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
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
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
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:
pensions were issued by the individual state governments of the states listed
- 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:
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
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.
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.
[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]