Military Service Records

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The colonial wars occurred between 1607 and 1774. Typically, those records don’t provide much genealogical information. Although, they can be full of interesting historical information. Those records include lists, rosters, and rolls, but many have been lost throughout the years. Those that have survived mainly only list names and units of soldiers. Many of them have been published and can be found in multiple repositories across the United States.

Although those records don’t contain a lot of genealogical information, they can still be useful. For example, if you can pinpoint a soldier and unit in which that soldier served, you can often determine the general area where he lived. Based on that information, you may be able to cross reference local newspapers and other records, allowing you to find family connections. However, researchers should be careful when looking into family connections of those with common names, such as John Smith, since multiple people by that name may have lived in one area at the same time.

Records pertaining to the Revolutionary War, as well as certain frontier conflicts, span the years of 1775 to 1811. Unfortunately, fire destroyed many of the original Revolutionary War service records. However, the National Archives does have some on file, mainly for those in the Continental Army. Some information about military officers, militia units, and state lines may also be available. Unlike colonial records, records from this time period may contain very helpful information for genealogists. That information may include enlistment dates, birthplaces, residences, discharge dates, and other details about the person of interest.

Indexes to service records from the Revolutionary War are available. Many of them are on microfilm and multiple libraries across the country have copies of them on file. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Family History Library (FHL), and National Archives each have copies of the service records from the Revolutionary War, as do other libraries in the United States.

The FHL records can be more easily searched by obtaining the call numbers of the microfilms from the Military Records Register. Researchers should note that the NARA inter-library loan program no longer exists, but the FHL’s collection of records is nearly as large as that housed at the National Archives and copies are available at the FHL’s family history centers as well. If researchers wish to have the National Archives searched for a particular record, inquiries can be sent via NATF Form 80 to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

NARA can provide bounty-land application records, military service records, and pension records. However, researchers cannot search through those records unless they know the veteran’s full name, the war in which he participated, the state where he served, and the branch of the military in which he served. The same request form can be used to obtain information on soldiers who served in all wars that occurred before World War II. However, it may take between 6 and 8 weeks to receive a reply.

Several sources have published roster lists from the Revolutionary War over the years. Each library should be able to provide lists of its own holdings. There are also several lists available detailing the holdings of multiple libraries.

Records of German Auxiliary Troops and Loyalists

Around a third of the people living in the colonies were Loyalists, which were colonists who remained loyal to Great Britain. Some loyalists lived in close proximity to each other. So, certain areas were mainly made up of Loyalists, even though they were the over all minority. Some Loyalists simply tried not to get involved with the Revolution, while others actively fought against it. After Britain lost the war, many Loyalists fled to the Canadian Maritime Provinces, Ontario, and other areas that were loyal to or controlled by Great Britain.

Many German auxiliaries forces helped the British during the conflict with the colonists. They were known as Hessians and thought to be mercenaries. However, that wasn’t entirely true. Some troops did come from Hessen Hanau and Hessen Kassel, but others came from Ansbach-Bayreuth, Anhalt-Zerbst, Waldeck and Braunschweig. Around 32,000 German troops came to North America during the conflict and up to 7,000 of them stayed there after the conflict ended.

Post-Revolutionary War Records (1812–48)

Service records were kept for all military actions, including the War of 1812, as well as the Indian Wars and the Mexican War. Those service records have been put on microfilm and indexes of them have been created. Researchers can personally look at records at FHL repositories or the National Archives, or inquiries can be sent via NATF Form 80.

There were several special units that participated in the Mexican War. They were New Mexico’s Santa Fe Battalion of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, the Mormon Battalion, and units from the Indian nations. Records for each of those units were kept by the units themselves.

Civil War Union Service Records (1861 to 1865)

There were many records kept by and about the Union army. They included muster rolls, enlistment papers, death reports, prisoner-of-war documents, and other documents. Some indexes are available and are indexed according to state and military unit. However, not all records have been indexed and, in order to search existing indexes, certain information must already be known. For example, researchers must know the state where the soldier lived and served, or at least know the unit in which the soldier served. Otherwise, the appropriate service record cannot be accessed. African American troops from all states were listed in United States Colored Troops (USCT), which has been indexed.

A soldier’s enlistment papers typically describe him and also list the location of his enlistment. Since most soldiers enlisted near their homes, that information can be useful to genealogists. However, not every soldier enlisted close to home. Nevertheless, since pioneers moved around so much between 1850 and 1880, those enlistment papers can be handy for pinpointing a person or family’s location at a specific time.

If the state and service branch of a Civil War soldier is known, the National Archives can find the service record for that soldier in its collection. Requests for information on Union Army soldiers can be sent using NATF Form 80. Many microfilmed indexes of Civil War service records are available at various repositories across the country, including the FHL and the National Archives. Nevertheless, only the National Archives holds the service records themselves.

