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Military Records for Genealogy Research: Getting Started

INTRODUCTION

Common militia, 1830Military records can be a rich source of details for your family history. They convey basic information such as name, residence, age, and may also provide a physical description. They also provide details of military service that can enrich your understanding of their lives -- dates mustered in and out of service, the unit served in, a record of injuries sustained, and so on. And if you're lucky enough to find a pension file, it may include not only information about military service but records of important family events such as birth, marriage and death certificates, letters, and perhaps even photographs.

Given the frequency of U.S. military conflicts, your ancestors may have served in the military even if you're not aware of it. Before delving into military records, however, you'll need to conduct research in other types of genealogy records so you'll have the information you need to establish a link between your specific ancestors and the names which appear on military lists, rolls and registers. Since most names are not unique, it can be hard to determine whether the James Smith who served for Virginia in the Revolutionary War is the same person as your ancestor with that name. Knowing information such as your ancestor's state and county of residence, approximate age, names of relatives, wife and neighbors, and any other identifying information you can find will help you in trying to corroborate identities. For early conflicts, when the population was still relatively small, it's important to also check census records of the era to determine if there are other men with the same name living in the same area.

Once you have the background information you need, this guide will help you to navigate the various types of military records that are available. It's organized as follows:

  • The first two tabs provide an overview of the types of military records, and where to find them, including tips on locating military records online
  • The records available for each of the major U.S. conflicts are listed under their own tabs, organized by type of record
    • Note that the first tab is always for "Guides" -- don't ignore these! Many useful articles about various aspects of military record research have been created for each conflict, and the invaluable advice in them is not repeated in this guide. 
    • Federal records are described separately from state records
  • Resources relating to the military service of African Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups, and, where applicable, women, are included for each conflict. In addition, the last tab of the guide highlights additional resources that may aid individuals researching members of these groups.

RESEARCH STRATEGIES

UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF RECORDS

This research guide is designed to clarify one of the most confusing aspects of researching ancestors in the military, namely the sheer volume and multiplicity of records. Typically, military records are organized into separate categories based on criteria such as:

  • federal versus state records
  • "volunteer" records versus Regular Army records 
  • various branches of military service (Army, Navy, Marines)  
  • various types of military records (service, pension, bounty, and other records)
  • each conflict generates its own set of record

Looking for a specific individual among these many groups of records can feel a little like looking for a needle in not just one, but many haystacks. Over the years, various tools and finding aids have proliferated to help researchers with this task, but sorting through the many different types of secondary sources can sometimes add its own confusion:

  • In the pre-digital era, hundreds (probably thousands) of indexes were created to aid researchers interested in identifying specific individuals in the record set. These can be arranged alphabetically or by other criteria, and it can be difficult to identify relevant titles from the spare information available in catalog records
  • While more and more records are becoming available online, the source information is sometimes incomplete. Many digitized records are available on multiple platforms, and inconsistencies in titles can make it hard to keep track of which records are duplicates and whether you've consulted all the available sources.

The organization of this guide is meant to help researchers connect the dots between the original records, the various digital platforms, and the many indexes, finding aids, abstracts and other tools that have evolved to make the records accessible. Following the format outlined here, so that you understand all of the various records that might be available for a particular conflict, and systematically trace down each set of records separately, will help you make the most effective use of military records. For specific details about how the entries are organized, see the "Where to Find Military Records" tab.

QUESTIONS TO GUIDE YOUR RESEARCH

The following questions are designed to guide your research and help you get started:

  • What conflict did the individual serve in and what were his dates of service?
    • If you are uncertain whether or not an ancestor served in the military, consider which conflicts took
      place during their lifetime. 
    • The FamilySearch Research Wiki article Ages of Servicemen in Wars contains a helpful chart showing the typical birth years of those who served in each of America's major military engagements.
  • What branch of service did the individual serve in?
    • The Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard each keep separate records
    • Prior to WWI, soldiers may have served in a state militia rather than the U.S. Military
  • If they served in the Army, was it in the Regular Army or a volunteer unit?
    • Volunteer and regular army records are maintained separately
    • For each of the major conflicts, volunteer soldiers make up a large proportion of the force
    • "Volunteer" simply means not regular army, and includes soldiers who are draftees
  • What state did they live in when they joined the military?
    • Soldiers served in local, state and federal units, so knowing the location will help you locate records
  • Did the individual serve as an officer or an enlisted man?
    • Officer's records are kept separately from enlisted men
  • Was the soldier, his widow or a dependent eligible for a pension on account of his service?
    • Pension records are often a goldmine of genealogical data

Reference Librarians