Research Your Scottish Ancestry

RObert WilbanksMilitary Records - United States Overview

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

In a previous article, I briefly introduced Military Records as a resource for genealogical research.

I only touched on the benefits of this type of resource, and generally showed how, when & where the United States and Great Britain may have kept such records.

Here, I will give a more detailed overview of Military Records specific to the United States.

During the Colonial Period, prior to the formation of the United States, in theory the English Government should have been responsible for the protection of the Colonies. However, early on, this was not a realistic possibility, and the colonists often found themselves responsible for their own defense. During this period, there were a number of wars and conflicts from the earliest settlement up to the American Revolution. These citizen soldiers formed local militias, sometimes called ‘Minute Men’, ready to jump to action at a moment’s notice. As the United States was not yet a country, military records were kept by these individual colonies, later states, most often at the County level, usually in the County Court records. These records can now be found at these States’ Archives. Many of these records may have been transcribed into books available at most genealogy libraries, or on various websites throughout the internet.

After the formation of this country and government, the military became primarily a federal matter and therefore the records are more uniform and reliable than the records at the state and county level.  Also, they are all in one place, the National Archives in Washington D.C. These military records are organized primarily by the various wars that America was involved in.

The military records of primary interest to genealogists are divided into two categories:  Service Records and Benefits Records.  A third category of records, lesser used by genealogists but no less important, is best described as Miscellaneous.

Service Records are the records created at the time of the active service of the soldier.  Soldiers’ names were written down in muster lists, roll call lists, payment vouchers, hospital records, Quartermaster records, and other such records created at the time of the soldier being in military service.

NY 79th Highlanders
79th New York Highland Regiment, Civil War

After the Civil War, the War Department made a concerted effort to organize these scattered records into consolidated service files by the name of each soldier in every unit for every war up to that date. This allowed the Government to verify actual Service as claimed by Veterans seeking Pensions and other Benefits for their past service. These service records are then organized by state or unit designation, the company, and then alphabetically by surname.

Benefits Records are records created after the soldier was no longer in the service. Acts of Congress created such benefits as pensions and/or bounty land records. Bounty land was the disbursement of land as reward for past service. A veteran’s widow and/or orphans could also receive such benefits and so can also be found in such records, adding a wealth of genealogical detail to the family tree. Benefit records, also organized by war, are filed alphabetically by name of the soldier.

The Miscellaneous category would include lesser known or used forms of records, such as draft registrations, records of Old Soldiers Homes, headstone and burial records, lists of soldiers who died overseas, were missing in action, or prisoners of war, as well as records relating to civilians, such as the Japanese Internments during World War II.

The indexes for the service and benefits records for all of America’s wars have been microfilmed and are available at the National Archives, the 12 regional branches, and various other facilities, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, thus through its local branch centers. There are name indexes by War and by State. Originally, these indexes were put on microfilm, but now they can be found throughout the internet and/or the many free or fee based genealogical websites.

Copies of service and benefits records for all wars can be obtained directly from the United States National Archives online by creating a user account, including a credit card number, then filling out and submitting the online form with the relevant information. Fees may vary and only charged when records are found, copied and shipped. Here is a direct link to the National Archives webpage for ordering reproductions of any records:

Of course, there is far more information related to United States Military Records than what I can explain here. So be sure to visit this page for links to more detailed information by war, resources, websites, free and fee based online sources, and more:

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.