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Military Records

As you research your ancestors back through time, consider their participation in America’s wars. Remember, you are searching for circumstances and events that created records with genealogical value. Military service often creates two kinds of records: service and benefits from having served.

The National Archives in Washington, DC, is the largest repository of military records in the United States. An entire microfilm catalog is devoted solely to military records. That catalog is available online. Though digitization has started, most of the primary records for military service are still on microfilm.

A Starting Point

Read a basic United States history text to learn more about the wars in which our country has been involved. Our government began with a war, the American Revolution, 1776-1783. We fought Great Britain again in 1812 and lost many records in a fire in Washington DC, the nation’s new capital. In the early 19th century, we fought a series of wars with various Native American tribes. In 1846-1848, we fought a war with Mexico over Texas’ entry into the union. The bloodiest of all our wars was the Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. We participated in the Spanish-American War in 1898, a war for independence for Cuba and the Philippines. World War I, once called the Great War, involved the United States in 1917 and 1918. “Modern” wars, that is, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars, are within living memory of many Americans.

Wars through World War I involved two kinds of soldiers, regulars and volunteers. Regular soldiers were what we think of today as career service people. Volunteers were civilians called into military service to meet an emergency. Sometimes “volunteers” were drafted into service, but they were still considered volunteers. Most of the wars listed above were fought, for the most part, by volunteers. If your ancestor was a career soldier, his records will be filed in different groups of records than those of volunteers.

Following the pattern of working from known information to unknown, from present to past, begin by identifying your ancestors who would have been of an age to have served in one of the wars mentioned above. Look first in home and family sources for evidence or family tradition about military service.

Look for pension records. The federal government has given financial assistance to people who were disabled in military service and to the dependents of those killed in the line of duty. Papers associated with a veteran’s pension, which represented an important source of income to the family, were often kept in a safe place. As you interview older family members, ask if your ancestors received any sort of government payment—it may have been a military pension.

Look for the headstone of an ancestor who might have been a veteran. His military unit may be inscribed on it. Most Civil War military markers are upright slabs, curved on the top for Union veterans and peaked for Confederates.

Do your census and county-record research first. You will need to know names, ages, places of residence and wives’ and widows’ names of your ancestors who might have served in the military.

Civil War Union Pensions

The Civil War, 1861-1865, involved a large percentage of American men in military service. Most of the men who fought in this war were between the ages of 18 and 35, although in the South, the age range was wider, from 16 to well over 50. If you have male ancestors born between 1826 and 1846, (1811 to 1850 in the South), look carefully at the records associated with those men for possible military service.

Looking for a pension record first is a research shortcut because it is sometimes difficult to positively identify a soldier from his military record as your particular ancestor. There is an index on microfilm, General Index to Pension Files 1861-1934, National Archives microcopy T288, to pension applications based on Union service between 1861 and 1916. Most of these pensions are based on Civil War service. The cards in this index are arranged alphabetically by the veteran’s name and list military rank, unit, term of service, names of dependents, filing date, application number, certificate number and state from which the claim was filed.

If you are relatively certain your ancestor received a Union pension, you may submit a request for a copy of his pension record without consulting the index. Go to the National Archives’ website to learn about ordering Union pension files.

Larger libraries and archives have copies of the Index to US Military Pensions microfilm publication. If you find a possible ancestor in this source, order a copy of the pension file from the National Archives on form NATF-85D if his service was Civil War or after. Visit the National Archives website and order the record online.

Union military pension files are often a rich genealogical source. Typically, a claimant had to prove and describe in detail his military service. Pages from Bible records, transcriptions of biographical statements, birth and marriage records, and a variety of documents are often found in pension records. Even if the pension application was not successful, the records are on file. Legislation changed the pension laws through time and many applicants applied several times, giving more and more details.

While pension claims sought by the veteran are rich, pension claims by widows can be gold mines, especially when more than one woman claimed a veteran’s pension. These are called "widow’s pensions" and "contested widow’s pension applications." When you request a veteran’s pension file, you are, in effect, asking for the widow’s pension, too, if one was filed.

Civil War Confederate Pensions

There were two sides to the Civil War, and while the federal government was willing to provide pension benefits for Union soldiers, it did not extend those benefits to soldiers who served in the Army of the Confederate States of America. Those pensions, if any, were issued by the individual states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The important points to remember about Confederate pensions are:

  • Confederate pensions were issued by the individual state governments of the states listed above.
  • Eligibility was based on the state of residence at the time of the pension application.
  • States’ pension laws varied widely as to effective dates, qualifications, and benefits. These laws were changed through the years.

If your ancestor was a Confederate veteran and he was a resident of one of the above-mentioned states after the war, check the National Archives website for information about where to locate Confederate pension records.

