There is no doubt that our male ancestors left more records behind than our female ancestors did. One place where nearly all the records will be about male ancestors is military records, at least through World War I. When I say military records, I mean not only the actual record of service but also military bounty records; pension records for the serviceman, wife and possibly other dependents; and draft registrations. Unfortunately, nearly every War in America’s past generated a different set of records to be searched and sometimes those records are spotty due to age so be prepared to familiarize yourself with the War, the records and where they are kept today. But it is worth it. These records can answer many questions that can lurk around your ancestors. Let’s take a quick tour starting with World War II and working backward.
World War II
If you had an ancestor who served in the Second World War, you may be blessed to still have them here. If they are, interview them now and just let them talk about their experiences. If you know one of your ancestors served but you don’t know much about his or her service, start by asking family and see if anyone has pictures or memorabilia that you can photograph or scan. These may help you in identifying the branch of service, the ancestor’s rank and possibly where he or she served. The National Archives is a good place to familiarize yourself with records that are available. They do have some records online but a service person’s individual records will need to be ordered. There are rules about who can have access to these records, so familiarize yourself with what can be accessed and by whom.
On 12 July 1973, there was a major fire at the National Personnel Records Center that consumed 80% of the records of Army personnel who were discharged between 1 Nov 1912 and 1 January 1960 and 75% of the records of Air Force personnel who were discharged between 25 September 1947 and 1 January 1964. In WWII, the Air Force did not yet exist. The men and woman who served with the air corp were in the Army Air Corp. I have read and seen that some efforts are being made to salvage some of these records that were heavily water damaged but it will be years before we may see anything. Therefore, what you get when ordering the record may be quite thin. Be sure you are ordering from the correct facility by checking on the National Archives website. In an upcoming blog, I will try to present my journey researching two of my collateral ancestors who served.
There are some online indexes that might be helpful. The best sources are Fold3, Ancestry, and FamilySearch. Scan the list of military databases at each to get a feel for what might be available before beginning your search.
World War I
Records from the First World War were also significantly impacted by the fire mentioned above. Just as with above, start by trying to locate photos and memorabilia for your ancestor that might give you some hints. The National Archives has an excellent resource online that provides historical information as well as genealogical information that will help you (see below). Draft registrations are available online at the three sources mentioned above. These do not indicate that the person served, just that they registered for the draft. Some records are held by the National Archives and some are held by the National Personnel Records Center. Be sure you are ordering from the correct facility by checking on the National Archives website.
The War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, WBTS)
Many beginning family historians do a search at Ancestry and find an index record for a man whose name is the same as their ancestor and from the same state and they assume the record pertains to their ancestor. You should not do this. Indexes are a good place to start, they are not the end of the journey. Indexes are not always accurate and they do not always abstract all of the pieces of data from the compiled service records that you need to ensure you have the right man’s records. The compiled service records are important not only in determining you have the right record but a great resource for extracting details on your ancestor’s actual service during the war. Both Union and Confederate compiled service records are digitized and online at Fold3. Though there are still a few missing regiments, they are adding regularly. The search engine can be a bit aggravating but stick with it because it is still a lot easier than wading through microfilm. After the compiled service records, you should check to see if your ancestor applied for and received a pension (or his widow or a dependent). Pensions for men who fought for the Confederacy are held by the individual states. If your ancestor lived in Florida after the War, you would check Florida’s Confederate pensions. They are online, see the link below. Some states, like Alabama, have their Confederate pension records at Amazon. If you aren’t sure, you should check all possible state archives for where their Confederate pension records are kept and how they can be accessed. Union pensions are held by the National Archives and can be ordered from them. They are not inexpensive but can contain information on service experiences, names of friends, neighbors, and family that could vouch for them and details on their family.
The Seminole Wars
Since my blog tends to be followed by Floridians or those who had ancestors that spent time in Florida, the Seminole Wars are important to cover as a source of information on your male ancestors. We are now into the era where the records are very sketchy. If your ancestor was in Florida during the Florida or Seminole Wars one good source is the online digitized copy of the Florida Militia Muster Rolls, Seminole Indian Wars. You can find the link below. This can be searched using the search button at the top center of the page. Read the Quick Tips to make sure your search is structured correctly. If they weren’t in Florida yet, you can try Fold3. Another way to back into finding out if he served would be to look for a bounty land warrant in the Bureau of Land Management glorecords. Land was given to men who served over a period of time after the wars. The land may or may not have been in Florida, and likely wasn’t, so when you search be sure to select “Any State” at the bottom of the drop-down menu. If you find a possibility, you can download a copy of the patent that will give you what militia regiment he was in. With that, you can order bounty land warrant applications which may provide you with more information.
The War of 1812
The files available and the ways to find them are pretty much the same as for the Seminole Wars above. These servicemen could also apply for pensions. Both the bounty land warrant applications and the pension files can be ordered online or by mail. See link below.
American Revolutionary War
The further back we go the more difficult this can get. Probably the best place to start for a Revolutionary War serviceman is to check and see if by some chance a distant relative has already gone through the work to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. This will not only give you information on regiment but will ease your own submission to the DAR if you are so inclined. Fold3 has some records online that are easily searched and the actual documents are there if your ancestor is found. With both Ancestry and FamilySearch, it would be good to start by exploring what they have online by looking through their holdings to see what is available. The databases are spotty so if you don’t find someone it may not mean they didn’t serve. Some states made a listing at some point after the War on the Revolutionary War Veterans living within the state. These may be available at the State Archive.
Many of these men also received bounty land for their service so that is another way to search for evidence of service. In the case of the Revolutionary War, some of the bounty land grants were made by individual states and not the federal government. An excellent index resource for searching these records is listed below and can be found at many genealogy libraries or purchased. Finally, if your Revolutionary War ancestor was in South Carolina, he may have served with Francis Marion and the records for these men are even harder to locate. They were not “regulars” so to speak. An excellent online resource to explore is listed below. I found several of my ancestors visually scanning these pages since a lot of my Florida ancestors came from South Carolina. If you find service, you should see if there is a pension application, either through Fold3 or NARA.
I know this was short and not full-sized lessons but hopefully, this will get you started. If you are interested in learning more about some of these research challenges, consider joining the National Genealogical Society and taking their online classes on WWI, Civil War, and Revolutionary War research. Once you find your ancestor’s records, try to determine where he served and the experiences he or she had. Look for regimental histories and search online for folks that have studied the regiment or the war. For WWII there are a number of veteran groups online from particular units that might be helpful. Try to put a timeline together for your service person’s experiences and possibly write a narrative that can be shared with family.
Until Next Week
- NARA, WWII Research – website
- NARA, WWII Participation Publication (pdf format)
- NARA, WWI resources – website
- NARA, Ordering Veteran Pension Records – website
- Blog Post 24 April 2017, Researching WWI Ancestors
- Florida Memory, Florida Confederate Pension files – website
- Florida Militia Muster Rolls, Seminole Wars – UF Smathers Library website
- NARA Glorecords – website
- NARA, Pre-WWI Records – websiteRevolutionary War Bounty Land Grants: Awarded by State Governments by Lloyd Dewitt Bockstruck – ppbk and hdcvr
- The Swamp Fox – Francis Marion and the Men Who Served With Him – website
- Daughters of the American Revolution Library – website
- National Genealogical Society, Continuing Educational Courses – website