Military records can be a great source of family history.
Wars and conflicts have been part of the American experience almost from the moment of the arrival of the first European settlers. The records of our ancestors’ military service in these conflicts give us a glimpse into their lives — where and how they lived before, during, and after their military service. Here are some basic steps that may help you learn if your ancestor served.
First, determine what wars or conflicts occurred during your ancestor’s most likely years of service (typically, ages 16 to 60). With your list in hand, search the appropriate indexes to the military service and veterans benefit records (see below). Don’t stop looking if you find him in one index. I found a Florida man serving in the Mexican War, the Third Florida Seminole Indian War, and the Civil War.
The next step is to identify your soldier’s unit and determine whether he was in the regular Army, the state militia, or some other local unit. Was he a soldier, marine, or sailor? Answers to these questions determine where the records are.
Finally, find out which side of the fight he was on. A Revolutionary War ancestor who fought for the British will not have his service records filed along with those of American patriots at the National Archives and Records Administration. All Union vet records of the Civil War are held at NARA. Confederate records are split, with compiled service records at NARA and pension records held at the state level.
Some Valuable Military Records
These are the most common types of military records:
- Compiled service records: Service records vary widely but may include abstracts of muster rolls, pay vouchers and other records. Information usually includes the soldier’s rank, unit, dates of service and possibly medical and biographical information.
- Records of Events: These records, which were compiled from information on the original muster rolls and returns, are intended as a rough record of a units movements and actions. Like the muster rolls from which they were taken, the information can vary considerably from unit to unit. Some provide day-by-day narratives of a company's activities, while others simply the company's duty station during the reporting period. individual soldiers are seldom named, but the descriptions of the activities and movements of the company can be joined with information from the soldier's CMSR and pension file, to give an idea where the soldier served and what he was doing there.
- Pension applications and pension-payment records: These records on veterans, their widows and other heirs contain the best genealogical information. Pension-application files often contain supporting documents — narratives of military experience, marriage certificates, birth and death records, letters and many other useful documents.
- Bounty-land warrants: Bounty-land warrants are rights to land granted by the federal government to veterans in return for military service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, early Indian Wars and the Mexican War.
Where to Find Them
- Pension applications, pension-payment records and many other military records for all U.S. forces 1775–1916 are held at the NARA in Washington, D.C. (www.archives.gov/genealogy/military).
- The Florida State Archives has copies of the National Archives microfilms of Revolutionary War pension-applications and bounty-land warrants from the War of 1812. Through the Florida Memory Project, the Archives have made the Civil War Confederate Pension applications available onlinw at Florida Memory. The State Archives also has compiled-service records for Confederate soldiers from Florida, muster roles from the Indian and Mexican Wars and many other military records. Muster rolls for the Florida Militia serving during the Florida War (Seminold & Creek War) are also available online at
- Footnote (www.footnote.com/) provides access to scanned images of original documents, including Revolutionary War pension-application files and bounty-land warrant application files, Revolutionary War rolls (muster rolls, payrolls, etc.). This is a subscription site. You can search for free but must pay before viewing the documents.
- Ancestry.com (www.Ancestry.com/) provides access to a variety of Revolutionary War databases. It is a subscription site but is free at most Florida libraries. It also has Civil War records, scanned images of World War I Draft Registration Cards and many other military records.
- Library collections - major libraries, and especially university libraries, will hold military records and are worth checking.
Civil War Records
The records of our ancestors’ military service can give us a glimpse into their lives — where and how they lived before, during, and after their military service. One good place to start your search for the story of your Civil War veteran is at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website. Civil War Records At the National Archives You won't find a lot of online records there - though there are some links to other archives which hold online records - this site provides an excellent survey of the records generated by the Civil War and of how they will aid you in your research. This list of links to online Civil War Research is not meant to be definitive. There are undoubtedly good sites that are not included in the list; however, these should give you a pretty good start.
General Civil War Links:
- Civil War Soldiers & Sailor's System - This site was created by the United States National Park Service in partnership with a number of genealogy and or history oriented organizations. It serves as a good index of both Union and Confederate Service.
- Ancestry.com - $$ (Most public libraries make Ancestry.com free to their visitors) Ancestry has recently boosted their Civil war collection significantly. Links there will take you to individual Ancestry has added loads of Civil War information.
- Civil War Archive - Union and Confederate Regimental and Corps Histories, Letters, Diaries, and other interesting links.
- Fold3.com (formerly Footnote.com - $$ (Free at your local FHC) Has a wide range of Civil War Records from service records to pensions, and maps, atlases, etc. Also has photographs from famed Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady.
- FamilySearch.org Wiki, Civil War Records - This site provides a list of the multitude of links to info and records concerning the Civil War.
- American Civil War Research Database - SS ($25.00 Annual, but has a $10.00 pass) This is a relational database with information on 4 1/2 million Union and Confederate soldiers. The data is taken from a variety of original sources.
- African American Civil War Memorial & Museum -The site does not have a large number of records, but has links to off-site records collection. It also has an extensive collection of photographs, documents, and information that highlight the contributions made by African Americans in the fight for their own freedom.
- Civil War Rosters - links to online rosters of various units that served in the war from forty-four states and territories along with links to several other Civil War sites.
- Home of the American Civil War – There are a lot of links to help with Civil War research, and particularly in understanding what your Civil War ancestor went through. Civil War Battles, Biographies, Medicine, Letters and more can be found.
- The Civil War Home Page - Tons of interesting stuff here: records, photos, battle data, transcripts of soldier's letters.
- Library of Congress: This guide is a compilation of many of the Civil War resources at the Library of Congress, along with links to selected resources outside the Library. The resources are organized by format.
- Internet Archive - Free electronic Books on topics ranging from Civil War records (with a surprising number of individual CW pension files) to memoirs, Rosters published by the Adjutant Generals of various states, and many other related topics. These books are out of copyright and free for downloading. Formats are PDF and, often, the various e-reader formats.
State and Local Civil War Records
- State Archives: For volunteer militia and state regiment records, visit the Council of State Archivists. State archives are a good place to start research on Confederate soldiers - Confederate Pensions were administered by the states and you will find their records in each State's Archives. The Florida State Archives have made Florida's Confederate Pension records available online:
- USGenWeb Archives: You may perform a national search, a state-wide search, or a State-county search. Records have been assembled and published by volunteers, so records vary from area to area, but it is well worth your time to check this out.
- rootsweb Civil War Related Email Lists - There are 149 mailing lists at rootsweb that have to do with Civil War Research. Many are linked to research in a specific state or region, others to specific battles, with veterans from one side or the other, and many other related topics. This link takes you to a list of these lists. Find the one(s) that fits your search and join the discussion - but don't forget to search the list archives.
- rootsweb Civil War Message Boards - As with the email lists, there are a wide-variety of rootsweb Civil War related message boards. This link takes you to a list of these boards.