Basics of Researching US Military Records for Your Ancestors
Exploring US Military records may be worthwhile if you have a legacy of military persons in your family tree. But also, look at these records even if you are unaware that an ancestor participated in a conflict.
The great thing about having ancestors who served in the military is the records they leave behind for genealogists to discover!
While not every service record is available online, the documents you find may reveal when an ancestor served, where, and with whom. In addition, you may discover physical descriptions, names of additional family members, and the stories from their service and injuries.
So how will you find all the discoveries waiting to be explored?
Were Your Ancestors Old Enough?
When you do not know if your ancestor served in a military conflict, this chart will give you an idea of the typical age for those who served in the military. But also, review the rounded number of persons who served in each conflict.
Possible Birth Year
How many served?
1776 - 1783
16 - 60
1716 - 1767
1780s - 1890s
16 - 60
1720s - 1870s
War of 1812
1812 - 1815
16 - 60
1752 - 1799
Mexican - American War
1846 - 1848
16 - 60
1786 - 1832
1861 - 1865
16 - 60
1801 - 1849
World War I
1917 - 1919*
18 - 60
1857 - 1901
World War II
1941 - 1945*
18 - 60
1881 - 1927
1950 - 1953
18 - 60
1890 - 1935
1965 - 1973
18 - 60
1905 - 1955
* Years the US participated in these conflicts. Ancestors may have joined other countries to participate, such as Canada.
** 458,000 militia members provided local defense. The total in the chart represents the regular Army.
- 179,000 Colored persons and 3,500 Native Americans participated in the Civil War
- Women started serving in the military in World War I.
That number may suggest how likely your ancestor may have served. For instance, the population of the US during the Mexican - American War was about 23,000,000, about 3 million were slaves. The number of men who served in the military during that conflict was 112,000.
If you assumed about half of the population was male, then you would Thus, 0.011% of the total male population participated in this conflict. While you should consider if your ancestor served in the Mexican - American War, the chances they did are small.
For more conflicts, visit the FamilySearch Wiki Page regarding Servicemen in Wars.
Watch this video.
How to Search For Records
When you have identified an ancestor that may have served in a war, or you have a heavy dose of curiosity, follow these steps to search military records.
1. Review an Ancestor's Profile
Before diving into military records, you must know a few details about your potential veteran. These details include:
Full name - including aliases, nicknames, and spelling variations
Birth year and place
Residences - where did your ancestor live before and during the conflict
Name of possible military conflict.
2. Gather Clues of Service
Next, search your home, the home of family members, and the memories of relatives about your ancestors. What records, photographs, letters, artifacts, or stories document the service of your ancestors?
For instance, my Grandpa Lew had a photos with him in his military uniform, a military cross, several military bracelets, and his discharge papers in his home confirming his participation in the war.
Next, consult genealogical records:
Gravestones - some may have engravings or signage identic ting service.
Cemeteries - some cemeteries are resting places for veterans
Census Records - Since 1910 (except 1920), census records have asked about veteran status. The 1890 Veteran's schedule also documented service persons and their widows.
Newspapers - obituaries, lifestyle features, causality lists, enlistment rosters, and letters to the editor may reveal military participation.
Other genealogical resources may also identify military participation. Let me know which ones I've overlooked.
↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy strategies?
Grab your copy of our FREE Genealogy Research Guides:
3. Leverage Record Hints
I’m a big believer in leveraging technology to do some research for me. Therefore, build your family trees on Findmypast, FamilySearch, Ancestry, and MyHeritage and let their algorithms recommend record hints for you.
In a previous post, Ancestry's hints directed me to Canadian military records I hadn't considered yet. Granted, those military records were Canadian, but the principle holds for many U.S. military records.
New record collections are regularly added to the big four genealogy websites, so let their hinting tools point you in the right direction (or a new direction you hadn’t previously considered).
4. Utilize Genealogy Website Card Catalog
Now, not every military collection online is indexed or fed into the hinting algorithm. As such, we can’t rely solely on recording hinting for military records.
Dive into the Card Catalogs on the big four websites of Findmypast, FamilySearch,
Ancestry, and MyHeritage. Use the card catalog filters of keywords, location, record types, or time filters.
In this video, I demonstrated how to use the Ancestry Card Catalog to filter to specific military record collections.
Some other military-related keywords to search in the card catalogs include:
Military unit name
Japanese Internment, etc.
If I have thought of an additional keyword one that you've found successful, let me know in the comment section.
5. Consult Military Resource Guides
Not every military record will be easy to find, and many will be offline. So your next step for do-it-yourself searching is to consult military-specific research guides. There are several available for you.
First, I highly and often recommend using the FamilySearch Wiki. On the FamilySearch Wiki home page, key in the name of a war or conflict. Once on the conflict Wiki page, you’ll see research strategies, online and offline sources, and other notes - such as record loss.
There are several other guides I want to call your attention to. All links and information will be in the blog post in the description box.
The National Archives website has research guides segmented by each branch of service.
Select a branch like the Marine Corps, and you’ll view various topics and relevant research guides. Many of the collections will be offline, but at least you know what to look for if you plan a visit to the archives.
Major genealogy archives and libraries have guides to military research, such as
“Types of Military Records” - New York Public Library
“World War I & World War II U.S. Veteran Research” - American Ancestor
Many state archives have guides to Researching Military Records, such as this one from Colorado.
Of course, books and eBooks are available.
James C. Neagles, U.S Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources. (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, 1994)
Lt. Col. Richard S. Johnson and Debra Johnson Knox, How to Locate Anyone who is or has been in the Military – Armed forces locator guide. (Spartanburg, SC: MIE Publishing, 1999)
How to Find Military Records, free eBook from Family Tree Magazine.
6. Hire a professional
Even with our best efforts, finding military records requires travel that we can not do or expenses we lack. What then?
Then it’s time to hire a professional to look up records and seek out items you haven’t considered. While this may cost several hundred to a thousand dollars, the time and energy you say chase the wrong records might be worth the rates.
My colleagues at Legacy Family Tree and Trace can offer you these services. You can also reach out to the Association of Professional Genealogists to see who is experienced and active in military research.
Now that you know the basics of U.S. military research let me know what other questions you have or successes you've had.
Continue Your Research Journey