If you’ve never considered the military aspect of genealogy research, you may not know why it can be important to you or your family. The deeper your roots in American history, the more likely you will run into ancestors who served or were at least eligible to serve and were required to inform the government of their eligible status. The information that may be gathered will include family members, marital status, health issues, and pension requests/denials/approvals for the ancestor and their dependents.
The first question is whether your ancestor was eligible to serve. I provide a quick table here:
Now, this doesn’t cover all military actions past and present. The first column details military service records that would be available at the NARA in Washington, D.C. and the second is the military records available from the NPRC in Saint Louis, Missouri. If you plan to take a trip to view records yourself, you need to know where to the find them, yes?
Now you know what war/conflict your ancestor most likely served in. The next question is where were they when the conflict began? Since many states had volunteer units or militia, knowing the state of residence can help narrow your search. Also, if there was a draft enacted (Civil War, World War I, World War II), then there will be a draft index which is easier to determine the most likely entrant based on residence. Some censuses have notations of whether a person served in the military, this is a good place to at least confirm service even if it is years after the fact. You may have family history passed down information, good or bad, that can get you to the right location. There may be a local veterans group that your ancestor joined after the war or who honors local veterans with memorial stones/documents at the historical society. Two great societies for Revolutionary Ancestors, for example, are the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Many conflicts have similar societies dedicated to honoring ancestors who served.
Beyond this start point, you’ll likely head to the Internet (who wouldn’t in this day and age?). Ancestry.com has a military category with 1,240 titles currently; 1,073 of them are U.S. military records. These include pension files, rosters, draft cards, photos, disciplinary actions, and awarded medals. FamilySearch.org hosts 146 digitized collections, with 133 of them being U.S. records. I will note that FamilySearch has a great deal of books, donated histories, and records not available online, but you can search the titles for these on their website and order films/records to be sent to your local FHL. Fold3.com, a subsidiary of Ancestry.com, is almost fully dedicated to military records separated mainly by conflict. There are records here that aren’t on the Ancestry side, so it’s very helpful for those researching military records online.
No matter what, however, these online sources will be drawing a great deal of their catalog from the National Archives Records Administration for records until 1912, and the National Personnel Records Center for recent conflicts. The online sources will not, I repeat, will not have an exhaustive digitization of any one collection. Even if you find the service records and/or pension file online, you’ll want to be sure nothing was omitted during scanning. The only way to be sure is to see the real file. An exhaustive search of online and local archives will ensure you have enough information to find your ancestor (regiment, enlistment date) in the multitudes, but those hard paper files will guarantee a richer story.
There are two ways to get at that file: go yourself or send someone. Now, if you can go, go. It’s just so much fun to enjoy a genea-cation researching one’s ancestors and always a good idea to travel and experience new things. But, understandably, not everyone can go on their own. So you’ll need to order records or send someone you trust to search for and digitize copies for you. Many people offer this service, including Twisted Twigs! Currently servicing records from NARA in Washington, D.C., Twisted Twigs can search your ancestor’s record file and copy all of the file instead a handful of pertinent documents (or worse, not doing the exhaustive search to ensure all records available are found at all). You get a file that is professionally curated to ensure the copies are clean and easy to read, delivered to you electronically!
Whatever you do, some military research will be necessary to truly understand your ancestor’s role in history. So many men and women served this country, leaving a trail of information for the intrepid researcher. What will you find in their military file that could explain their movements after the conflict (or detail their life prior that you cannot find anywhere else)? There’s only one way to find out!