Military records kept by the U.S. Government about soldiers and sailors who served their country are a major source of information about individuals.
The four major wars of interest to genealogists are the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Civil War (1861-1865), World War I (1918-1919) and World War II (1942-1945).
Approximately one out of every seven Americans fought in the American Revolution, approximately one out of every ten Americans fought in the Civil War, over 4.8 million served in World War I and over 16 million in World War II.
Because of these statistics, it is worthwhile to investigate the possibility that adult males (13 and up) who were alive during these wars may have fought in them. (Many smaller wars have occurred in U.S. history, and there are records of genealogical value for those conflicts. Use the Genealogical Holdings List as a starting point).
Information found in military records may include: date and place of birth of a veteran, date and place of death of that veteran, spouse's name, war(s) served in, state served from, date(s) of service, rank achieved, benefits received, and where the veteran lived after leaving service. In addition to these facts, many people have found personal accounts of the wartime experiences of their relatives.
If it is unknown from family or other sources whether an individual served in the military, you can consult published sources, starting with those listed here under Military Registers and Name Lists. There are also a number of lists of pensioners and officers available. In order to get started, you must at least have a family name, and, if possible, which branch of the military they might have served in (Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marines). It is especially important to have an idea of where they might have been living at the times of these wars, because many indexes and name lists are arranged by state.
Also, published lists of Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans are available for almost all states. See U.S. Military Records by James Neagles (listed here under the heading Guidebooks),and the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, (listed hereunder the heading National Archives) to find the names of books listing soldiers from each state.
The U.S. Census is also a major source of information about veterans of U.S. wars. In the 1840 Census, Revolutionary Pensioners were counted, and the information has been published in A Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services, listed under Military Registers below. Use the 1860 Census to find where relatives were living on the eve of the war, so as to have an idea from which state they might have served. In the 1890 Census, Union Army veterans and widows (KY-WY) were listed,although the records for states (AK-GA) were burned in a fire. In 1910,veterans from both sides of the Civil War and their widows were listed. And again in 1930, there was special notice of veterans and which war they served in.
Types of Records
After determining that your ancestor served in the military,you need to look for records of that service. There are many types of records that can center on military service. The two most important are service records(including personal data), and pension records (a good source for information about relatives. For information about all types of military records, see U.S. Military Records, by James Neagles, listed under Guidebooks.
The first places to look for Revolutionary War and Civil War records is in the National Archives. See the heading National Archives below for information. Records for military service in wars after the Civil War are in the National Personnel Records Center.
During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Government required that all men residing in the U.S., (including naturalized citizens and aliens,) between the ages of 18 and 45 to register for the draft. These registration cards can provide key genealogical information : full name, date of birth, place of birth, a personal description, citizenship, occupation, and often a signature.
Not all of the men who registered for the draft served in the military, and not all the men who served in the military registered for the draft. More importantly, these are not military service records. They contain no information about a person's military service.
Over 24 million men signed up between 1917 and 1918, during the three drafts for World War I. For those who were born between June 6, 1886 and August 28, 1897, the exact place of birth, town/village, county/province,and country, was required. This is often the only source to determine the town of origin of someone who never filed for naturalization, or was naturalized through their father prior to 1906.
The WWI Selective Service System consisted of 52 state offices, 155 district boards, and 4648 local boards. There were three registrations; each one varied in the ages of men required to register, forms and questions asked.
Records are arranged alphabetically, first by state; then by county, city, or draft board; and then by the surname. For those in rural areas, you may only need to know the county, but for larger counties and the large cities, you will need to know a street address in order to find the right draft board.
Locating Draft Registrations
The original WWI draft registration cards are stored at the National Archives -Southeast Region in Georgia. However, the cards have been microfilmed and are available through the National Archives (M1509), the NARA branches, and FamilySearch. Records pertaining to Washington State can be found at the Washington State Digital Archives.
Maps showing the draft board boundaries for WWI have been made for cities that had a large number of draft boards: Boundary Maps of Selected Cities and Counties of World War I Selective Service Draft Registration Boards, 1917-18. These maps have been microfilmed and are available also at the National Archives (M1860), selected NARA branches, and the Family History Library (film #1,498,803).
World War II draft cards are available are for men born between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897. These cards are easier to find as they are filed alphabetically by surname for the entire state. These cards have not been microfilmed. Cards for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, are available at the Seattle branch of the National Archives.
