This article I would like to lightly touch upon what can be found in your
ancestor's military records at the National (or State) Archives.
These are generally divided into two categories: Service Records
and Veteran's Benefits.
The first American War for which there are official records would naturally
be the Revolutionary War. The United States did not exist prior to
then and therefore the early records of the war are very sketchy or non-existent.
Early service records consist of mainly muster rolls and lists of troops.
Even a few of these lists exist for the earlier colonial wars on a local
basis. The veteran's benefits records will have more to offer since
they were derived from legislation that was formulated after the war by
an official government. These were generally of two major varieties:
pensions and bounty land.
Pensions were offered to veterans, their widows, and sometimes their heirs
for death or disability for a certain minimum amount of service in the
war. Since the movement did not have money to pay soldiers, they
were sometimes promised land in return for their service called bounty
Service record files most always contain a limited amount of information
about the individual while the veteran benefits records, either pension
or bounty lands, usually contain much more since the applicants had to
prove who they were.
Revolutionary war records can be obtained from the National Archives by
sending for the forms, filling them out and enclosing the fee or using
a credit card number. These records should be searched if your ancestor
was of age during the war, if his father was of age, or if a brother
of your ancestor served. All these instances might lead you to clues
to further your research.
After the Revolutionary War and before the Civil War, there were basically
4 sets of service records and 4 sets of benefits records that can be searched.
The service records include: Records for the period between the Revolution
and the War of 1812; Records for the War of 1812; Records of
the Indian and related wars; and lastly records of the Mexican War,
1846-48. The 4 sets of Veteran's Benefits records include:
The Old Wars, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Indian Wars.
There are many indexes available in the National
Archives to help you locate these records. An archivist will search
these indexes when you fill out the proper forms. Again, you will
probably find more information in the benefits records than the service
For those who had ancestors in the Civil War, there are also two types
of records to be searched: Service records and records of veteran's
In addition to the regular service records, one can also search the service
histories of volunteer units, Civil War draft records (such as those discussed
in last month's article), burial records of soldiers, headstone applications,
and naval service records.
The veteran's benefits offered to Civil War soldiers are almost all pensions
and these records will of course provide much more information than ordinary
Confederate service records have been collected by the National Archives
and a good sized collection has been put together. Confederate veteran's
benefits were paid by the states and that is where you should request those
pension records, etc.
Almost all of our male ancestors served in the military or their parents,
siblings or children did. Chances are good you will be able to find
out something about them by sending for some of the sources mentioned in
this article. Many of the indexes to these records are on film
at branch offices of the National Archives such as the one in New York
City. The information you can obtain will vary greatly from person
to person and can be as little as name, rank and unit or it may be loaded
with signed depositions, marriage certificates or other valuable sources.
For more detailed information about military records,
Val Greenwood's book, The
Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy will
be of great assistance. You may also obtain the Guide
to Researching at the National Archives.
Abstracts of service and pension records for some of the wars are
available in the research of the Orange County Genealogical Society.