Researching Military Records

What to know and where to go!

Military records, including pension records, are an important source for genealogical information and should not be over looked. However, genealogists should keep in mind that these records were not created for researchers, but were created to provide a record for the government to keep track of those who serve. There are many locations that house military records, but the below links should at least get you started!

 The first step… 

Start with your living family members who have served. If the family member is active duty, pick their brain. Ask about their enlistment date, boot camp experience, “A” school, “MOSes,” duty stations, military education, decorations, metals, badges, citations, ribbons and anything else your or they may think to add. Don’t forget to get the dates in regards to the information is possible. Knowing the family member had combat training is good, but knowing they had it and when is better!

If the family member has been discharged from service, try to acquire their DD-214 (first issued in 1950, "WD AGO"), their discharge document. From this one piece of paper, researchers can glean the following: name, compartment, component, branch, social security number, rank, pay grade, reserve obligation, enlistment/discharge date/place, residence at enlistment/discharge, command transferred to, “MOSes” and length, full record of service, education, decorations, metals, badges, citations, ribbons, high school grad., and emergency contact, which is usually a family member.

Searching your ancestors…

 Decide who you want to research. This may sound like a “duh” type statement; however, searching military records by Surname alone could turn into a nightmare and require many hours of pouring through indexes (and many records are not indexed) and records searching for your specific ancestor. Try searching for their full name (Stokes, James) before making a general search for Stokes.

Know where to go. Decide if you are going to research at the National Archives, county/state office, library, Latter-Day-Saints (LDS) site, museum, or other historical locations. Call the facility ahead of time to ensure the documents will be available for researching. Some intuitions only allow access to documents on certain days or during certain hours. Also, ask the staff what their policies are for researchers. For example, the National Archives in North Carolina do not allow researchers to take more than a laptop and notepad into the document repository and they only allow the use of pencils. Ask about parking, you may need money for meters or parking areas and find out about their copying of documents policy as you will need money for this as well. Don’t hesitate to ask the staff at these repositories for help, most of the time, they are more than happy to help you get started but it is poor etiquette to expect the staff to do the research for you! 

Use what you already know. It is important to have some information as a starting point. If you know if the person was enlisted or an officer, where they served, the branch they served in, and the dates of service, or any of this information, your research will go much faster and smoother! Family stories, old letters, diaries, photos, some census/court records, and tombstones can be a good source for gleaning some of this information. If you are doing a “blind” search for your ancestor, educate yourself on the military history in the area of your ancestor during the time they may have served. Was there a militia for the town/county? Was there a draft for service? What age was required to serve in the military? Was your ancestor old enough to serve?

Military Records Index

Wars Between 1775 - 1848 (June 21, 2010) Militia & National Guard Records (June 21, 2010)
Civil War  (June 22, 2010) Army Records (June 23, 2010)
Spanish-American & Philippine Insurrection (June 22, 2010) Navy Records (June 23, 2010)
World War I & World War II Other Branches

Look for more Stokes Military information in the SFR History area.

Special thanks to author James C. Neagles who authored U.S. Military Records, A Guide to Federal and State Sources (ISBN: 0-916489-55-8.) This book can be found in most libraries or can be purchased through by clicking here.

Militia & National Guard

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Militia Records – “"They were a group of citizens who would be ready to fight in any emergency" All able-bodied males [aged 16-60] were expected to be members of the local militia, though in practice there were many possible exemptions to service including: conscientious objection, attendance at college and engagement in important business. The important and wealthy could avoid service, if they wanted, by paying others to go in their place.”[1] These records are usually found in the National Archives and can be requested and searched here.


National Guard Records – The National Guard is a militia force organized by each of the several states and territories of the United States. The National Guard may be called up for active duty by the state governors or territorial commanding generals to help respond to domestic emergencies and disasters, such as those caused by hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. It is divided up into units stationed in each of the 50 states and U.S. territories and operates under their respective state governor or territorial government.[2] National Guard records are found at the Records of the National Guard Bureau [NGB], in the National Achieves.