U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present, by James Neagles. 1994. R GEN 973 NEAGLES. This vital book includes chapters on records of military service, post-service records such as pension and land grant records, records available through the National Archives and other history and research centers, and lists of published sources by state.
Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications,GEN 355.6097 UNITED, 1985. kept on the Genealogy Reference shelf. This will help you understand what military records are available at the National Archives.
Records of the Revolutionary War, by William Saffell, 1969. R GEN 973.3 Sa17.
Tracing Your Civil War Ancestors, by Bertram Groene, 1973. R GEN 016.9293 G892.This source covers research for Union and Confederate service in the National Archives, in state archives and in published sources.
Users Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War, by Alan Aimone,1999. R GEN 973.7 AIMONE, kept on the Civil War shelf.
How to Locate Anyone who is or has Been in the Military: Armed Forces Locator Directory, by Richard Johnson, 1999. 355.0025 JOHNSON, kept in the Second Floor Reference Area Downtown. This book is most useful for research within the 20th century.
Records Relating to Personal Participation in World War II: American Military Casualties and Burials, by the United States National Archives and Records Administration, 1993. Located in Government Documents: AE 1.124:82.
Uncle, We are Ready! Registering America's Men, 1917-1918, by John J.Newman. Heritage Quest, 2001
Washington State Digital Archive is currently compiling a collection of records regarding Washington citizens who served in the military from Territorial times to WWI.
Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Patriot Index, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, 2003. R GEN 929.1 D256d. Kept on the Index shelf in the Genealogy Section. This source lists nearly 115,000 Revolutionary War patriots,and gives their birth and death dates, spouse's name, state served from, and whether there are existing pension records.
A Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services: with their Names,Ages, and Places of Residence... Under the Act for Taking the Sixth Census,1989. R GEN 312.0973 CENSUS. This source is based on the 1840 Census, and gives names, ages, and places of residence of military pensioners.
Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications, by the National Genealogical Society, 1966. R GEN 973.34 N213. This source indexes the applications made by soldiers and their widows for pensions or bounty land warrants (land given as a reward for military service) that are kept in the National Archives.
Index to Revolutionary War Service Records. transcribed by Virgil D.White. Waynesboro, TN, The National Historical Publishing Company,1995. R GEN 973.3 WHITE
Revolutionary Pensioners: a Transcript of the Pension List of the United States for 1813,1978. R GEN 929.373 REVOLUT 1978.
Bibliography of Military Name Lists from Pre 1675-1900: A Guide to Genealogical Sources, by Lois Horowitz, 1990. R GEN 016.92973 HOROWIT. This is a finding aid for all kinds of lists of military personnel, including those published in genealogical magazines.
War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,1880, 70 vols. GEN 973.7 UNITED. Kept in the Genealogy Area on the Civil War shelf. This enormous set contains the reports of activities and correspondence of both sides of the war. There is a name index, which is the first place to stop. Keep in mind that almost all of the names will be those of officers and that no personal information of individuals listed is given. For further help in using this set, look at A User's Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War, listed above under"Guidebooks."
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion,1894, 30 vols. GEN 973.7 UNITED. Kept in the Genealogy Area on the Civil War shelf. Use this source for information about Navy personnel during the Civil War.
List of Pensioners on the Roll January 1, 1883..., by the U.S. Pension Bureau, 4 vols (1 of the original 5 volumes is missing). R GEN 351.5 Un292.
List of Officers of the Army of the United States from 1770-1900, by William H.Powell, 1900. R GEN 929 P871.
U.S. Army Register, 1896, 1897, 1911-1976. Kept on the Military shelf in the Genealogy Area. Only officers are listed in this register.
Register of Navy Officers (title varies), 1903, 1908-1985. Kept on the Military shelf in the Genealogy Area.
Air Force Register, 1948-1972,1979. Kept on the Military shelf in the Genealogy Area. Only officers were listed in this register.
For More Sources:
Subject Headings to try in the Computer Catalog:
Categories to try in the Genealogy Holdings List:
The National Archives ist he major repository for the Federal Government's official military records for the American Revolution and Civil War. As well as its headquarters in Washington D.C., there are twelve regional branches, one of which is in Seattle.
Fires in 1800 and 1814 destroyed most of the original pension records and service records for soldiers and sailors in the Revolutionary War. However, using substitute records such as muster rolls, pay lists, hospital records, etc., service records have been compiled for participants in that war. For the Civil War, there are three kinds of files available at the National Archives about Union veterans: military service records, pension application files, and records of military units.
