To date, more than 43 million individuals have served in the US Military in wartime, more then 650,000 lives have been lost and over 1.4 million have been wounded.
A huge repository of historical information for the family historian, US military records can provide invaluable details and even descriptions of your ancestors. But how do you know if they served and if so, where and when might that have been?
You may know that one of your ancestors has served their country through conversations with living family members or old photos that have come into your possession. Medals may still be held by someone in your extended family and of course war memorials inscriptions and obituaries reveal names.
To start your research, gather as much information as you can about the individual who you know, or suspect, has served in the military. This is the basis of all family history research. Find birth details. This may be from a living family member, or if they don’t know or can’t remember, perhaps they’ll know the year that the individual died and their approximate age. This will enable you to search back for the birth. Names and details of extended family are always useful and for this you may have to search the US Federal Census.
The US Census is one of the most useful areas of research for the family historian.
The 1890 US Census has a schedule of widows and veterans of the Civil War and the 1910 US Census recorded whether individuals were Union or Confederate survivors. The 1930 US Census has recorded whether any individuals were veterans of any conflict. Also check individual state censuses, if they exist.
Knowing where your ancestor lived at the time of enlistment or draft will help you when searching military records.
Look for males in your family tree who may have been at the right age to serve in a particular conflict. For example, to have served in the Great War, they would have had to have been born around 1882 – 1900. To have served in the Civil War, they would have had to have been born around 1845 (making them 16 years old when the war started in 1861) and 35 year olds may have been born around 1826. (Be aware that eligibility for conscription for the Union and the Confederates differed slightly, and many volunteers lied about their age anyway).
Military histories of brigades and regiments, may have information about your ancestor and Ancestry.com has hundreds of US military histories available to search. It also has a Card Catalogue which enables you to search through a large number of military record collections. Using filters, you will be able to narrow your search to specifics. There are also Ancestry.com’s Military Records pages which provide more focussed military search options.
When searching, you will start by searching indexes and those indexes will give you the information needed to order copies of actual records to view. Many of the records are held by The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).