Civil War Service Records

If you are lucky enough to discover a pension record, your search for a service record will be simplified. From information in the pension papers, submit form NATF-86 (online or by mail) to the National Archives and request a copy of the service records (those before World War I).

If you don’t find a pension record, your search for a military record will involve additional research. You must know which military unit your ancestor served in to be reasonably confident in submitting form NATF-86 for his record. This is where your knowledge of where your ancestors lived when the war broke out and your careful collection of the names of allied and associated families will pay off.

Union and Confederate service records are in the National Archives. Some forty years after the war ended, a massive records management program created “Compiled Service Records,” that is, most of the information about a particular soldier was extracted and filed in one package. There isn't a master index to Union compiled service records. There is a master index for Confederate service records and there are state-by-state indexes for Union and Confederate military records.

Two excellent guides to federal archives materials have been published by the National Archives:

The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America by Henry Putney Beers

The Union: A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War by Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers

They describe all the major record groups relating to Union and Confederate records.

To locate your ancestor’s military unit, study local histories for the area in which his family lived when the war started. The 1860 federal census should be very helpful. Look carefully at the family’s neighbors in 1860. Study the men living in the area who were of prime soldier-material age (see previous note about birth years of Civil War soldiers). Your ancestor probably did not ride off to war alone. He went with a group of friends and neighbors. Look at property values listed in the 1860 census records; the more affluent men typically served, at least initially, as officers.

When you have an idea what units were raised in the area your ancestor was from, and you know the names of the men he probably served with, you will have an idea of whether you have the correct service record when you find a man with the same name as your ancestor in military records. More about this research technique is told in an article in Prologue, the Journal of the National Archives, “Which Henry Cook? A Methodology for Searching Confederate Ancestors” by me, Desmond Walls Allen.

Understandably, Union military records are more complete than Confederate records. Because you can’t find a Confederate military record doesn’t mean your ancestor didn’t serve. He may have served in a home guard unit never officially mustered into regular service. He may have served in an irregular unit not recognized by the Confederate Army. And, he may have served in the Union Army instead of the Confederate Army. Consider, too, many men in border areas served in both armies, often Confederate first, then Union as sentiment and military might changed their circumstances.

Service Records for Other Wars

Heavy emphasis is placed in this beginner’s guide on Civil War military service because

  • such a great percentage of men participated in that war, and
  • it is the most likely war in which a beginner will find an ancestor.

Records for World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars are restricted under privacy laws. Contact the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri 63132, for additional information about service records for these wars.

World War I draft registrations are available from the Archives Branch, Federal Records Center, 1557 St. Joseph Avenue, East Point, Georgia 30044. And they’re available online at Ancestry.com’s subscription website. Most males born between 1873 and 1900 were required to register and you may be able to find information on your ancestor even if he didn’t actually enlist in the armed services. Some 24 million cards are on file.

Spanish-American War service records have been compiled and there are indexes for each state and special units. Many of these indexes have been published.

There are compiled service records for the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and Mexican War. Requests for these service records are made by submitting form NATF-86 to the National Archives.

Service records are of less help genealogically than records created when veterans applied for benefits.

Other Benefits

When the American Revolution ended, the United States found itself short on hard money but blessed with nearly unlimited land resources. Small wonder the incentive plan for soldiers relied on grants of land. Grants of bounty land, land given by the government in recognition of military service, was standard procedure for military service through the Indian Wars, but was discontinued by the time of the Civil War. No bounty land was given for Civil War service.

When you are researching your ancestors’ real estate, be alert for any mention of bounty land warrants. If you find such a reference, order online or by mail, on form NATF-85C, a copy of the veteran’s claim file. Laws concerning bounty lands changed through the years. Two helpful books in understanding the process are James W. Oberly’s Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands Before the Civil War and Paul Wallace Gates’ History of the Public Land Law Development.

The Homestead Act of 1862 required a five-year residency among other qualifications for obtaining free or cheap land. One provision of the law gave Union veterans credit toward the five years for the time they served in military service. Homestead patents are usually filed in county level deed records, and it is possible to pursue the homestead application back into federal records and sometimes discover a copy of a Union military discharge in the file.

A Final Thought

Military research can be complicated by too many men of the same or similar names and too little information to distinguish between them. They key to solving this problem is thorough research in census and county records—get to know your ancestor and his kinship group.

Search for a pension record first in hopes of getting a free ride to the right military record. Find the cemetery marker or headstone for each ancestor suspected of military service—but don’t rely on a printed cemetery index that may not identify a stone as a military marker. That military headstone may have just the information you need. Be alert for clues in land records that indicate military service.

Study local history materials for the area where your ancestor lived when the war started to see what units formed there. Identify friends, neighbors, and associates in the census and county records and look for groups of men instead of just one man.

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