What you will find in service and pension files varies. They could contain only brief information on where the soldier served. They could contain the information provided by a widow, such as family Bible genealogical records to show proof of marriage in order to receive pension records, or sworn statements about military experiences by veterans requesting pensions or bounty land warrants.
Pensions were granted to officers, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and veterans who served a certain length of time, by the federal government and the states. You will generally find that pension records contain more genealogical information than service records; especially if a widow was rejected for a pension. Also keep in mind that not all veterans applied for or received a pension.
Pension files for 1775 to 1916 are available, but only those for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed. Lists of federal and state military pensioners have been published several times between 1792 and 1840.
Microfilmed records that show the service of Civil War military units can sometimes offer additional information about a soldier's wartime activities. However, these records vary widely in their content from among narratives to brief notes. Although individual soldiers are rarely named,they can be used in conjunction with a soldier's other records to provide a picture of his military service.
Do not overlook state records. Because militia and volunteer regiments were formed by each state or colony, they often kept service records as well. You can generally find these records in state archives or state historical societies. Sometimes the federal government sent copies of their records to the States' Adjutant General.
Many individuals did not serve in the military during the war, but helped the cause in other ways. Writing to the state archives of the state in which your ancestor lived at the time may unearth other records pertaining to him.
Be sure to search both federal, state, and colonial sources.The following may be helpful:
Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Washington D.C. National Archives and Records Service, 2000. R GEN 016.9291 UNITED. This is the best source with which to start. It fully describes the types of records available at the National Archives.
Guide to Original Records in the National Archives: Pacific Northwest Division,by the United States National Archives and Records Administration, 1988. NW-R OVERSIZE 025.1714 UNITED 1988.
National Archives Microfilm Publications in the National Archives, Pacific Northwest Division, by the United States National Archives and Records Administration, 1990. NW-R OVERSIZE 016.9795 UNITED 1990 (and R GEN).
Obtaining National Archives Records
NOTE: The UNION pension files and most of the UNION military service records have not been microfilmed. CONFEDERATE pensions were issued by the individual states and can be located in state archives or historical societies.
There are four ways to obtain copies of these files:
Civil War service records may be ordered by mail using an NATF Form 86 for each soldier. Copies of Civil War pension records can be ordered by mail using an NATF Form 85 for each soldier.
You can request NATF Form 85 and Form 86 from the National Archives online. Be sure to specify the correct form number and the quantity of each form you need.You can also obtain NATF Form 85 and Form 86 by writing to: National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWDT1, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW,Washington, DC 20408-0001.
To request copies of records directly from the National Archives, use NATF Form 85 for each request (use three forms if you are requesting all three types of files for your veteran). Forms may also be requested by mail from:
Reference Services Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
8th and Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington D.C. 20408
You will need to provide the veteran's name, which war (if any) he/she served in, the state from which he/she served, and which branch of the military he/she served in (Army, Navy or Marines). If you have it, also include the date or place of birth or death, the pension number and/or the bounty land file number, and the military unit.
Expect an answer in a minimum of 8-10 weeks. You will receive a report on what information was found and the cost for photocopies.You can also send prepayment with your first request. Currently, fees for Civil War pension files (NATF Form 85) are $37.00 for the complete file. Copies of selected pension documents (NATF Form 85) are $14.75. Civil War military service files (NATF Form 86) are $17.00.
All of these options will involve fees or other costs.
Not everyone favored the American cause during the Revolution. If you can't locate federal or state military records for your ancestor, don't overlook sources treating other possibilities. Many did not join because of religious beliefs (i.e., the Quakers), many were loyal to the Crown (Tories or Loyalists), and many of our ancestors were mercenaries fighting for the British but chose to stay after the war (Hessians).
Some historians claim that as much as one-third of the Colonial population was either a Loyalist or a Tory. Canada, the West Indies,and Britain saw thousands of Loyalists fleeing America; though many eventually returned. Ontario, then called Upper Canada, was mainly settled by settlers came from the American colonies.
Thousands of German mercenaries recruited by the British deserted in order to stay in this country, and others asked for permission to stay here after the war.
Information about veterans of 20th century wars may be obtained from the National Personnel Records Center, if you are a member of the immediate family(records are protected by federal privacy laws for 75 years).
National Personnel Records Center
9700 Page Blvd
St. Louis, Missouri 63132-1500