Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Using military records in researching immigrant ancestors

Using military records in researching immigrant ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are records and resources that genealogists find extremely helpful and full of clues to find immigrant ancestors. The information is designed to provide a quick reference and direction of where to find and search for records as probable places to find information.

For immigrants in all time periods, military records are very important because they often document the soldier’s birthplace and birth date or their age at enlistment. Records exist for many of the military engagements taken by the United States from the Revolutionary War forward. There are three types of military records: service records, pension records, and history records. The most important for immigration records are enlistment or discharge records and pension records.

The following is an overview of all three types of records.

Service Records
Service records cover the time an ancestor was actually in the service. These records almost always include the following information:

  • Name
  • Dates of enlistment, attendance, and discharge
  • Beginning and ending rank
  • Military unit

Service records may also include the following, but it is not as common as the information listed above:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Age
  • Physical description
  • Occupation
  • Citizenship
  • Residence
  • Mentions of injuries or illnesses
  • Reference to time as a prisoner of war (POW)
  • Date and cause of death
  • Cemetery of burial

How to Use Service Records
Use service records to learn the following about your ancestor:

  • military service
  • necessary details to locate a pension file or military history
  • place and date of birth
  • other details such as residence, occupation, or citizenship
  • physical description
  • death and burial information
  • medical information
  • insights into ancestor’s personality and performance (promotions, AWOL notations, and so on)
  • if and where they were held as a POW

Pension Records
Pension records cover the post-service period when your ancestor (or their next-of-kin) may have received benefits. They usually include the same information as service records listed above:

  • Name
  • Dates of enlistment and discharge
  • Beginning and ending rank
  • Military unit

They may include the following information, as well:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Physical description
  • Occupation
  • Citizenship
  • Residence
  • Marital status
  • Name of spouse
  • Names (and possibly birthdates) of children
  • Marriage date and details
  • Names of parents
  • Affidavits by friends, associates and others
  • Letters written by the veteran, his kin, or his attorneys
  • Signature
  • Medical examination findings
  • Date and cause of death
  • Cemetery of burial
  • Photo or sketch

How to Use Pension Records
Use pension records to learn the following information about your ancestor:

  • military service
  • necessary details to locate a military history
  • place and date of birth
  • dates and places of other life events
  • names of spouse and children, as well as their birth dates
  • other details such as residence, occupation, or citizenship
  • physical description
  • death and burial information
  • medical information
  • insights into ancestor’s personality and performance (through his letters, affidavits filed by others who knew him, and so forth)
  • literacy
  • signature
  • post-war years and life
  • what he looked like

Military History
Military histories (often referred to as regimental or unit histories) can add historical background to help you understand the conflict and your ancestor’s participation in it. They usually include a roster of those who served in the unit and dates of major engagements.
They may also include descriptions of battles, personal details about individuals (especially officers), references to personal diaries and letters of those who served in the unit, and photos of those who served in the unit or regiment.

How to Use Military History Records
Use military history records to learn more about your ancestor, such as the following:

  • More fully appreciate the military experience of your ancestor
  • Learn who he served with
  • Learn which engagements he was involved in
  • See what he looked like

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