U. S. Military Records Explained

By | May 29, 2017

Interested to learn what your ancestors did during their military career? What wars and battles did they fight in? Did they get any medals and what did they do during their military career?

You maybe wondering though how to find their U.S military records and how to make sense of it all. Well in this post I will explain all of that and more, so please read on.

U.S. Military Records Explained

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Discovering any part of your ancestor’s life can be exciting. You just don’t know what you will find. But you maybe wondering just where do I start? After all there is so much out there already just waiting to be found, but where do you look and what will you do when you find that information?

What’s your family story?

First of all I want ask you what military mementos and family heirlooms do you have in your home? By knowing what you already have you will know whether they served in the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or the National Guard?

You may have heard stories about their military careers and so want to find their records. You may want to either back up these stories with what you find or find out whether they are even true at all.

If you are like me you have want to record these stories before they get lost in time forever. I have written down many family stories that my father has passed onto me. I knew early on that if I didn’t do it then who would and those stories would be gone.

Sure I could tell my children these stories but with the passing of time details get forgotten and maybe some stories forgotten forever.

Anyway, I have sidetracked here. So let me answer five important questions in this post that you may have been asking yourself.

Questions About U.S. Military Records:

  1. What Types of U.S. Military Records Are There?
  2. How Far Back Do These Records Go Back?
  3. What Information Can I Find In These Records?
  4. How Can I Find These Records?
  5. Are There Any Tips That You Can Share?

What Types of U.S. Military Records Are There?

There is always a good chance that you will discover at least one ancestor that has served in the military. This could be either at the State level, or the Federal level. Or it may have even been in both.

What Is Armed Forces Day?

But what kinds of records are there for you to explore and to discover?

The general types of U.S. military records:

  • Bounty Land Warrants – If your ancestor served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War or the Indian Wars of 1790 and 1855 then they would have been granted bounty land by the federal government.
  • Draft, Conscription or Selective Service Records – Finding out where and when your ancestor joined the military can be an exciting document to find. It will provide you with so much information, such as their physical appearance. This is something of particular interest to me especially as I may not have a photograph of that ancestor.
  • Pension or Veteran Records – There maybe records of benefits or payments made to your retired military ancestor. But not every veteran did actually apply for a pension or even received one.
  • Service Records – You maybe able to find service records for your ancestor if they served in the militia, regular force or whether they were just a volunteer. These records will show that they served in the military and can give you information as to their unit or organization.

How Far Back Do These Records Go Back?

The earliest immigrants to come over to America came in the 1600s. I wonder how far back that you can find your ancestors. Were they one of the early settlers? Do you know whether they served in the military this far back in history.

Sons of the Revolution

These early records are pretty much organized by each of the wars. The first military branches started as early as the beginning of the Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783.

When did the armed forces and records begin?

What Information Can I Find In These Records?

The good thing about these types of records is that you may find out other bits of information which you can then use to track down other family members. For example, there will possibly be your ancestor’s family members listed on various military documents.

Searching For Records

Other pieces of information will include where your ancestor was born, their occupation, their physical appearance, age when they enlistment and maybe the duration of their enlistment as well.

Information that you can find in these U.S. military records:

  • Bounty Land Warrants – This record will show your ancestor;’s name, their unit and when they were mustered in and out. There will also be their medical details and other military information.
  • Draft, Conscription or Selective Service Records – This as I have described before will be information that was provided when your ancestor was either drafted or conscripted. So the obvious basic information as to their age, residence and their physical appearance which would signify whether they were fit for the military.
  • Pension or Veteran Records – These will give vital records similar to when they were drafted or conscripted. But you may also find other documentation of interest. Their may include details about your ancestor’s military career and you may even find included letters and pages from the family bible.
  • Service Records – Information here will be similar to that of the bounty land warrants.

How Can I Find These Records?

There are many different ways for you to collect these types of records for your genealogy research. What I stress to you to begin with is to first find the FREE ones. What do I mean by this?

Military Records Search

Well, we have in our homes all kinds of family mementos and heirlooms. These range from old family photographs, letters, jewelry, coins and silverware. But also there are items associated with your ancestor’s military life.

These items can include the following:

  • Medals, ribbons or insignias,
  • Uniform, firearm or sword,
  • Enlistment or discharge papers.

If you do not have these items then why not ask your relatives for help. They can also share with you old family stories that you may not have heard before. So please ask for their help as they can give you so much information, and some of that you may not even find anywhere else.

