If your family tree extends back for several generations in the US, chances are good that you have at least one ancestor who fought in the military. With the growing collection of online databases, learning about your military ancestors has never been easier. Military records can do much more than shed light on the details of your ancestor’s military service. They might provide insights into their lives or help you fill in family relationships.
The Basics of US Military Records
US military records date back to before the Revolutionary War. These records exist at both the state and federal level. Under the umbrella of military records, you can find a wide range of documents, such as service, draft, and conscription records as well as bounty land warrant and pension records.
Sometimes military records can hold the most thorough—and interesting—information available about your ancestors. They often include basic information, such as name, residence, and age along with some information about that person’s military service, such as his unit and the date he was mustered in and out of service. Many records contain a lot more than this. Military records might tell you what your ancestor looked like or describe in detail how he got an injury and how it affected him after the war. A few, particularly pension records, can contain details about events that occurred during service, letters, proof of family dates and places (birth, marriage, and death certificates or other documents), and sometimes even photos or pages torn from the family Bible.
Introductory Record Collections
Now that you understand how fabulous military records can be, it’s time to find your ancestors in them. Here are some places to start your search.
First, take a look at your family tree to find possible candidates—ancestors who lived in the US at the time of a particular war and who were approximately the right age to serve. Most of the soldiers who fought throughout history have been men between the ages of 18 and 30. Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and you shouldn’t limit your search to candidates who meet these parameters. Boys younger than 18 served and men much older than 30 have served, particularly as officers. Although women generally did not fight in battle until relatively recently, sometimes they accompanied their husbands or served as nurses or in other ways. (For more information on women’s role in the military through history see: http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/images/nov/women_military_timeline.pdf).
Below are a few collections from four of the major wars in US history to whet your research appetite. To increase your chances of success as you search these collections for your ancestors, be sure to try a number of spelling variants on each name.
Revolutionary War. Fought from 1775 to 1783, the Revolutionary War involved around 217,000 soldiers. Keep in mind that the population was much smaller then—so this represented a significant portion of the people living in the American colonies at that time.
FamilySearch can help you connect to some useful Revolutionary War records, such as the index to the United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800–1900. If you want to see the actual pensions, you’ll need to follow the prompt to a partner website, Fold3, which requires a membership. You can also browse rosters of soldiers and sailors and war rolls on FamilySearch. A Fold3 membership will give you access to their Revolutionary War Collection page where you can search those same records as well as others.
Another excellent resource is the Daughters of the American Revolution ancestor database, which contains information from their 152 volume set, representing tens of thousands of DAR applicants.
Civil War.The Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, is often described as the costliest war fought on American soil. An estimated 620,000 Americans died in this war.
If you’re looking for a Civil War ancestor, you won’t want to miss the comprehensive National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors Database, which contains 6.3 million soldier records that draw on information from a number of sources. An alternate version is available at FamilySearch.
Another important group of records are pension records. Fold3 is in the process of digitizing these. Although they are only 11 percent complete, indexes are available there as well as at FamilySearch and Ancestry.com.
World War I. World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918 with the US entering the war in April 1917. It involved 4.7 million US servicemen and women who fought in locations around the world.
FamilySearch’s draft registration card collection includes 24 million people
and is a good first search to find an ancestor who may have fought in this war. When you’re ready to expand your search, other collections exist at FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Fold3.
World War II. Over 16 million US soldiers fought in World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, with US involvement beginning in 1941.
You can get started locating family who served in this war with a couple of FamilySearch searches. Good records to search are enlistment records—an incomplete collection covering the years 1939–1946 and draft registration cards—a collection only partially indexed. Other options are available at Fold3 and Ancestry.
Of course, this list doesn’t include all US wars or even all the records for the wars listed above. So if after exploring these, you’re still hungry for more, here are some places to dive deeper and find more information:
- FamilySearch’s United States Military Records Wiki
- Online Military Indexes and Records, A Genealogy Guide
- Fold3. This entire site is devoted to military records and has a great depth and breadth of records from many wars throughout history. (This site requires a membership.)
- Ancestry’s US Military Collection contains over 100 million names in 700 titles and databases. (This site requires a membership.)