Civil War Soldier Draft Records (1863 to 1865)

White males and the majority of male aliens wanting to be naturalized as of March of 1863 were impacted by the draft that year. All men in those categories who were between the ages of 20 and 45 and were physically able were subject to being called up for service.

Civil War Confederate Service Records (1861 to 1865)

In April of 1865 the Confederate government evacuated from Richmond, Virginia. At that time, Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General, Samuel Cooper had their personnel records transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina. After an armistice, when Confederate civil authorities took their leave of Charlotte, the records were ordered turned over to “the enemy” by President Jefferson Davis. His goal was to preserve them for their historical value. General Joseph E. Johnston gave those records to North Carolina’s Union Commander and said “As they will furnish valuable materials for history, I am anxious for their preservation, and doubt not that you are too.”

The records of the Confederacy that were captured or surrendered were moved to Washington D.C. for permanent storage. Throughout the years, other records have been copied and moved there as well. A project was started by the War Department in 1903 to catalog and organize every soldier’s service record. Those records are known simply as the “Compiled Military Service Records.” Those records are used to fulfill any request for records relating to Confederate soldiers. It is a massive file, and it is considered to be the most complete resource for such records.

In addition to the file itself, there is also a massive index for the file, known as Index to Confederate Soldiers (NARA microfilm publication M1290). It is so large that it is kept on 535 microfilm rolls. There is also another set of Confederate records available, which do not relate to specific soldiers or the service records, which researchers may find useful.

Each Confederate service record is made up of one or more original documents and card abstracts. The abstracts are taken from descriptive rolls, muster rolls, prison records, parole records, returns, and other documents. The card abstracts typically indicate where a soldier was at a certain time. However, some of them can be used to trace a soldier’s entire military history. Military service records may include a service member’s discharge information, death information, service history, place of enlistment, age, and other identifying information.

The national Archives holds the original records that were used to create the cards. Both the Family History Library (FHL) and the National Archives have indexes of certain records available on microfilm. Index records provide the soldier’s name, rank, and unit, as well as a reference to the pertinent file, which can then be searched by National Archives staff members and copied for the researcher.

Histories of Confederate vessels and military unites were also compiled in the M861 collection at the National Archives. They are organized by state in alphabetical order and then arranged within those state sections according to unit.

Around 28,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers of the Confederacy died in the north because prisoner exchanges were not taking place near the end of the war. Early legislation (between 1867 and 1873) made it possible to rebury Union soldiers at national cemeteries. Durable headstones were also provided for those soldiers. However, no such arrangements were made for the fallen Confederates. Typically, Confederate graves had thin headstones and nothing more inscribed on them than the name of the soldier and the grave identification number. Burial registers for cemeteries may contain names of Confederates buried in those cemeteries. However, the thin headstones and wooden headboards often used as Confederate grave markers have mostly been destroyed over time.

In 1906, a statute was passed that required the graves of Confederate Soldiers who died while imprisoned by the Union be marked. The result was that a typescript register of Confederate sailors and soldiers buried in national cemeteries was made in 1912. Most of the entries in that register were organized according to the names of the prison camps, according to the cemetery name, or according to the name of the place where the soldier died. Individual burial lists are also organized alphabetically by soldier name. The details in those lists vary, but they usually include the rank of the soldier, his regiment, the date of his death, and the location and number of his grave. Nevertheless, researchers should be aware that some death dates and information about regiment and companies is missing from certain entries. Also, some cemeteries did not have numbered grave sites. Some entries are for unknown soldiers or for soldiers whose bodies were sent home for burial, or otherwise removed. For example, bodies originally buried in Indianapolis, Indiana at Green Lawn Cemetery were later relocated to lot 285, sec. 32, Crown Hill Cemetery, which is also located in Indianapolis, Indiana. On October 27, 1931, they were labeled “unknowns.” The register is contained within Record Group 92, Records of the Quartermaster General.

State Confederate Records

Major effort was made to create a complete War Department Collection of Confederate Records. However, some records are still missing. For example, certain state militia units were not mustered. Therefore, official records of them do not exist at the War Department. However, some groups kept their own records and, in cases where those records still exist today, state archives or state adjutant general offices may hold them. State records are also the only sources of information on state benefits or pensions for Confederate soldiers, since federal benefits were only given to Union soldiers and veterans.

The largest collection of Confederate records on microfilm can be found at the Family History Library (FHL). Military Records Register, Vol. II: Civil War lists the call numbers for those records, which researchers can use to request information from various family history centers. If the particular center doesn’t have the records of interest, the librarian can contact the main FHL office to get a copy. That office is located in Salt lake City, Utah.