[1] Wills, Garry (1999). A Necessary Evil, A History of American Distrust of Government Page 27. New York, NY; Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684844893[2] Military Reserves Federal Call Up Authority

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1775 - 1838 Wars

(** Compiled Service Records)

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Revolutionary War Period ** (duration 1775-1783) - These records were compiled by the War Department. The National Archives has indexes on microfilm and copies of the compiled service records. To read and search these files online, click here. Next, search for “Compiled service records of soldiers who served in the American Army during the Revolutionary war.”  A list of microfilms held in the National Archives can be found here. For an index of courts-martial, is the book written by James C. Neagles entitled Summer Soldiers: A Survey and Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial (Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1986) and can be purchased here Revolutionary War Service Records Index (Must have Adobe Reader)

Post-Revolutionary War Period ** (1784-1811) – There was still military activity in the years after the Revolution and your ancestor may have a record during this time. The National Archives has indexes on microfilm and copies of the compiled service records.    

War of 1812** (duration 1812-1815) – At the beginning of the War of 1812, the President was authorized by Congress to create a Federal Army (Rangers & Sea Fencibles) and military budgets were greatly increased at this time. Records pertaining to soldiers are arranged by state/territory, than unit. Within the unit, names are alphabetical. Some records can be read and searched online by going here and searching “1812 War Records.” A list of microfilms held in the National Archives can be found here.

Indian Wars** (duration 1816-1858) – Military records for this time period pertain to records of volunteer units in the form of Abstract Cards. These are arranged by state but please note that state lines were not what they are today so a search of neighboring states may be required for the best results. Some records can be read and searched online by going here and searching “US Indian Wars”  A list of microfilms held in the National Archives can be found here.

Patriot War (1838) – The United States sent federal troops to the U.S.-Canadian boarder to suppress a planned uprising by American citizens and Canadian rebels against the British armies. These records are only indexed and available on microfilm at the National Archives.

Mexican War** (duration 1846-1848) – Soldiers for this war were consist of volunteer units from 24, an Indian unit, and a Mormon Battalion. The records are listed by state/territory alphabetically followed by the Mormon Battalion. Some records can be read and searched online by going here and searching “Mexican War.” The Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of Rebellion (1861-1866), can be read online and searched here. The National Archives also has a microfilm index (Index to Volunteer Soldiers in the Mexican War, 1846-1848, publication number M616, cabinet number V11).

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Civil War Records (1861-1865)

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Many records from the Civil War have been compiled and are available to researchers. On 1863, the federal government (Union) began drafting men for the war and local and state units were labeled as special units. Some of these units were called: U.S. Sharpshooters, U.S. Colored Troops, Army Marines, and Balloon Corps. A few notes for researchers: White officers are listed with the U.S. Colored Troops, and since there is no name index for enlisted men, the researcher must know which state(s) to look in to find their ancestor.

Some records can be read and searched online by going here and searching “Civil War Records.” A List of Officers of the Army of the United States (1779-1900) can be searched and read online here. To search Confederate records, one must search the National Archives microfilm library. For a list of all Civil War records on microfilm at the National Archives, for both Union and Confederate sides, please click here.

For records of courts-martial, the National Archives holds 17 volumes entitled: Registers of the Records of the United States Army General Courts-Martial, 1809-1890 (M1105). Also housed at the National Archives is a record of executions as a result of court-martial: Proceedings of United States Army Courts-Martial and Military Commissions of Union Soldiers Executed by United States Military Authority, 1861-1866. For more information on the War Department procedures for courts-martial, click here to read online for the 1919 document.

Prisoner of War records should also be searched for ancestors. Richmond Prisons, 1861-1862 can be searched and read online here. The National Archives also houses the Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861-1864 (M598-145 reels), Records of the Office of the Commissary General of Prisoners (RG 249), Register of Confederate Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in Federal Prisons and Military Hospitals in the North 1861–1865 (M918).

Causality and death records, commonly referred to as  Rolls of Honor, are another source for information. Below are various Rolls of Honor that can be searched and read online.

