My grandfather, Merle Longwell (2nd from the left), with his WWII service buddies.
Earlier this week I stopped in at a local antique shop, and I was struck by the number of photographs, photo albums, yearbooks, and other memorabilia I found for sale. It was a poignant reminder of how important it is for each of us to not just save images and documents, but to record our family’s story in a way that future generations will understand and appreciate. Without the stories, the names and dates become meaningless, the newspaper clippings lose context, and our precious photo albums become just a bunch of pictures of people no one can name. We must add value to our family tree by including the stories of our ancestors lives, as best we can recreate them.
Today’s post is about one of the best ways to unearth those stories, through military records. Service records are full of interesting and useful information. Plus there is no shortage of military records available. In fact the sheer volume of information can, at times, be overwhelming and a little intimidating. Although there is no way for us to discuss all of the options for discovering your family’s military history in this one article, the goal for today is to give you someplace to start.
Discovering Your Family’s Heroes
Stories of heroic family members who fought in a particular war are often passed down through generations. If you have a family story like this, a photo of a family member in uniform, or even a medal or certificate that you’ve inherited, then you already have a starting point for your search. For the rest of us, determining which of our ancestors may have served is a bit of a treasure hunt.
We can start by looking at the clues we’ve already collected. For instance, obituaries sometimes mention military service. Perhaps your relative was buried in a National Cemetery, or maybe you found a gravestone that contains military history or symbolism. Several censuses also recorded military service (check 1840, 1910, 1930, and for relatives outside of Indiana, the 1890 schedule of Civil War veterans and widows).
Once you’ve exhausted all of those options, finding your family’s potential military heroes becomes a math problem. Most people served between the ages of 16 and 35, so you simply find that range of years for your ancestor and cross reference it with your history book, or a timeline of U.S. military operations, like this one.
Accessing Military Records
With your list of potential service members in hand, it’s time to start your search. The majority of service records are available to the public without restriction. However, if your ancestor left service less than 62 years ago, then access to his/her records will be restricted and limited. You can read more about those restrictions at The National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR) website.
For archived military service records, there are a number of online sources where you can begin your search. Ancestry.com (fee-based but accessible for free at many local libraries) has a large military records collection. Fold3.com, an Ancestry property that is also subscription based but available for free at some libraries, is comprised almost entirely of military records. On both of these sites you can narrow your search by time period or war, or you can simply enter your ancestor’s information and see what you can discover.
Most of the records available on the above mentioned sites come from the National Archives. They also maintain some records online, and you can find a list of what’s available here. However, if you want to obtain a copy of a full pension file or other record not available online, the National Archives is likely your only option. You can request records via their online form. Fees can range anywhere from $25 to $100+ based on the size of the file. Because of the cost involved, it’s a good idea to make sure you have as much information as you can find before making a request. After all, there’s likely to be more than one person with your ancestor’s name in their archives, so make sure you’re requesting the file for the one you’re related to.
Two other valuable sources of military information are the Indiana State Archives, which maintains a large collection of military records on-site as well as online, and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database maintained by the National Parks Service. If you suspect that you may have a Civil War veteran ancestor, this is the best place to start your search. You’ll find if and when they served and learn more about their regiment. The basic information found here can be used to find more detailed records from other sources.
What You’ll Find
The information that you can expect to find varies greatly based on the type of record.
Muster rolls usually contain the individual’s name; the name of the regiment, company, or ship on which they served; their rank; the date of enlistment or reenlistment; the date of their discharge or death; and where applicable, any injury, illness, desertion, or court-martial information.
Pension files can contain any number of documents, including muster rolls, marriage records or affidavits, death records, correspondence from family members, and any other document that was necessary for the veteran or his widow to prove eligibility. They are rich resources and should not be overlooked.
Draft registrations will likely contain names, birth dates, addresses, occupations, next of kin, any physical disability, and a physical description.
Compiled military service records (CMSRs) contain abstracts of all the different records where that individual can be found. They were created to make it easier to access an individual’s service information. Instead of having to search through multiple sources for the one page pertaining to your ancestor, CMSRs provide the information from all of those pages in one source.
A Few Tips
- If you have a male ancestor who was born between September 11, 1872 and September 12, 1900 you should be looking for a WWI draft record. Even if your ancestor did not serve in the war, they would have filled out a draft registration card.
- Many military records contain a physical description of the individual who is registering, enlisting, or serving. For ancestors for whom no picture exists, this may be the only way to gain information about their appearance. It may also help you identify the photos you have.
- Whenever you search, remember to always verify that the individual you find is a match to the person in your tree. It can be incredibly frustrating to realize that the John Smith you’ve spent time researching is not “your” John Smith. Use the information you’ve gathered, including birth and death dates, family members, and residences, to make sure you’re researching the right person. If something doesn’t match, you may not have found your man.