Using military records to learn about your ancestors

While military records are a great source of information for genealogical research, tracking down the appropriate record requires some investigative work.  Identifying the branch of service, the war your ancestor was involved in and dates of service, your ancestor’s rank and whether he was a member of the regular or volunteer army are some of the important inquiries in determining how and where to locate military records.  You can search for newspaper clippings, obituaries, letters, journals, service medals and grave markers to provide details about your ancestor’s military involvement.  Once you have obtained certain facts about your ancestor’s military background, review the two primary records repositories: the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  They each contain various records for volunteer and regular servicemen in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps reaching back as far as 1775.  These archives will lead to more specific resources depending on the particularities of your ancestor’s military service.

Volunteers and Regular Army servicemen.  Compiled service records consisting of information obtained from muster rolls, returns, pay vouchers and the like are a helpful starting point for searching for volunteer servicemen.  These documents will offer information such as your ancestor’s military unit, rank, dates of service and basic biographical and medical data.  For those with ancestors in the Regular Army, you will need to explore several resources, as the War Department did not maintain service records for soldiers in the Regular Army.  Start with the Regular Army Enlistment Papers for the years 1798-1894, which is indexed alphabetically by the soldier’s name and provides an abundance of personal and military service information.  Another useful source is the Register of Entitlements in the U.S. Army 1798-1914, which is recorded on microfilm at the National Archives.  Once you know your ancestor’s arm of service, you should consult individual muster rolls, which are arranged by regiment number and thereafter in alphabetical order by company, troop and battery.

Pensions.  Pension records and applications based on service in the U.S. armed forces between 1775 and 1916 are available for viewing at the National Archives.  Pension files are a particularly fruitful source of genealogical information.  They often include marriage, birth and death certificates, discharge papers, affidavits, personal statements of events during service and other military related papers.  Pension files in the National Archives are categorized by war event from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.  These pension files contain indexes that are arranged alphabetically by name.

Files and records related to particular war periods.  Records relating to claims based on wartime service between 1775 and 1855, referred to as bounty land warrant application files, are also a worthwhile source of information.  These files include documents similar to those found in pension records.  Information on servicemen in the Confederate Army is available on microfilm in the Consolidated Index to Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers.  For those unable to visit the National Archives to view these records and microfilm collections, copies of the sources described herein can be obtained through the mail.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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