By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
To effectively use military records for genealogy, you have to understand the different kinds of records that are available. Draft cards, service records, and pension files can all provide different information about your ancestor who served in the military.
During World War I, all eligible men were required to register with the government and fill out a draft card, whether they actually ended up fighting in the war or not. These draft cards list a man’s name, birth date, nationality, physical description, and citizenship status. These records are available from the Family History Library or the National Archives.
If your ancestor actually did serve in the military, whether in wartime or peacetime, you can look up his service record. Service records list what unit or regiment your ancestor served in, making it easier for you to find him in pension records and unit histories. Service records also list your ancestor’s age, place of birth, physical description, and rank, although they rarely provide information about a soldier’s family.
Pension files are the best military records to use for genealogy purposes. Pensions were provided by the federal or state governments to disabled veterans, widows and orphans of veterans, or veterans who had served for a certain amount of time or achieved a certain rank. In order for a family to receive pension benefits from the government, they had to prove their relationship to the veteran, so many pension files include marriage certificates and other vital records. Pension files always list the veteran’s surviving spouse, and they often list his children as well. If you have found your ancestor in a service record and know what unit he served in, it is relatively easy to find his pension file.
When you know an ancestor’s unit, you can also find his regiment history. These histories are available for many regiments, and they provide information about where soldiers enlisted, what battles they fought in, where they traveled, who the officers were, where veterans died, and where surviving veterans lived after the war.
Most communities were fiercely proud of their men who had served in the military, so if you know your ancestor’s hometown, you can find him in the county or town history. All county and town histories published biographies of prominent citizens, and military veterans were included there. You can find published county and town histories for your locality in the Family History Library Catalog, in your local library, or on HeritageQuestOnline.com.
If your ancestor served in the military in early American times, you can find him in bounty land records. After the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, the federal government did not have money to pay its soldiers, so it paid them in land instead. Veterans were given bounty land warrants, or deeds to pieces of land in separate military districts in Ohio and other Midwestern states. A veteran could either settle the land himself or sell his deed, but either way you can look up his bounty land application and view the information there. Start by identifying your ancestor’s unit in service records, and then you’ll have access to the wealth of information that military records can provide.