Find Clues to Military Service
Begin your search for military records by talking with living relatives and reviewing the documents and other information you have already collected. The goal is to identify ancestors who may have participated in the military and, ultimately, to determine when and where the soldier served. Clues to an ancestor's military service may be found in the following:
Family stories — If a relative says that your ancestor served in the military it is most likely true. Just keep in mind that memories get fuzzy with time, and the details may have been exaggerated or embellished a bit.
Photographs — Search your family photograph collection for pictures of people in uniform. The type of photo and style of uniform can help determine the branch of the military and the war or time period in which your ancestor served. Patches, pins, insignia, and even belt buckles may help determine rank or unit.
Census records — Occupational references may indicate military service. The conspicuous absence of a male relative during wartime may also offer a clue. Surviving Revolutionary War pensioners or their widows were identified in the 1840 U.S. Federal Census and Civil War veterans or widows in the special 1890 Union Veterans Census (surviving only for the states of Kentucky [partial] through Wyoming, alphabetically, including D.C.). The 1910 federal census indicates whether the person was a “survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy.” The 1930 census indicates military service in major wars through World War I.
Newspaper clippings — People were proud of their hometown heroes, and brief mentions of local soldiers often made the community papers.
Journals and correspondence — Writing letters or keeping a diary offered a distraction from the boredom of military camp life and the terror of battle. Such letters or journals may be found among your family's belongings, or in a library or archive.
Death records and obituaries — A soldier's obituary or death record may mention military service and provide details such as branch or regiment.
Local histories — Published town or county histories often include stories and photos of local military units.
Grave markers — A flag, emblem, engraving, or marker on your ancestor's gravestone may indicate military service. Many countries also honor their veterans with special markers.
Tombstone inscriptions and symbols are a good source for clues to military service. Acronyms and abbreviations may indicate the branch of military service, such as U.S. Air Force (USAF) or U.S. Navy (USN). Others may be a little less obvious, such as SS for Silver Star, GAR for Grand Army of the Republic, or UDC for United Daughters of the Confederacy. Search online for military acronyms or military tombstone symbols for identification assistance.
Once you have determined that an ancestor served in the military, there are a wide variety of records that may help to document his service. These include military service records, draft registrations, medals and ribbons, pension papers, discharge papers, pay vouchers, casualty lists, unit rosters, and bounty land warrants. From these records you can learn such details as date and place of birth, age at enlistment, occupation, and names of immediate family members.
The path you take in your search will depend upon when and where your ancestor served, whether he was regular army or with a volunteer unit, and whether he was an officer or enlisted personnel.