Military and pension records are among the most useful sources available to genealogists because of the detail they offer. These records are important because they may provide an ancestor’s date of birth, place of residence, the names and addresses of family members, and other details that can round out a picture of his or her life. Judith Prowse Reid, Head, Local History and Genealogy, Library of Congress
Military records have originated at the federal, state, and local levels. Whether created in time of war or in time of peace, these records provide unique facts and insights into the lives of men and women who have served in the military forces of the United States. Almost every American family, in one generation or another, has seen one or more of its members serve in America’s armed forces. From regimental histories, which provide blow-by-blow accounts of a unit’s participation in military actions, to the personal details contained in the service and pension files of individual men and women, military records provide valuable information concerning a large and significant portion of the American population. And because military records have been preserved and made available at and through a number of research institutions, much information awaits the well-prepared researcher.
To locate military records for any individual, it is essential to know when and where in the armed forces he or she served and whether that person served in the enlisted ranks or was an officer. (If you don’t have that identifying information, some potential solutions are discussed below.)
As in any research project, it is important to study carefully whatever is already known about the subject of interest. Families and communities frequently pass down stories of military heroes from generation to generation. In most cases, these stories retain some fact, but, with the passage of years and in the process of retelling, accuracy fades. At any rate, family stories should not be overlooked for clues at the start of a military search.
When and where did the individual live? Did the family keep evidence of military service? Certificates, letters, journals, diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photographs, medals, swords, and other memorabilia kept in private collections may provide the basic facts needed to begin searching in military record collections.
Creating a historical time line can be especially useful for determining if and when the subject might have served in the military. By compiling a chronological list of the known dates and places of residence of an individual from birth through adulthood, it is frequently easy to discover the possibility of military service. Was the individual the right age to be eligible for the draft or to serve voluntarily in the Civil War? Is it likely that the person served on the Northern rather than the Southern side, or vice versa? For records from the colonial period to more recent military engagements, the place of residence is key to finding an individual’s records.
There are a number of public records that are potentially valuable in discovering the military history of a veteran. It has been a long-standing American tradition to foster patriotism by honoring local sons and daughters who have defended the ideals of their country. Hometown military heroes are frequently noted on public monuments, and local newspaper files may yield surprisingly detailed accounts of a community’s well-known and less-famous military personnel.
Commercial enterprises and historically oriented groups and institutions have regularly published local histories. As a rule, these histories will include glowing accounts of the area’s involvement in military activities. Some volumes provide biographical sketches of military leaders, while others attempt to list all of the community’s participants in various military conflicts. Locally focused histories have been published at various times for virtually every state and county in the United States. Do not overlook them as an important research aid. P. William Filby’s A Bibliography of American County Histories is a list of five thousand such sources.
In addition to the standard histories, local public libraries and historical societies usually preserve and make available other types of publications that document the military history of the geographical areas they serve. Historical agencies collect biographies, letters, diaries, journals, and all sorts of memorabilia from military units and servicemen and -women. The personal accounts found in some collections are a fascinating means of stepping back in time. Firsthand accounts afford a better understanding of the day-to-day drudgery, loneliness, fears, and satisfactions of military life.
Cemeteries provide yet another local source of information regarding individuals who served in the armed forces. Almost every cemetery in the United States contains some evidence of military events and veterans. Cemetery records and grave markers frequently identify military dead by name, rank, and unit designation. If a man or woman died elsewhere while in the service, the body was frequently brought home for burial; cemetery records often note the place and date of death.
Court records are yet another potential source for identifying those who served in the military. Most counties formally recorded and indexed the names of their citizens who were discharged from the military. In some local courts, “military discharges” will be found indexed separately, and in others the military records may be oddly interspersed with deeds, naturalizations, or other categories of documents. The contents of military records may vary greatly from one courthouse to another. Some will provide biographical information, while others may simply list names and the event or names and date of certificate issue.
Federal military documents that have been classified as archival material are in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration. Not all records created by military agencies are judged to be permanently valuable. Generally, only records of historical or administrative importance are kept.
A wonderful array of federal military records are available in major libraries and archives and through microfilm rental programs. (Heritage Quest, a division of AGLL, Inc., PO Box 329, Bountiful, UT 84011-0329, is a source of rental microfilms.) With sufficient identifying information, you may request a search of the registers of enlistments or the compiled military service records. The minimum information required for a search is (1) the soldier’s full name, (2) the war in which he or she served or period of service, and (3) the state from which he or she served. For the Civil War, you must also indicate whether the person served in Union or Confederate forces. A separate copy of the form must be used for military service, pension, and bounty-land warrant applications. Submit requests for information about individuals who served in the military before World War I on NATF form 80 (Order for Copies of Veterans Records). Write to the National Archives and Records Administration, General Reference Branch, Washington, DC 20408 to obtain copies of NATF form 80. Always ask for “all records” for an individual.
Make requests for information about U.S. Army officers separated from the service after 1912 on standard form 180 (Request Pertaining to Military Records) and send it to the Military Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132.
By far the most comprehensive study of military records and how to use them is found in James C. Neagles’s U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present. Neagles’s guide addresses primary and secondary military sources and accessibility, including the following information-rich sources: