US Military Basic Search Strategies

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Step 1. Identify an Ancestor You Wish to Find in Military Records

Begin your research with family and home sources. You may already know of ancestors who were in the military. You may find evidence that an ancestor served in the military from family traditions, census records, naturalization records, biographies, cemetery records, or records of veterans’ organizations.

You may find an ancestor in a federal military record if he:

Served in a state volunteer unit that was mustered into federal service during wartime. Most men who served during pre-twentieth century wars enlisted in state volunteer units. Enlisted in the regular U.S. military forces during wartime or peacetime. Served in a local militia or national guard unit that was mustered for federal service during an emergency. Enrolled for the drafts for the Civil War, World War I, or a subsequent war and later enlisted or was drafted.

If you do not know if your ancestor served in the military, the year of birth may indicate the possibility. Most people who were in the military were between 18 and 30 years of age. Use the war chronology below to see if your ancestor could have served during wartime.

The major wars of the colonial period are:

King William’s War (War of the League of Augsburg), 1689 to 1697 Queen Anne’s War (War of the Spanish Succession), 1702 to 1713 King George’s War (War of Austrian Succession), 1744 to 1748 French and Indian (Seven Years) War, 1754 to 1763

The major wars of the national period are:

Revolutionary War, 1775 to 1783 War of 1812, 1812 to 1815 Indian Wars, 1780s to 1890s Mexican War, 1846 to 1848 Civil War, 1861 to 1865 Spanish-American War, 1898 Philippine Insurrection, 1899 to 1902 World War I, 1917 to 1918 World War II, 1941 to 1945 Korean War, 1950 to 1953 Vietnam War, 1965 to 1973

People who did not serve during a war may have served during peacetime. During the colonial period, most able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were expected to participate in a local militia unit. These units were organized either by town, county, or province. The militia’s main role was local defense.

After the Revolutionary War, each state retained some form of militia, though in the years before the Civil War, many of these organizations fell into disuse. These volunteer units were the forerunners of today’s National Guard.

Write down what you already know, including the following:

War. It is important to know when an ancestor served in the military. First determine the war or time period in which he may have served. Remember that during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Americans served on opposite sides of the conflicts. State. Your ancestor may have served in a local, state, or federal unit. You can best search military records if you know at least the state where he was living when he was of age to serve in the military. Branch of service and rank. It is helpful to know the branch of service (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard) he may have served in and whether he was an officer or an enlisted man. Regiment. Many service records are arranged by the military unit, such as regiment. Regiments and companies were often composed of people from the same community or county. Knowing the regiment can sometimes help you determine where an individual was from.

In most cases, you can learn the unit from sources at the Family History Library, such as service and pension indexes, regimental or unit histories, county histories, or tombstone inscriptions. Home sources, such as photographs, discharge papers, pension records, or records of membership in a veteran organization, may also provide clues.

Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn

Decide what information you want to know about your ancestor, such as his or her birth date and place, spouse, marriage date, or burial place.

Step 3. Select a Record to Search

Several factors can affect your choice of which records to search. These Wiki pages can help you evaluate which specific military record would be most helpful. If you know the unit, it is usually best to begin with pension files, since they usually have the most information on the soldier’s family. If you do not know your ancestor’s military unit, you may need to first identify the ancestor in service records.

See Types of Military Records to learn about the various military records used for family history research. The Records Selection Table can also help you decide which records to search.

Step 4. Find and Search the Record 

This section describes the major archives that have U.S. military records. When one of these institutions is referred to elsewhere in this outline, return to this section for the address.

If you plan to visit one of these archives, contact them and ask for information about their collections, restrictions, hours, services, and fees.

National Archives. The National Archives has the following pre-World War I federal service, pension, bounty land, and draft records:

Volunteer military service, 1775 to 1902
U.S. Army enlisted personnel, 1789 to 31 October 1912, and officers, 1789 to 30 June 1917
U.S. Navy enlisted personnel, 1798 to 1885, and officers, 1798 to 1902
U.S. Marine Corps enlisted personnel, 1789 to 1904, and some officers, 1789 to 1895
U.S. Coast Guard predecessor agencies, 1791 to 1919 (Revenue Cutter Service, Life-Saving Service, and Lighthouse Service)
Confederate (Civil War) service records and other records relating to Confederate armed forces, 1861 to 1865
Veterans’ pension files and claims, 1775 to 1916 (except for Confederates), and bounty land files, 1775 to 1855

Many of the records discussed in this outline are from the National Archives. Several major indexes and some collections are on microfilm and available for use at the National Archives regional centers and at other research libraries. Those available on microfilm are referred to by their title and publication number (“M” or “T” series number). Most of the original military records have not been microfilmed, however, and are available only at the National Archives. Those not on film are sometimes referred to in this outline by the record group number in which they are located. Record groups contain the records of a bureau, agency, or department of the federal government.

