Millions of American citizens have served in the armed forces, so chances are good that one or more of your relatives served at
some time or another in the military. If they did, the military offices kept records about them and their service. Families do a
reasonably good job of passing down information about relatives who served in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the two
World Wars. But even if your family has no tradition of military service, it's still worth checking to see if ancestors who lived
during the war periods did in fact serve. It's possible, too, that an ancestor enlisted in the military during peacetime or that an
ancestor who didn't serve had siblings who did. For all these reasons, there are relatively few American families whose
genealogies would not benefit from a search of military records.
Military records frequently reveal all sorts of information about an ancestor and can help lead you to other sources.
Generally, military records are discussed in three broad categories: service records
, pension files, and military histories
. Depending on the specifics of your family, other, more specialized military records such as
draft records or
military cemetery burial records may also be worth
Increasingly, people are sharing compiled records via the Internet, in printed form, or both. Individuals and
groups are going beyond their own families and sharing information pertaining to a particular place, ethnic group,
surname, military event, or other specialized area of interest. These generous people save the rest of us from
starting from scratch. The best way to thank such avid compilers is to mimic them and do the same for another
group of records.
How to Find Military Records
In looking for military service and pension records, the best place to begin is with indexes which can be found at the
National Archives and its branches. The National Archives in Washington, D.C.
has primary responsibility for most records up to 1902, while 20th century military records are kept at the
National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. If you can't go to
these places yourself, it is possible to order records through the mail.
Family History Centers, state archives, some larger libraries, and microfilm rental programs also provide access to these
In order to use the indexes, you will generally have to know the name of the individual, the conflict and military branch in
which he served, and the state in which he resided. Any additional details you have may prove useful, especially in the case of
urban ancestors with common names. These indexes will usually provide you a few extra details such as the soldier's rank
and/or unit and lead you to the service or
pension record. The unit information can also direct you to military histories
that will help you gain an appreciation for your ancestor's experience.
Types of Military Records
As mentioned above, the three main categories of military records are service records, pension files, and military histories.
Service records cover the time an ancestor was actually in the service, while pension records cover the post-service period when
your ancestor (or their next-of-kin) may have received benefits. Military histories (often referred to as regimental or unit
histories) can add historical background to help you understand the conflict and your ancestor's participation in it. Keep in mind
with all these record types that they will vary widely in availability and quality and quantity of content. As a rule of thumb, the
more recent the conflict, the better the records.