Confederate Amnesty Papers – Petitioners Only - 1865-1867

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War Records (1898-1902)

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Spanish-American War (duration 1898-1899) – Soldiers served in both state/territory and federal units. These units include the Signal Corps, U.S. Cavalry, and U.S. Engineers. There are several searchable documents that are available to read online that contain Stokes.

The National Archives has indexes arranged into the following categories: State/Territory units, and Federal/ Puerto Rican Volunteers. For a list of all Spanish-American War records on microfilm at the National Archives, please click here.

Philippine Insurrection (1902) – These records include federally recruited volunteers and Philippine scouts and cavalry. The official records of the Oregon volunteers in the Spanish War and Philippine Insurrection  can be searched and read online. The National Archives contains a general name index and some personal papers that can be researched.

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Army Records

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Officer Appointments & Commissions – The best resource to search for this information is William H. Powell’s book, Records of Living Officers of the United States Army (Library of Congress Number: U11.U5 P8) published in 1890. A scanned copy of this book (that can be read and searched online) can be found here. Please note, that a search of this document reveled no Stokes listed. 

Muster Rolls – Are lists of the soldiers who served in a military unit, usually compiled bi-monthly. Many muster rolls were used to create Payroll lists. Payroll was used to track who was owed what and when they were paid. contains some Muster roll lists but they may require membership to the site.

Rosters – Are lists of the personnel assigned to military units. 

Service Cards – Usually the size of a index card, that record the service record of a soldier. Many copies of these can be found at the National Archives.

Army Correspondences – Telegraphs, memos, reports and written letters make up this correspondence. The U.S. War Department (after the Civil War) complied records of this type and they can be found in the 128-volume titled Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion (1880-1900) or the 31-volume Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion (1894-1927). These volumes have been made available to read online here. Type in the title in the search engine to find them. Have some time set aside when you start this research as each search result is a readable and searchable volume online.

The National Archives has many microfilms for researchers to explore, please click here for the list of microfilms.

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Navy Records

Researched by Brenda (Stokes) Cothern  June 2010

Many early Navy records are combined with early Army records. The Continental Navy was formed in October of 1775 and in some instances records for the Coast Guard[1] and Merchant Marine[2] records are found within the Navy records.

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is both a military and a law enforcement service and its role includes enforcement of US law, coastal defense, and search and rescue.

The United States Merchant Marine is made up of the nation's civilian-owned merchant ships and the men and women that crew them. The merchant marine transports cargo and passengers during peace time. In time of war, the merchant marine is an auxiliary to the Navy, and can be called upon to deliver troops and supplies for the military.

 Navy and Marine Officers - Records can be found on microfilm, entitled Abstracts of Service Records of Naval Officers (“Records of Officers”) 1798-1893 (M330, 19 reels), in the National Archives. For a list of some of the microfilms available, please click here. For a better understand of how these records are useful to researchers, I recommend reading Early Navy Personnel Records at the National Archives, 1776-1860 (Bacon, L.) and Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel by the National Archives.

 Navy Enlisted Personnel – Records for enlisted men can be found by searching muster rolls and shore stations. The National Archives houses hundreds of volumes of muster rolls, for a list of microfilms click here. For a list of ships to search, click here or look in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. There is also a large volume called Index to Rendezvous Reports, Before and After the Civil War, 1846-31 and 1865-84 (T1098) that might prove worth searching.

 Navy Correspondence – Consists of 413 volumes on microfilm at the National Archives entitled Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy From Captains (“Captains’ Letters”), 1805-1861; 1866-1885 (M125).

 Other Navy record sources that should not be overlooked by researchers include: Naval Apprentice (aged 16-21) records (RG 24), Courts-martial records found in the Office of Naval Intelligence (RG 25), Confederate Navy records, Deck Logs, War Diaries and Historical & Manuscript collections. One such collection is entitled U.S. Naval History Sources in the United States.

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[2] Most English-speaking countries call their fleet the Merchant Navy. Terms similar to Merchant Marine are used in, for example, the French Marine Marchande and the Spanish Marina Mercante.