Military 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:
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:
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:
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: