by the relevant conflict (links are provided on the home page). This will pull up a list of all available records relating to that conflict. If the list is too long, you can further refine your results by "publication [i.e., record] type." To the right of each title listed is an "i" [information] button. Clicking on that will take you to the home page of the collection, with a description and a search box that allows you to search only that collection. There is also an option to browse all the records within the collection, which can be useful if the records are arranged alphabetically.

Note that you can use Fold3's browse feature to explore what's available on Fold3 for free from their website; you won't be able to access the actual records, but it can be useful to figure out what records they have in advance of coming to the Library to do your research, or to take the best advantage of any free trial membership period. Also, some records on Fold3 can be accessed for free, without a subscription. To identify these, check the "Show Only Free" box that appears above the list of records.

Most of the military records available on Ancestry are U.S. Military Records, but they also have some state militia records as well as military records from other countries.

It's possible to search all of Ancestry's military records at the same time, but researchers are likely to have better results with more targeted searches.

To search an Ancestry military records database identified in this guide, click "Search" at the top of Ancestry's home page and select "Card Catalog" from the drop-down menu. Copy the title of the collection you want to search from this guide and paste it into the "Title" box in Ancestry's card catalog. 

You should also be able to access list of all available military databases here, or if that link is dead, take the following steps:

  • click on the "Military Records" box from Ancestry's home page.
  • On the right hand side, you'll see a box with "Featured data collections."  
  • Click on the link at the bottom of that box to "View all in card catalog."
  • This will take to a list of all of the military record collections available in Ancestry.
  • From this page, you can sort by location.

Unfortunately, as of March, 2021 it was not possible to sort Ancestry's military locations by conflict, so currently it's easier to search by the specific title of the collection where possible.

More detailed information about the military records available at Ancestry can be found in the print guide Military records at Ancestry.com / Esther Yu Sumner (available on-site at NYPL if ordered in advance).

FamilySearch is a free genealogical database sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no fee to access their online records, but registration is required (information about their privacy policy is available here).

If you are signed into your FamilySearch account while using this research guide, you will be able to access any of the FamilySearch collections identified in it directly from the link.

There are multiple ways to explore the additional military records (and there are many!) that are or may become available on this platform.  A list of military collections is available here.

Another option is to search the FamilySearch online catalog.

  • In the top "search by" field, select "keyword" and type in the name of the conflict (i.e., Revolutionary War, War of 1812, etc.).
  • The FamilySearch catalog includes both records that are available online and those that are only available on microfilm, so select "online" under "Availability" to limit your search to records that have been digitized.

FamilySearch has also created Research Wiki articles about each of the major US conflicts, which generally include a description of the records available for that conflict through their databases. Links to these articles are included on the left-hand side of their introductory article on United States Military Records. Many are also listed in this guide.

NON-DIGITIZED MILITARY RECORDS

Records of service in the U.S. Military (the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps) are held by the National Archives and Records Administration ("NARA"). These records are stored in two separate locations depending on dates of service.

The NARA office in Washington DC holds earlier military records, including the following:

  •  Volunteer enlisted men and officers whose military service was performed during an emergency and whose service was considered to be
    in the Federal interest, 1775 to 1902
  •  Regular Army enlisted personnel, 1798–October 31, 1912
  •  Regular Army officers, 1798–June 30, 1917
  •  U.S. Navy enlisted personnel, 1798–1885
  •  U.S. Navy officers, 1798–1902
  • U.S. Marine Corps officers and enlisted personnel, 1798–1904
  • Those who served in predecessor agencies to the U.S. Coast Guard, i.e.the Revenue Cutter Service (Revenue Marine), the Life Saving Service, and the Lighthouse Service, 1791–1919
  • Confederate Army, Navy, and Marine Corps (Civil War)

Information on how to order copies of pre-WWI military records from NARA is available at Requesting Copies of Older Military Service Records

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, holds more recent military personnel files, including the following:

  • U.S. Army officers, separated July 1, 1917–September 30, 2002, and enlisted personnel, separated November 1, 1912–September 30, 2002
  • U.S. Air Force officers and enlisted personnel, separated September 25,1947–September 30, 2004
  • U.S. Navy officers, separated January 1, 1903–December 31, 1994, and Navy enlisted personnel, separated January 1, 1886–December 31, 1994
  • U.S. Marine Corps officers and enlisted personnel, separated January 1,1905–December 31, 1998
  • U.S. Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel, separated after January 1,1898; civilian employees of Coast Guard predecessor agencies such as Revenue Cutter Service, Life Saving Service and Lighthouse Service, from 1864 to 1919

There is no central repository for records relating to military service in state militia. Such records, if available, will be found at the State Archives and/or another state government agency or a state or local historical society. The best way to locate state military records is probably to contact the relevant State Archives, which should be able to direct researchers to any existing records even if they are held elsewhere. You can also try searching online for state military records [NAME OF STATE], which may lead you to online research guides, finding aids, or even digitized records.

