Military Service Records

Colonial Wars (1607–1774)

Service records of soldiers in the colonial wars have more historical than genealogical information and usually provide only the name of the soldier and the colonial unit in which he served. They consist primarily of rosters, rolls, and lists that survived the wars and several fires. Most of these rosters and rolls have been published and can be found in genealogical and historical libraries throughout the nation.

Despite the scanty genealogical information these records provide, you should not ignore them. They may be sparse, but few records in general exist for that period to help locate an ancestor. The presence of a soldier in a particular unit may be a valuable clue to his place of residence as well as useful in identifying his family in other records of the same location, even though there may be problems in distinguishing between two or more soldiers with the same name.

Revolutionary War and Frontier Conflicts (1775–1811)

Some of the original service records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed by fire, but those remaining are on file at the National Archives, compiled primarily from rosters and rolls of soldiers serving in the Continental Army, state lines, and militia units, with additions from correspondence and filed reports of military officers. These service records contain much more genealogical information than colonial records: name, rank, and military organization of the soldier. Included in some records are the name of the state from which the soldier served; the date that his name appears on one or more of the rolls; sometimes the date or dates of his enlistment, or the date of his appointment; and, rarely, the date of his separation from the service. His physical description, date and place of birth, residence at the time of enlistment, and other personal details are also included in some categories.

Revolutionary war service records are indexed. Most of the indexes have been microfilmed, and many libraries have copies. The service records themselves can be searched at the National Archives and its regional archives or at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its family history centers, and at other research libraries.

Genealogists who have access to the microfilmed records can search them more efficiently by following the guide in table 9-1. Those using the collection of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or one of its family history centers should check the Military Records Register for the appropriate call numbers for the above microfilms. The collection of the Family History Library is almost as large as that of the National Archives, making these records more widely available throughout the United States, especially since the NARA interlibrary loan program for microfilmed military records has been discontinued. Copies of individual records can, however, be obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Patrons must use the current NATF Form 80 to request a particular record.

Three types of records are available from NARA: (1) pensions (2) bounty-land warrant applications, and (3) military service records. A search of these records cannot be completed without the full name of the veteran, his branch of service, the state from which he served, and the war in which he served. You may also use this form to request records pertaining to soldiers of other wars prior to World War II. Expect a six-to-eight week processing time before you receive the records.

Many revolutionary war roster lists and other service records have been published. For a list of titles available in many genealogical library collections, consult the chapter bibliography.

Loyalists and German Auxiliary Troops

Many American colonists retained their allegiance to the British crown. Known as Loyalists, they probably comprised about one third of the colonial population. In some areas they may have been in the majority. Some of them simply refused to support the revolutionary cause. Others took up arms against it. With the defeat of the British, many fled to other points of the Empire, notably to what was called Canada West (Ontario) and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

The British forces were also augmented by a large contingent of German auxiliaries imported to America to help suppress the rebellion. Inaccurately labeled mercenaries or Hessians, these troops originated not only from Hessen Kassel and Hessen Hanau, but also from Braunschweig, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst. Perhaps as many as 7,000 of the nearly 32,000 German auxiliary troops remained in North America.

Post-Revolutionary Wars (1812–48)

There are service records for the War of 1812, Indian Wars, and the Mexican War. The information included, similar to that in the service records of soldiers in the colonial wars and the Revolutionary War, has been indexed and microfilmed. If a personal search of the microfilmed indexes at the National Archives, the Family History Library, or elsewhere is not possible, you can request a search of the indexes of the National Archives using NATF form 80.

During the Mexican War, special units came from the Indian nations, the Mormons (Mormon Battalion) and New Mexico (Santa Fe Battalion of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers). Each of these units compiled its own records.

Civil War (1861–65) Union Service Records

Union Army records contain enlistment papers, muster rolls, prisoner-of-war papers, death reports, and others. The records are indexed by state and by military units for those units organized within a specific state. You must know the state in which a soldier served or the unit with which he served to obtain his service records. Note that there is a separate index for soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), which encompassed black troops from all states.

Enlistment papers often contain a description of the soldier and the place where he enlisted. Typically, though not necessarily, a soldier enlisted near his home. This information can be valuable in helping you pinpoint the movements of an ancestor between 1850 and 1880, when pioneers were on the move in great numbers.

The National Archives will search its index to service records if you know the branch of service and the state from which a soldier served in the Civil War. Use NATF Form 80 to request Civil War service records for the Union Army. There are microfilmed copies of the indexes at the National Archives and its regional archives, the Family History Library and its family history centers, and at various other libraries throughout the country. The actual service records are available, however, only at the National Archives.

