U.S. Military Records Class Handout

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Guide to military records as a genealogical source for researching ancestors.

Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker, Riverton FamilySearch Library.

Millions of American citizens have served in the armed forces, so chances are good that one or more of your ancestors served at some time or another in the military, either at the Federal level, the State level, or perhaps both. These military records provide a wealth of genealogical information about our ancestors and sometimes their families, as well as a greater appreciation of the service they have provided.

Did Your Ancestor Serve in the Military?[edit | edit source]

To learn if your ancestor served in the military, look at their birth year and sources such as photographs, newspaper clippings or obituaries, family stories, journals/diaries, letters, headstones, death records, local histories, or census records.

The 1840, 1890, 1910, and 1930 censuses all ask for information about veterans of wars. The 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses included specific enumerations of personnel serving at military and naval installations, ships, and hospitals. Some state censuses also have information about soldiers and veterans.

General Types of Military Records[edit | edit source]

Military records provide a variety of information about an individual and could include their birthplace, age at enlistment, occupation, and names of immediate family members. Some types of military records include:

Service records: Service records for militia, volunteer, or regular forces document that an individual served in the military and can provide your ancestor’s unit or organization.

Draft, Conscription, or Selective Service Records: Since 1863, the federal government has registered millions of men who may have been eligible for military service. Enrollment and Draft information include name residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, and other information.

Bounty Land Warrants: The federal government provided bounty land for those who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and Indian wars between 1790 and 1855.

Pension Records: The federal government and some state governments granted pensions or bounty land to officers, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and veterans who served a certain length of time. Pension records usually contain more genealogical information than service records. However, not every veteran received or applied for a pension.


  • United States Army (USA), Established 1789: Compiled service records were never created for enlisted personnel, but enlistment papers and other records are available at the National Archives and some of them have been digitized. U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 is available on Ancestry.com and 12% complete on FamilySearch.org.
  • United States Navy (USN), Established 1775: Records of sailors can be found at state and local archives, the National Archives, and the National Personnel Records Center. Of particular value to the researcher are the Muster and Payrolls which usually give the sailor’s name, ship, and service dates. Post-1860 records often give a personal description and data concerning discharge, desertion, or death. Payrolls give the sailor’s name, rank, enlistment date, and term of service. Muster and payrolls, 1798 to 1859, are arranged alphabetically by name of ship and then chronologically.
  • United States Marine Corps (USMC), Established 1798 as a separate military branch: The Marine Corps was founded under the Navy to serve as an infantry unit aboard naval vessels and was responsible for the security of the ship and its crew.
  • United States Air Force (USAF): The United States Air Force was officially established as a separate branch of the military September 18, 1947, after being a part of the U. S. Army since 1907. For Air Force personnel who served before 1947, look in the Army records.
  • National Guard: After the Revolutionary War, each state retained some form of militia, though in the years before the Civil War, many of these organizations fell into disuse. These volunteer units were the forerunners of today’s National Guard.

Where military records are stored[edit | edit source]

The National Archives Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D. C. holds the military records for the Revolutionary War to 1912. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri holds the military records for WWI to the present.

Non-Archival Military Service Records are records of military personnel who left the military less than 62 years ago and are not open to the public. Records of individuals who left service more than 62 years ago are considered Archival Records and become records of the National Archives open to the general public.

About 80 percent of the records of veterans discharged from the Army between November 1912 and January 1960, and about 75 percent for individuals discharged from the Air Force between September 1947 and January 1964, were destroyed by a fire at the NPRC on 12 July 1973, so these records are limited.

Online military record indexes[edit | edit source]

Before ordering military records from NARA or NPRC, check for online military records that may be available and may give you the genealogical or historical information you need. The main websites with military collections are FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Fold3. Additional websites are Heritage Quest and World Vital Records. Also important in military searches is Joe Beine’s list of online searchable military records and the Cyndi's list military links. A detailed list of online military record indexes is available at United States Military Online Genealogy Records.

  • For online military records at FamilySearch, click on the state you are searching or one of the general United States Military collections.
  • To search online military records at Fold3, ($), click on the war in which you are interested and type in your ancestor’s name.
  • At the FamilySearch Wiki search under [STATE] MILITARY RECORDS and/or UNITED STATES [WAR].
  • The Family Search Library has done extensive microfilming of military records, found in the FamilySearch Catalog. Also search under the state which you are searching—[STATE]>MILITARY HISTORY>[WAR] or [STATE]>MILITARY RECORDS>[WAR].

Ordering military records online[edit | edit source]

  • Military records for the NARA and NPCR can be ordered online by going to eVetRecs.
  • To order military service records from Washington, D. C., use NATF Form 86.
  • To order military pension files from the American Revolution up to before World War I and bounty land warrant applications before 1856 use NATF Form 85.
  • To order military records from St. Louis, use form SF-180.
  • NATF Form 85, NATF Form 86, or SF-180 can be found at NATF forms.


Unit Histories: Histories of military units may contain biographies of officers, rosters of soldiers in the unit, clues to where the soldiers were living when they enlisted, and possibly a residence after their service or a death place. The unit history can also give you a background as to what battles the soldiers fought and where they were located during the war.

Cemetery Records: The first national military cemeteries were created in 1862 during the Civil War. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has a database of soldiers buried in national military cemeteries. Hover over “Veterans Services” and click on '“Nationwide Gravesite Locator'” under Burials and Memorials and type in the name you are searching.

National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: Congress established national homes for disabled veterans in 1866. Veterans were eligible for admittance if they were honorably discharged; had served in the regular, volunteer, or militia forces mustered into federal service; were disabled and without support; and were unable to earn a living. In 1930 the homes were combined with other agencies to form the Veterans Administration. The register for the national homes are divided into four sections: military (which includes enlistment, rank, company, regiment, and discharge), domestic (which gives birthplace, age, height, religion, occupation, residence, marital status and nearest relative), home (which includes pension information, death date, and burial place), and general remarks. These records are available at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.

Veterans and Lineage Society Records: Veterans and lineage societies may exist at a national or state level. Some societies require members to submit applications documenting their ancestry back to a soldier. The applications usually provide birth, marriage, and death information, as well as establish relationship through multiple generations back to the ancestral solider.

Biographies: Prominent military personnel may be found in published military biographical dictionaries.

Awards and Decorations: Sketches of soldiers who received the Medal of Honor can be located at the Medal of Honor website. Click on the conflict in which you are interested and browse through the names.

SUMMARY[edit | edit source]

There are a multitude of military records that provide genealogical information about our ancestors who served in the Armed Forces. Additional historical background information also helps build the story of our ancestors as we learn to understand the life changing and memorable service they rendered while serving our country in war or peace.