You can also use Google to find your military ancestors. Just entering the phrase ‘military records search‘ will give you a list of sites where you can find such information that is local to you. So based on where you are located this search engine will list all archive centers that will be of relevance to your search.

My next option for you is to use books. Now these may not necessarily give you details about your ancestor’s military career, but I have listed it for one special reason. Knowing the history behind any war or conflict that your ancestor was involved you can give you their background story.

Just what was it like to go to war, how did it effect their family and also the community as a whole? There are so many questions to ask about this time in their life. For me not only do I like to know what they did for a living but also get an understanding of it all as well. Only then can I say that I know their story.

Searching for military records online!

Of course the Internet is great for finding just about all sorts of information. The first site that you can go to for these types of records is Ancestry which has a dedicated Military Section.

So why not go to Ancestry and type in your ancestor’s name?

Chances are you may find your military ancestor and even if you don’t you will most probably find someone their in your family tree.

Credit: Ancestry

The second option that I want to give to you is the site Fold3. The name of this site is refers to the flag folding ceremony at the funeral of a war veteran.

You can search for your ancestor by either typing in their name or by searching through the different wars in U.S. history.

This is a site dedicated to military records and contains various pieces of information that will help you with your research. You can possibly find documents, images, stories, personal documents and other articles relating to war.

Credit: Fold3

Are There Any Tips You Can Share To Finding These Records?

It is one thing to know where to find these types of military records and then there is knowing how to get the most from it. Obviously we want to just dive in and get what we want. But that is not often the case as we may need to sift through records that are of no interest to us.

Tips For A Military Rrecords Search

That is why I have written a Tips For A Military Records Search post that will give you many tips on how to get the most from your search. In this post I explain five different ways that you can search for your military ancestors and provide tips for each of them.

Tips For A Military Records Search:

  1. Look Around Your Home
  2. Ask Your Relatives
  3. Google and Search Online
  4. Read Books About It
  5. Check Ancestry and Fold3 Military Records

Final Thoughts

Finding out about your military ancestors can be an exciting journey. You may be doing this type of research because you have heard of old stories and you want to just check them out. Or you may know very little about them and want to know more.

Either way it is important to know what to look for and how to find it. I hope that I have made the process a little easier for you and that you understand a bit more about where you can turn to for information.

As I have stressed in this post please check the FREE options that are available to you. So check your homes and ask your relatives. Who knows you may already have these types of records in your home already. If you do then it will obviously help you save both time and money that you would otherwise have spent.

If though you have exhausted all these free options that I do urge you to check out Ancestry. I know that you do have to pay for this service but with any hobby you do have to spend a little to get something in return. And genealogy is no different.

We would be doing our family history research injustice if we did not explore all possible options that are available to us. And by not doing so we will not have told the whole of our family tree story.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining U.S. military records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

6 thoughts on “U. S. Military Records Explained

  1. Arief Wibowo

    Hi Owain,

    I am really in awe when a country has such an extensive and detailed records of its soldiers. I am an Indonesian and really want to know if any my ancestors were involved in the military. It would be so honorable if my ancestors were wearing insignias and medals. Too bad, I can’t check the records here in Indonesia.

    I always respect everyone who put their lives for their countries!

    1. Owain Post author

      Thank you Arief. There is just so much history out there for us genealogists to find. And discovering our military ancestors is just a part of finding out who they were.

      It is a shame that you have no records that you can check in Indonesia to see if you have any military ancestors. I wish you all the best with your family history research and discover other areas of research. Please check out my site for useful guides for your journey.

  2. Bec

    It is certainly a wonderful thing that websites such as this exist today. The tips offered here offer valuable insight to help loved ones seeking information regarding past family members who served in the military. Anyone who even suspects that their loved ones had a previous connection to the military should bookmark this webpage.

    1. Owain Post author

      Thanks for the endorsement Bec. It is nice to know that my posts are being appreciated and are useful as well. That is the whole point of this site. To give any genealogist direction and help that they need to trace their family tree.

  3. Mana

    Hi There, I really liked this post as it tells the background of army details. I’m a great lover of military and army persons who dedicate their lives for the good of the nation. The informations are pretty well explained simple and to the point – Thanks for this and expecting more on military informations 🙂

    1. Owain Post author

      You’re welcome Mana. I am planning to add more military themed posts in the near future. I feel that with any area of genealogy research everyone needs direction. After all it is all new to us so to get the most out of we need someone to show us the way. And that is where this post comes in.


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