America fought for its independence, and it has been fighting — when necessary — to keep it ever since. The history of the American military forces is a storied one. Images of George Washington standing in a boat as it crossed the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War, to images we see today of our troops fighting overseas in the Middle East, show the complex history of American military. Nearly every American has a relative who has served in the Unites States Armed Forces. Some as far back as when this country began.
How Can I Determine if My Ancestor Served in the Military?
A quick check of family records, and even a talk with your grandmother or grandfather will tell you if your ancestor was one of the soldiers who fought for our nations’ independence during the Revolutionary War, or fought for the United States in any of the historical wars or battles following the Independence period. Contact your eldest relative and ask questions, listen to family stories and see if he or she recalls previous military service. Spending the time with this family member will not only give you the opportunity to find the information you are looking for, but give them the precious company they are most likely craving. Take the time to go through family photographs they might have, and discuss where relatives are buried. See if your elder relative also has old newspaper clippings, or other types of telltale records, such as birth and death certificates and a knowledge of where your ancestors are buried.
If you don’t have an elderly family member to talk to, or they don’t remember much about the family history, do not panic. If you can find out where your ancestors came from, you can probably research local records to determine who was born where, died where, and whether they served in the military. Keep in mind, public resources like local libraries and city halls oftentimes have census records, birth and death records, and copies of any newspaper or local publication clippings that might discuss your relative and his or her military experience.
Dig a Little Deeper
Once you have a general idea of whom in your family served in the military and when and where, you can research military records for further information and, hopefully, confirmation of the armed service. Not only will these records tell you about your ancestor’s military service, they will also provide missing information about the soldier’s family at the time. Missing pieces of the puzzle can be found while reviewing military records, because they will confirm the soldier’s birthplace, birth date, current vocation, and the soldier’s immediate family members. Common research options include:
- Review the military service records at the National Personnel Records Center. These records include information on all Army service members from the
Revolutionary War on, and many service members — regardless of the branch of service in which they served — during the 20th century. You might be hard-pressed to find records on your relative if he or she was discharged from the military between November 1912 and January 1960. An unfortunate fire claimed these records that had not previously been transferred to a safer medium, such as microfiche or electronic copy. Records from A through Hubbard, James E. were the ones destroyed.
- Fires in 1800 and 1814 claimed military records for Army and Navy veterans of the American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Civil War. The War Department began to replace these records with a reconstruction project in 1894. The War Department has compiled documents of military veterans who fought during these crucial American wars and aptly named the documents a “Compiled Military Service Record.” Those wishing to study their ancestor’s military service can review this compilation of muster and bank rolls, hospital records, prison records, payroll records, and the enlistment and discharge papers.
- Another option is to review pension documentation. All military service members and their widowed spouses receive a military pension after their service, provided they were discharged honorably. Pension paperwork covers any military service member who served between 1775 and 1916, and is considered to be one of the genealogical finds for those seeking their family member’s military history. The primary reason is the mound of paperwork that must be submitted when applying for the military pension payments.
- World War I draft registration records are available to the public and can be found at the National Archives, Southeast Region, East Point, Georgia offices. These records provide key information, such as name, spouse and children, birth date and birthplace, occupation, the nearest living relative, and even a physical description of the young man registering for the draft. If your relative was born between 1873 and 1900, chances are he registered for the draft and you can find information about him in these records. Those seeking draft information surrounding WWII vets are limited to descendants born between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897; the rest of the draft records for this war are sealed from the public and protected under privacy laws.
- Did your relative possibly fight somewhere between 1775 and March 3, 1855? If so, research bounty land records. These records provide information about military service members who fought during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the early Indian and Mexican wars. The federal government granted land to military service members who suffered hardship during their tenure during these wars, so if your relative fought during this time period, he might have applied for one of these land grants and the records should be on file.
Here are some helpful resources to get you started:
Washington State Library: Selected Military Genealogy Holdings (PDF File)
Maine: Genealogy Resources