Diving Deep Into Military Records

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When it comes to genealogy, there are the backyard-pool researchers, the Olympic swimmers, and the deep-sea divers. Hopefully, those terms have brought to your mind images of ever increasing skill and experience so that you can follow along with what I’m about to lay down for y’all about how your swimming skills are holding back your military research.

A backyard-pool has a visible bottom that you can generally touch with ease; the walls are close on all sides, so there’s little fear of losing sight of dry land; and you can usually bring a floatie until you get your bearings and can confidently swim on your own. This is comparable to new or online-only research. Sure, you can get the basic records like census and social security index. You may even find a newspaper article or two. If you’re just paddling along for fun and hobby, you’ll find like-minded individuals to help you enjoy your pastime. But you’ll always be very safe with a clear bottom and a small scope. Militarily-speaking, this is images and indices of draft records and pension files. You are going to have almost no idea if the record means your ancestor actually served or was just registered. You’ll have to up your skill to get more of the story.

As you become an Olympic swimmer, you’ll learn about hard to find online records that aren’t indexed. You’ll most likely begin to send away for records from archives like NARA (which houses a great deal of U.S. records that include not only military records, but social security and civilian participation in the New Deal). It’s usually at this level that researchers become specialized. Just like a swimmer who’s great at diving versus freestyle versus medley, genealogists start to get comfortable with ethnically specific records, military records, map reading, or medical records. If we send off for a military file or pension record for our ancestor, it’s usually going to be a few pages of what seems “pertinent”, meaning it’s barely more than an index itself! You would be surprised how much can be in a file: service records (including disciplinary actions), letters to/from relatives applying for pension or benefits, land management records, war department communications, and health records. You’d think sending off for these records would mean you get them. But with so many requests in a day, there can be a backlog and the researcher will get you only what you ask for. If you don’t know what to ask for, you can really miss out! The scope is bigger; you may not know how far flung the records are or if they even continue to exist. And you may not know how deep the records can go or if you’ll hit a shallow end quickly.

This is where the deep-sea diver comes in. One who risks health and wealth to pursue a shadow of a hope. One who discovers what isn’t readily viewable from the surface of the water. Many professionals are in this level of skill, but you don’t have to be a professional to get here or benefit from deep-sea genealogy. This level is where one physically goes out to archives, libraries, historical societies, and far-flung caches of information in order to locate more than just the surface details of an ancestor’s military service. Often, if one finds a military ancestor, one does a surface search online and finds those index records and maybe an image of the draft or roster of the regiment the ancestor was assigned. Deep-sea divers take that information and go searching for the whole story that is waiting, but only on paper. I know what you’re already thinking, you don’t have time to go all the way to the archives to get these records so you’ll just have to settle for the surface details. NOT SO! If I may be permitted to shill just a moment, Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches offers records retrieval from NARA’s archives in Washington D.C. With a shorter turn-around time than other services, Twisted Twigs can provide you with digital files of your ancestor’s military service from the Revolution to pre-WWII. Unwilling to take the first “no” for an answer, Twisted Twigs will assure that records are found if they exist and that the full file is digitized so you aren’t missing the real story of your ancestor’s life. If I may be so bold, I say you should contact Twisted Twigs today!

And with that, I bid you adieu for today. Consider what I’ve discussed and ask yourself how deep you are willing or able to dive into military records. The story is so much more than signing up for service and being sent home. Are you missing a crucial clue about your ancestor’s habits that might be answered by what happened during service? You won’t know if you don’t dive deep!

~Ana

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