The National Archives does not perform research for patrons. When exact identifying information is given, the Archives can furnish photocopies of records for a fee. You can obtain photocopies of compiled service records, pension application files, and bounty land warrant application files by using NATF form 80, “National Archives Order for Copies of Veteran Records,” available from the National Archives. The address is:

General Reference Branch (NNRG)
National Archives and Records Administration
8th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20408
Telephone: 202-501-5400
The archives staff will copy only selected documents unless you request copies of all the documents in a file.

Some helpful guides to National Archives military records are listed below:

Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Rev. ed. National Archives and Records Administration, 1985. (FHL book 973 A3usn 1985; fiche 6051414; computer number 182191.) Contains specific chapters on federal military records that discuss regular, volunteer, and naval and Marine service records as well as pension and bounty land records.

Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Service Administration, 1985. (FHL book 973 A3nms; film 1320868 item 4; computer number 254121.) Provides brief descriptions of microfilmed military records and a roll by roll listing of their contents.

Seeley, Charlotte Palmer, comp. American Women and the U.S. Armed Forces: A Guide to the Records of Military Agencies in the National Archives Relating to American Women. Revised by Virginia C. Purdy and Robert Gruber. National Archives and Records Administration, 1992. (FHL book 973 M2scp; computer number 666189.)

Army Military History Institute. The institute is the central repository of Army historical source material. It has 240,000 books (including unit histories), 780,000 photographs, five million manuscripts, and other personal items such as letters and diaries. The archivists provide reference help concerning military units (not individual soldiers), and they have published a number of bibliographies of holdings. The address is:

U.S. Army Military History Institute
Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013-5008
Telephone: 717-245-3611
National Personnel Records Center. Federal military records for twentieth century service that are not available at the National Archives may be located at the National Personnel Records Center. The address is:

National Personnel Records Center
(Military Personnel Records)
9700 Page Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63132

Army Reference Branch
Telephone: 314-538-4261
Air Force Reference Branch
Telephone: 314-538-4243

Navy Reference Branch
(includes Marine Corps and Coast Guard)
Telephone: 314-538-4141

The National Personnel Records Center is also available on the Internet at:
The web site describes facilities and services; upcoming events; and records, including official military personnel files, medical records, morning reports, and unit rosters. It also has blank Standard Form 180, “Request Pertaining to Military Records,” for nongenealogical requests. The center will provide to next of kin or authorized representatives information such as birth date and place, death date and place, and burial place. Most other information, such as age; dates of service; marital status; names, sex, and age of dependents; rank; present and past duty assignments; educational level; decorations and awards; duty status (active, reserve, discharged, retired, deceased); photograph (if available); records of courts-martial; and service number can be made available to anyone under the Freedom of Information Act.

The National Personnel Records Center has records for:

Army officers discharged after 30 June 1917 and enlisted men discharged after 31 October 1912
Air Force officers and enlisted men completely discharged after September 1947 (Service prior to 1947 was in the Army Air Corps.)
Marine Corps officers discharged after 1895 and enlisted men discharged after 1904
Navy officers completely discharged after 1902 and enlisted men discharged after 1885
Coast Guard officers discharged after 1928 and enlisted personnel discharged after 1914

In 1973, a fire destroyed about 80 percent of the records for Army officers and enlisted men discharged from 1912 to 1959. About 75 percent of the records of the Air Force from 1947 to 1963 (surnames Hubbard through Z) were destroyed. For more information on the available records contact:

Records Reconstruction Branch
Telephone: 314-538-4261

State and Local Archives. State archives, state adjutant general’s offices, historical societies, courthouses, and libraries may have records of citizens who served in militia and National Guard units. See the state research outlines for more information. The following book contains addresses of state adjutant general offices:

Johnson, Richard S. How to Locate Anyone Who Is or Has Been in the Military. 7th ed. Ft. Sam Houston, Tex.: Military Information Enterprises, 1996. (FHL book 973 M27j 1996; computer number 799337.) Discusses various methods and addresses to locate and contact present and former members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Reserve.