Civil War Soldier Draft Records, 1863–65. The U.S. government enacted a draft in March 1863, creating a pool of men age twenty to forty-five who were subject to conscription. Assuming they were physically fit, the law affected white citizens as well as most aliens who had declared their intention to naturalize.

Civil War (1861–65) Confederate Service Records

When Richmond was evacuated by the Confederate government in April 1865, the centralized military personnel records of the Confederate Army were taken to Charlotte, North Carolina, by the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General, Samuel Cooper. When the Confederate civil authorities left Charlotte after agreeing to an armistice between the armies in North Carolina, President Jefferson Davis instructed Cooper to turn the records over, if necessary, to “the enemy, as essential to the history of the struggle.” When General Joseph E. Johnston learned, after the armistice, that the records were at Charlotte, he turned them over to the Union Commander in North Carolina, saying, “As they will furnish valuable materials for history, I am anxious for their preservation, and doubt not that you are too.”

The Confederate records surrendered or captured at the end of the war and taken to Washington, D.C., have been augmented by other records collected or copied in later years. In 1903, the War Department began to compile a service record for each soldier by copying the entries pertaining to him in these records. The result is an immense file of “compiled military service records” from which inquiries about Confederate soldiers are answered. Because of the efforts made over many years to incorporate all available information into this file, it is by far the most complete and accurate source of information about Confederate soldiers.

This file is accessed through the massive consolidated index to Confederate soldiers (NARA microfilm publication M1290), contained on 535 rolls of microfilm. If no record can be located by using this index, there is another set of Confederate records: those which were never identified as pertaining to a specific soldier or were not used in compiling the service records when the government ceased that project.

The compiled military service record of a Confederate soldier consists of one or more card abstracts and usually one or more original documents. Each card abstract entry comes from such original records as Confederate muster rolls, returns, descriptive rolls, and Union prison and parole records. If the original record of a soldier’s service was complete, the card abstracts may serve to trace his service from beginning to end, but they normally do little more than account for where he was at a given time. The compiled military service record may provide the following information of genealogical interest: age, place of enlistment, places served, place of discharge or death, and often, physical description.

The original Confederate records from which the cards were made are among the holdings of the National Archives. Microfilm copies of all indexes and some records are available at the National Archives and at the Family History Library. The index will provide the rank, unit, and name of the soldier, and the pertinent file can then be ordered from the National Archives.

The National Archives also compiled histories of Confederate military units and vessels (M861). They are arranged alphabetically by state and then by unit.

Because prisoner exchanges late in the Civil War were not working, approximately 28,000 Confederate soldiers, sailors, and citizens died in the North. While federal legislation from 1867 to 1873 provided for the reburial of Union soldiers in national cemeteries and for durable headstones, this early legislation made no specific provision for Confederate dead. Their graves were sometimes given thin headstones with a grave number and the soldier’s name. Many of the non-Union graves, however, were marked with wooden headboards that disintegrated, although the names were often preserved in cemetery burial registers.

Finally, in 1912, a typescript register of Confederate soldiers and sailors buried in federal cemeteries was compiled in accordance with a 1906 statute, to provide for marking the graves of Confederate soldiers and sailors who died in Union prisons. This register (M918) was generally arranged alphabetically by name of prison camp, other location where the death occurred, or occasionally by cemetery name. The individual burial lists are also arranged alphabetically by the name of the deceased and generally include rank, company, regiment, date of death, and number and location of grave. Some cemeteries did not bury the dead in numbered graves. Some regimental and company designations or death dates are not entered in the register. The registers also include few entries for private Confederate citizens. Some are unknown. Other entries are for bodies “removed,” “sent home,” and “taken home by friends.” Entries for the Green Lawn Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana, have been lined through and a notation added: “Remains of above removed to lot 285, sec. 32, Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana, and reinterred as unknowns on October 27, 1931.” (Check other explanatory notes at the beginning or end of the burial list.) This register is now part of Record Group 92, Records of the Quartermaster General.

State Confederate Records

The War Department Collection of Confederate Records is not complete, even though great efforts were made to assemble all official information. A soldier may have served in a state militia unit that was never mustered into the service of the Confederate government. Records of service in such units, if extant, may be in the state archive or in the custody of the state adjutant general. Since the federal government of the United States did not pay benefits to Confederates, pensions and other state benefits are recorded only in state records.

