Military records are a great resource for genealogy research because not only do they include a large array of important data about your ancestors, they often include details that you won't find elsewhere, like physical descriptions, for example. If you're unsure if your ancestor served in the military, military records are still a great place to search because military records also include those who registered for the draft and who were eligible to serve. Military pension files may also provide more context around your ancestor and provide key details about your ancestor's family or spouse. Just like any other record set, military records take a bit of strategy to maximize search returns.
1. Ask your relatives first
When doing any sort of genealogy research, the absolute best place to start uncovering more about your family history is by asking your relatives about your family history. They might know stories of your family's past, they might know who accomplished what, and they can give you a great jump start in building your own family tree. Chances are that if any of your more recent ancestors served in the military, your relatives will know. Serving in the military generally seen as an honor within the family and so often military stories, war stories, and achievements are passed down in the family, so now it's up to you to see which aspects of the stories are fact or fiction!
2. Search your attic, basement, and closets
A great way to determine if any of your ancestors served in the military is looking through your family's heirlooms and memorabilia. Chances are that if your ancestor served, there's a photograph of them while serving, or medals that have been passed down generation to generation, or military uniforms tucked away, etc. You might not have as obvious of indicators in your household, but be sure to look through photographs, postcards, family letters, and family journals for more clues about family that may have served. Finding a letter, for example, might give you clues for which military records to search next by either location of service, or dates on the letter, etc. No piece of information is too small!
3. Browse record sets prior to searching
The best way to yield the most specific results is to search one specific record set at a time. To determine which military record sets would be the best option for you to search, go to our A-Z of record sets page and then select the "United States" option on the left hand menu, then click "Category" to bring "Armed forces & conflict" records up first.
Please note that due to a current site issue that our Canadian records are included in our United States records, but please be aware that we're working to fix this problem.
From the way our records are sorted, you can simply browse for state-level records, see which records cover which years, and determine which records will be the best option for your research.
Select United States under the left hand menu
Sort by category to see all of our military records
4. Keep your timeline handy
If you're unsure whether your ancestor served in the military, having your dates readily available will help make your search easier. As you browse record sets, watch those dates and try to determine if your ancestor would have served or not. One item to keep in mind is ages for registration.
During the Civil War, you could only register if you were 21 or over. Now, keep in mind that some people lied about their age to serve, but try to use your best judgement in these cases and not to let confirmation bias affect your find. For example, if your ancestor was 18, but you suspect that he lied to register, then that might have happened because the appearance of an 18 year old to a 21 year old isn't that different. However, if your ancestor was 14 and you suspect he lied to register, then you might want to try to find additional evidence to prove your case.
In the Revolutionary War, a person had to be 17 to join, but experts suggest that recruiters didn't ask about age. So, if you have Revolutionary War ancestors it is possible that they were registered in the war at a younger age. Keep these things in mind as you begin your research.
5. Search both sides
Sometimes people forget that in the Civil War and Revolutionary War that Americans served on both sides, so be sure to check the records for both sides, even if you suspect your ancestor served on one particular side.
6. Use the variant name and wildcard function
Sometimes names were recorded incorrectly or nicknames were used by those registering to serve. My grandfather, Joseph, was listed in the WW2 military records, as "Joe," so it wasn't until I used the name variant feature that I was able to find him! My case is also a bit more simple than others I've heard, so if your searches aren't yielding any results, try casting a wider net with the variant name feature, then try with the wildcard function.
Use the variant feature to search alternative spellings
7. Use PERSI
If you've searched a variety of military records and your searches aren't yielding many promising results, but you have a strong suspicion that your ancestor served, try searching PERSI for additional records. PERSI contains over 2.7 million articles for you to search, and there are thousands of military-specific records included. Be sure to use the "optional keyword" search box to yield better results.
Be sure to utilize the optional keywords search box to help with your PERSI searches
8. State and Federal Records
One thing to note is that there are local military records, state military records, and federal military records, so if your ancestor served in the military, it is possible that you can find the same ancestor in multiple records, which is important for cross-checking your findings and for learning as much about your ancestor as possible. So if you don't find your ancestor in the federal military records, try searching local or state records, etc.
From our World War I Draft Registration Cards
9. Don't forget cemetery records
If you know your ancestor served in the military, but are having difficulty locating them in the military records, try searching cemetery records to help aide your search. Many military veterans are buried in military cemeteries, and if they're not, often times their gravestone will indicate their branch and rank in the military. If you can find their gravestone, it is possible that it can lead you to other military records to search again. It could be as simple as searching Veteran Gravesite Records, but it might take a bit of digging as well.
Searching for your military ancestor in the newspaper can yield some great results. Newspaper articles can reveal where your ancestor served, their military accomplishments, or if they died in war, you can often find casualty lists or your ancestor's obituary. Newspapers also included draft lists and war stories, so you can learn about the acts of heroism that your ancestor may have been part of.
From Boston Daily Globe August 3, 1917
Do you have ancestors that served in the military? Have you discovered them in our records yet? Tell us what you've found in the comments below!