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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: Military records

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library


There are many types of record that describe our ancestors military service. Some are online, some are in archives and libraries, in print as transcriptions, or on microfilm, and some are lost. Images of different sources for military information

  • Draft cards
  • Enlistment records
  • Rolls
  • Service records
  • Pension applications
  • Bounty land warrants
  • Final payment vouchers
  • Casualty lists and reports
  • Wounded and missing
  • Imprisonment records
  • Society applications
  • Military cadet applications
  • Burial records
  • Medal of Honor recipients
  • Headstone applications
  • War diaries
  • Correspondence
  • United States Sanitary Commission 
  • Congressional reports
  • Maps
  • Photographs
  • Personal archives

There a few types of military record that are of particular use to genealogists: draft records, enlistment records, muster rolls, service records, and pension and bounty land warrant applications.

Service records

Service records describe our ancestors time in the military, when they enlisted, what unit they belonged to, whether they transferred to another unit, the campaigns they fought in, their pay, and whether they were injured, taken prisoner, killed, or deserted. They provide more data: name, age, date and place of birth, civilian occupation, place of residence, marital status, physical description, and occasionally when they were discharged. Some service records help researchers overcome genealogy brick walls…

 [Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters] Library of Congress (attributed to Samuel Smith, 119th U.S. Colored Infantry / Wikipedia “United States Colored Troops” citing the Kentucky Explorer, November 2012)Service records may include

  • name
  • age
  • place of birth
  • occupation
  • physical description
  • state from which served
  • military organization
  • unit and function
  • location during service
  • place of enlistment, enlistment papers
  • whether prisoner of war
  • rank and promotions
  • date of discharge
  • pay / land-bounty

The record right, for Sgt. Samuel Smith, of Company D, 119th U.S. Colored Infantry, includes the name of the former slaves plantation owner, Elisha Smith. This is an invaluable record of his time before the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, the first to include all African Americans.

[Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters] Library of Congress (attributed to Samuel Smith, 119th U.S. Colored Infantry / Wikipedia “United States Colored Troops” citing the Kentucky Explorer, November 2012)

Fold3 > Non-military Records > African American Collection > Colored Troops - Civil War Service Records > Colored Troops 56th-138th Infantry > 119th US Colored Infantry > S > Smith, Samuel (30)​​​​​​

Accessing the records

Print sources

Search in the NYPL Catalog for published histories of campaigns, regimental histories, personal narratives, indexes and abstracts of records, maps, and guide books, to give your research historical context, to help you find records, or to provide information where no records survive.

Further reading

Research in Military Records

Many military records are kept at the National Archives, who have published an online guide to research into military records at that institution.

United States Military Online Genealogy Records

FamilySearch has produced a list of useful resources for US military records research.

Draft records

Draft records are not records of military service, but of a pool of men who registered themselves subject to conscription. There have been several drafts in American history: during the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and 1980 saw the return of Select Service.James Stewart World War Two Draft Card from Fold3

Draft records may include

  • name
  • age
  • place and date of birth
  • father’s place of birth
  • address
  • occupation
  • employer
  • name, status,  and address of nearest relative
  • citizenship status
  • physical description

Fold3 > WWII Draft Registration Cards > California > S  > Ste > Stewart, James Maitland

Muster rolls

A muster roll is a register of officers and men in a military unit or ships company. At their most basic they record when and where a military unit was created, who served in that unit, and perhaps when they enlisted, and when they were killed or discharged.

Some muster rolls may be more detailed, and include information about individuals: name, age, rank, civilian occupation, place of birth, physical description, date and place enlisted, date and place mustered in, other names, unit transfers, and information about service: battles fought, whether injured, killed, or taken prisoner, and when and where discharged.

Bernard Trainor Muster Roll 1862

Fold3 > Bernard Trainer, New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts

The muster roll above, for Bernard Trainor, records his place of birth, Strabane, Ireland.

Pension applications

The military records of most use to genealogists are perhaps those created after service has ended, and our ancestor or his dependent has applied for a pension, often for disability, or old age. Pension applications are popular with genealogists because they are the richest source of genealogical data we find in military records.

Draft cards, muster rolls, and service records predominantly describe biographical data about veterans. Pension applications, especially those created by widows and dependents, describe familial relations. A service record may, for instance, tell us that a veteran was married, but a widow’s pension application will tell us to whom, and if there were children, together with proof. 

Pension applications made by veterans and dependents are usually filed under the veterans name and may include an array of documents, containing information possibly not found elsewhere, including

  • Veteran's name
  • date and place of birth
  • military unit
  • summaries of service
  • affidavits from officers, comrades
  • dates of service
  • relationships to others who served with him
  • movements after service
  • name of widow and other dependents
  • proof of marriage
  • proof of death of the veteran
  • baptismal records of children
  • affidavits pertaining to relationship

Bernard Trainor Pension application packet

Fold3 > Civil War "Widows' Pensions" > New York > Infantry > Regiment 69 . Company A . Trainor, Bernard (WC132236)

Reference librarians