The Family History Library has the single largest collection of microfilmed state Confederate records. The call numbers for ordering the microfilms through family history centers are most easily located in the Military Records Register, Vol. II: Civil War. If the center does not have a copy, have the librarian request a copy from the main library in Salt Lake City.

Two additional categories of records require special mention: military academy records and Reconstruction court records. Many Confederate officers received their early training in Southern military academies. Others had attended West Point and had to choose which side to support. Consult Bvt. Major-General George W. Cullum, Biographical Register, Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, 3rd ed., 9 vols. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1891); Stanley P. Tozeski, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. Military Academy (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1976); and Jon L. Wakelyn, Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977). Second, the confiscation of land by the Reconstruction government led to lengthy and bitter court battles. Genealogists seldom check these records, which can yield numerous details about Southern soldiers even though they are not technically military records. Also see chapter 7, Research in Court Records.

Spanish-American War Through Modern Wars, 1898 To the Present

Service records for soldiers serving in the armed forces after the Civil War are not as readily available, even though the records of these later wars are more detailed.

Using records for soldiers who served within the last seventy-five years is restricted to the service person, the next of kin if the veteran is deceased, or requesters with release authorization signed by the veteran or, if deceased, by the next of kin. Many of the federal records in this category are housed at the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132. Records protected by privacy laws cannot be copied or viewed by the public, but some information contained in the records can be provided upon request. Use the current version of Form 180.

Documents issued to the veteran at time of discharge (or to his or her next of kin, in case of death) usually contain important genealogical information. The National Personnel Records Center candidly acknowledges that its priority is providing information on benefits, not genealogical data, and encourages contacting the veteran or next of kin. However, under the Freedom of Information Act (amended 1974), it will release an individual’s age or date of birth, salary, photographs, source of commission, duty status, office telephone number, military and civilian educational level, decorations and awards (including a copy of the citation, if available), present and past duty assignments (including geographical location), future assignments which have been finalized, records of court-martial trials (unless classified), marital status, education/schooling, rank/grade, serial/service number, date of rank/grade, promotion sequence number, and dependents, including name, sex, and age.

If the identity needs to be verified, the center will also add such items as name of father and/or mother, home address, etc. This service takes several weeks; you will be billed for researching, processing, and photocopying.

On 12 July 1973, a fire on the top floor of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed millions of military records and damaged millions more. According to James E. Cole, Jr., acting assistant archivist for federal records centers, eighty percent of the army records for 1912 to 1959, sixty percent of the air force records for 1947 to 1963, and one percent or less of army records for personnel discharged since 1 January 1973 were destroyed.2

The center has since reconstructed a portion of the records of living military personnel who need the data to apply for pensions and other benefits. There are no plans at this time to reconstruct the records of deceased personnel where no benefits are owed.

Certain draft records and veterans’ medical treatment records were not in the fire. World War I draft records have been microfilmed and are available for searching.

Discharge Records

Each county in the United States was required to record the honorable discharge of soldiers and sailors who served in World War I. Some discharges for the Civil War and Philippine Insurrection are also on record, as well as some dishonorable and medical discharges. The records are kept in the local courthouse and usually consist of typed or handwritten transcripts of the original documents given to the soldier. Some of these discharge records from county collections have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, but most have not.

The records may contain the individual’s name, race, rank, serial number, reason for discharge, birthplace, age at time of enlistment, occupation, and a personal description. His or her service record, sometimes included with the discharge record, gives the length of service, prior service, marital status, arms and horsemanship qualifications, advancement, battles, decorations, honors, leaves of absence, physical condition, and character evaluation.

The same requirement for recording discharges was in effect for World War II veterans. The information contained in these records is the same as that on file for veterans of World War I.

United States Merchant Marine

Records pertaining to the service of merchant marine personnel are on file with the U.S. Coast Guard. Records of discharged, deceased, and retired merchant marine personnel are in the custody of the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132. Records of officers and active or reserve personnel prior to 1929 are in the custody of the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, DC 20590.

Regular U.S. Army Enlistments

If a search of the relevant index or indexes does not reveal a service record for an individual, remember that there was another capacity other than that of volunteer or draftee. The veteran could have served in the Regular U.S. Army. The registers of enlistments for the period 1798 to 1914, except those for hospital stewards, quartermaster sergeants, and ordnance sergeants, have been microfilmed as NARA microfilm publication M233, forty-seven rolls. Prior to 1821, the records of officers are included as well. The records are arranged in subcategories of time blocks. The alphabetical arrangement within each subcategory varies.


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