Be aware that often records described "state military records" will actually be records relating to federal military service by individuals from a particular state.

 

The Library's military resources are national in scope, including resources relating to federal military records and to military records of states across the country.

PRINT AND MICROFILM SOURCES

In the pre-digital era, genealogists and historians spent painstaking hours copying, summarizing and/or indexing the information from federal and state military records to facilitate access to documents that were only available on-site. Researchers who have grown accustomed to finding records online often overlook these resources. However, abstracts and indexes can still be valuable in the following circumstances.

1. Non-digitized records

While a growing number of military records are available online, most of these are federal military records. Many state military records are sill only available to researchers who are able to visit a repository in person, and even for federal records, it will be many years before all records of genealogical interest will be available online.

In addition, in some cases original military records were destroyed -- by fire, flood, or neglect -- after an index or abstract was prepared. In these cases, the indexes or abstracts constitute the only existing record. For example, most of the records in the New York State Archives collection "Revolutionary War Accounts and Claims (Series A0200)" -- which included muster and pay rolls of New Yorkers serving in local militia and the Continental Army and Navy -- were damaged or destroyed in a 1911 fire at the New York State Capitol building.  Luckily, prior to the fire, the New York State Comptroller, James A. Robert, had compiled the information from the papers into a printed work, which includes a personal name index and indexes to "sundry persons", pensioners and applicants for pensions, and commanding officers. This work, New York in the revolution as colony and state / by James A. Roberts, is available at NYPL and also freely available online through HathiTrust. Several additional examples will be found in this guide.

Finally, some military records consist solely of lists of names, in which case the "original" records would add no additional information to a published version, which may be easier to access.

2. Difficult-to-locate individuals

If, as is often the case, an individual's name is misspelled, it can be challenging to come up with the "correct" misspelling when keyword searching digitized records. Scanning a list of names in a printed index may enable you to find ancestors who are eluding you in online databases.

NYPL holds print or microfilm copies of many of the indexes prepared by NARA, as well as many other "unofficial" and specialized indexes. Specialized indexes can be especially helpful when you are having trouble locating a name in the records available online. There are indexes by record type, by geographic area (state, county, town), by race, ethnicity and gender, by type of military service, and by various other useful categories such as prisoners, doctors, nurses, chaplains, etc. These types of indexes can also provide additional information that is not readily apparent from digitized records. For example, county registers can be used to identify neighbors who may have served with your ancestor; lists of pensioners may give you some insight into whether your ancestor was one of just a few surviving veterans, or one of many. Because these works compile the records into categories that may not be discernible online, they can be useful in ways other than just identifying records relating to your own ancestor.

3. Contextual information

In order to compile an index, the person creating it must develop a deep understanding of the often-complex organization of the records. In some cases, this information is included in an introduction or appendix, and may be accompanied by historical background information that can help researchers navigate and understand the online sources.


Note that NYPL also holds thousands of other works relating to American military history and the history of each American conflict, which are beyond the scope of this genealogical research guide


ABSTRACTS AND INDEXES AVAILABLE ONLINE

Many of the abstracts and indexes to pre-WWI military records (especially those published before 1923) are also freely available online through the digital libraries HathiTrust and Internet Archive. Some may also be available as "collections" on Ancestry or FamilySearch.

It's convenient that duplicate copies are often available online, but can also be confusing. For example, the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prepared a 17-volume work described as an "indexed compilation of the records of the Massachusetts soldiers and sailors who served in the army or navy during the Revolutionary War."  This work is available through all of the following platforms:

As you can see, the titles are not identical in each case, so in order to avoid confusing yourself it's important to keep notes on which resources you've consulted, and to always check the source information on Ancestry and other genealogical databases to identify exactly what records you are searching. This work also illustrates another challenge: it's unclear from the description exactly which Massachusetts servicemen are included in this work -- does "army" include the state militias? It's often hard to tell whether works relating to the soldiers of a particular state are referring to state records or federal records, so you'll want to keep this question in mind when looking at the data.

There are many ways to locate these online publications:

  • The FamilySearch Research wiki articles on [Name of State] Military Records usually list the most important abstracts and indexes, and often provide links if they are available online (see, for example, Virginia Military Records article)
  • State Archives, libraries, and historical societies often have information about military publications on their websites, which you can search for by title in the free digital libraries
  • Use NYPL's catalog to identify relevant titles and see if they are available in the free digital libraries (sometimes the catalog record will include a link)