Records from military academies and court records from Reconstruction may also be useful to researchers. Some Confederate soldiers trained at West Point, but most trained in military academies located in the South. Three useful resources for finding those records are:

Bvt. Major-General George W. Cullum, Biographical Register, Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, 3rd ed., 9 vols. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1891)

Stanley P. Tozeski, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. Military Academy (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1976)

Jon L. Wakelyn, Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977)

The government confiscated quite a bit of land during the Reconstruction after the war. That led to multiple legal cases. Most genealogists fail to check those records, but they can contain a lot of valuable information about Southern military members.

Spanish-American War Through Modern Wars (1898 To the Present)

Not all service records for those who served after the Civil War ended are easily available. However, available records tend to contain more details than records from the Civil War and years prior to it.

Service records that are less than 75 years old can only be accessed by the veteran themselves or someone legally authorized by the veteran, unless the veteran is deceased. If the veteran is deceased, a person who can prove that they are the veteran’s next of kin can access the record. Most of those records can be found at the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132. The current Form 180 can be used to request information from those records, but some information is protected by privacy laws.

Genealogical information can often be found in discharge papers and related documents. Those documents were given to veterans when they left the service, or given to their next of kin, if they died while serving. Although some records are available at the National Personnel Records Center, they use those records to provide information about benefits. They are not a genealogical resource. They typically refer researchers to the veteran, or to the veteran’s family. Nevertheless, that agency is required by the Freedom of Information Act to provide certain information upon request. That information includes:

  • Age
  • Birth Date
  • Salary

    Photographs

  • Commission Source
  • Duty Status
  • Office Telephone Number
  • Education (Civilian and Military)
  • Decorations and Awards (Including a Copy of the Citation, if Available)
  • List of Duty Assignments and Their Locations
  • Finalized Future Assignments
  • Records of Court-Martial Trials (Unless Classified)
  • Marital Status
  • Rank/Grade
  • Serial/Service Number
  • Date of Rank/Grade
  • Promotion Sequence Number
  • Names, Genders, and Ages of Dependents

The center can also provide information about the home address or the names of the parents, if there is a question as to the person’s identity. However, researchers should be prepared to pay fees and wait several weeks to receive that information.

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis had a fire on July 12, 1973. Many military records were damaged or totally destroyed in that fire. Based on numbers calculated by acting assistant archivist of federal records centers James E. Cole Jr., the percentages of destroyed records were:

Army Records from 1912 to 1959 (80%)

Air Force Records from 1947 to 1963 (60%)

Army Discharge Records since January 1, 1973 (1% or Less)

Parts of the records for military personnel who are still living have been reconstructed because those living military members and veterans need their records in order to receive benefits and pensions. However, records for personnel who were deceased at the time of the fire have not been reconstructed.

There were some medical treatment records for veterans and draft records that were not in the files damaged by the fire. For example, draft records from World War I are available on microfilm.

Discharge Records

Honorable discharges of World War I soldiers were required to be recorded in each county in the country. Some counties also recorded records of discharges from the Philippine Insurrection and the Civil War. Some of the records include medical discharges and dishonorable discharges as well. Local courthouses hold those records, which may be handwritten or typed transcripts. The soldiers themselves received the original discharge documents. The Genealogical Society of Utah has placed some of those records on microfilm, but most of them are not available through that society.

Discharge records are full of useful genealogical facts. For example, they include the ranks and serial numbers of the soldiers, as well as their enlistment ages and races. Occupations and personal description may also be listed, along with the reasons that each soldier was discharged. Service records are sometimes included with discharge records, but not always. When they are available, they may list any leaves of absence the soldiers took, as well as battles they participated in, honors and promotions they received, their marital statuses, and physical and mental evaluations.

World War II veteran discharges were required to be recorded in the same way. Information in those records is quite similar to information found in discharge records for those who served in World War I.

United States Merchant Marine Records

The U.S. Coast Guard holds merchant marine personnel records. The National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132 can be contacted for information about discharged, retired, or deceased members of the merchant marines. The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, DC 20590 should be contacted for information about active reserve members and officers who served before 1929.

Regular U.S. Army Enlistment Records

If an individual’s service record cannot be found in a particular index, researchers should consider the fact that the person of interest may not have been a draftee or volunteer. Instead, the person may have been a Regular U.S. Army member. NARA microfilm publication M233 lists Regular U.S. Army veterans from 1798 to 1914. However, it does not include ordinance sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, or hospital stewards. The collection includes 47 rolls of microfilm. Records of officers who served before 1821 are also included. The records are sorted by specific blocks of time. Organizational techniques within those blocks vary a bit.