Your Ancestor’s Military Records: A Key Tool in Your Searches

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards gives tips for finding and using all the information about your ancestors found in their military records. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

One place to get a large amount of information about your ancestors may come from their military experiences, so I have boiled down some of the basic things to look for. I have also added a small vocabulary key of a few terms that you may see in your searches in this area.

Illustration: Revolutionary War soldier
Illustration: Revolutionary War soldier

The Soldier and the Genealogist

The first U.S. census was done in 1790 because the government thought it would provide information that would help to govern the country. At first the government wanted to count men so that if war were declared, they would know how many men were eligible to serve in the military. In later censuses the questions were changed to fit the needs of the government. The census is taken by a person called a census taker or enumerator. In the past, the enumerator went from house to house counting all the people living in a certain neighborhood and asking them the questions designed to get the information that was needed.

Before, during, and after a war the government likes to know who is enlisted, where the soldiers are based, where they were or are fighting, when they’re absent from duty, and when there’s illness or injury. If your ancestor served in a war, there’s a good chance you can find out a lot about him (and, more recently, her). Since the Revolutionary War, America has seen 11 major conflicts. (These are the wars in which the U.S. declared its involvement.)

Illustration: Civil War soldier
Illustration: Civil War soldier

Few women appear in early military records , but there are wars in which the women served in medical or cooking positions, helped through welfare organizations, and contributed in countless ways to keep society moving on the home front (it’s interesting to learn about the role of women in the military over the years), but the vast majority of records cover the contributions of men made in formal military units.

Every good ancestor detective knows that when you find a clue, you’ve got to follow it until you’ve learned all you can learn. So, if you suspect you have a soldier in your family tree, prepare to look for every document that his service may have produced – which may be a lot!

Pedigree Chart

First, look at your pedigree chart (if you haven’t started a pedigree chart, take a minute to fill one out). A pedigree chart will help you focus your search on one ancestor at a time.

A pedigree chart begins with you and moves backward in time to your parents, grandparents, and so on. Eventually, you’ll move into the time period of a war. When you’ve found the names of your ancestors living during a war, the key question then becomes: “Was my male ancestor of an age to fight in that war?” In earlier wars males were allowed to join as early as 12 or 13, and older men in their 60s or later would also have been accepted, so be prepared to find this possibility. But generally, if the ancestor was older than 60 or younger than 10, he probably stayed home.

Illustration: World War II soldier
Illustration: World War II soldier

Family Group Record

A second chart you should look at is your family group record, because even if you don’t have a soldier directly in your line, it could be that his brother, uncle, father, etc., was in the war. These records might also provide information about the rest of the family, particularly if there is a pension file available.

Military Service Record

A military service record usually includes company musters, rolls, rosters, enlistments, discharge records, discharge lists, prisoner of war records, records of burials, and oaths of allegiance which document the daily events of soldiers. The number and types of service records available vary from war to war. There are indexes to help you search them, and copies of the originals have been microfilmed. They can be found at the National Archives, Family History Centers, and also at many genealogical or state historical societies across the country.

After a soldier is discharged from service, he is entitled to payment for the time he spent in the military. To activate a pension, a soldier had to apply. If your ancestor’s application was rejected, he had to make a case for his eligibility by submitting letters and providing testimonials about his service and life at home. Friends, family, or doctors may have also submitted testimonials or affidavits describing his life and service. Many widows applied for their husband’s pension and sometimes children received part of their parents’ pension.

Once you know which regiment your ancestor fought in, you can look for a published military history which can provide details about the military experience, often in firsthand accounts, as the duties of the regiment are traced through the hardships of life at war. These histories are located in the libraries of the regiment’s home communities, though some may be in state libraries or historical societies.

Illustration: Vietnam War soldier
Illustration: Vietnam War soldier

Brief Glossary

Here are some terms you will probably run across while searching archives for service records:

  • Affidavit: A legal written statement often made under oath or affirmed by someone with legal authority.
  • Furlough: To be absent from duty.
  • Muster: The roll call for a military unit.
  • Pension records: Payment made to a soldier after his service.
  • Service records: A group of military records that detail a soldier’s military activities.

When I sent for my father’s military file (he was in the Korean War), I was surprised at the thickness of his file and quickly learned that when you are in the military, every time you go off base, take a class, etc., it generates a form that stays in their file. I also learned after my father’s death the interesting tale on how he enlisted (I added it to his Lifestory so it isn’t lost) as well as his lying about his birthdate so that he could enlist. You never know what you will discover!

Happy Hunting!

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