Military Records: In Depth

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

Learn more about researching your ancestor's military service with this in-depth study of U.S. military records from the American Revolution through World War II. The background information provides a historical context for understanding each conflict, with specific records and repositories highlighted, including the types of information that can be found, as well as any complexities within the collection.

For insights into the types of records and information available for those who fought in America's War for Independence, including those who fought in the militia, the Continental Army, and the naval forces, see American Revolution.

The American Revolution did not bring an end to America's war with European countries, especially the British. And of course, there was the fight for land within the country. For information available on those who served during the War of 1812 and various Indian Wars, including Old War Series Pension Record, see Post-Revolutionary Wars, 1812-1858.

In addition to military service and pension records are bounty land warrants -- land awarded as a bonus to those who served -- dating from Colonial times through the mid-1800s. A very good overview on the background on bounty land warrants, how they were supposed to work and the problems that ensued is presented in Bounty Lands, Part 1.

While it seems hard to imagine today, not everyone took advantage of bounty lands available. Dispelling myths and helping researchers understand why an ancestor might not be found in the records, along with other avenues to pursue is presented is Bounty Lands, Part 2.

While the state of Virginia was very generous to her veteran soldiers, various factors, including geographic boundary changes can complicate the search for bounty land records in Virginia. Explaining those complications and providing direction to aid the search is the focus in Bounty Lands, Part 3.

Loyalists, those who remained true to the Crown during the American Revolution, suffered many losses after the war. In an effort to recompense Loyalist losses, the British government offered land in Canada or Nova Scotia. Even some non-Loyalist were awarded land, as further explained in Loyalist Lands.

And who would imagine that how a war was perceived could affect the search for records? Historically, the distinction between the American Civil War vs The War Between the States had great bearing on the search for Union vs Confederate Records, as discussed in the overview, The Civil War, 1861-1865.

Quite naturally, the first place to look for the records of Union soldiers is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); but be sure to consider the value of state records, as well. For a discussion of the more familiar and less known records, see Focus on Union Forces in the Civil War.

Researching Confederate records can be a challenge, and contrary to what one might think, many are federal records. Pension records are another story -- the federal government was not so inclined to award pensions to those who fought for the Confederacy, and so passed that responsibility on to the states. Those researching Confederate ancestors will find good background information along with specific records at, Focus on Confederate Forces in the Civil War.

In the shadow of the more prominent conflicts before and after the Civil War, researchers may overlook the service of ancestors who fought in the Spanish American War (1898-1901) or the related, Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902). However, such records are readily available as highlighted in Spanish American War 1898-1901.

While those of younger generations may not think of World Wars I & II as "recent," in terms of genealogy, records of twentieth century are still under the protection of privacy laws, for anyone other than the individual in question or next of kin. For a closer look at recent military information available to researchers through the Freedom of Information Act see, 1900s including WWI and WWII.

Overall, this series presents a thorough introduction for beginning researchers, at the same time providing insights for those who are more seasoned, and many of the records identified in this series are now available online.

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