Genealogy Introduction—Military Research at the National Archives: Volunteer Service

Uploaded by usnationalarchives on 12.08.2011

Hello, my name is John Deeben. I’m one of the genealogy archives specialists at the
National Archives and Records Administration. In this lecture, I’m going to talk about
how to research military service. I’m focusing specifically in this lecture on volunteer
service in the U.S. Military. They’re different types of service that documented in different
ways. Volunteer service of course encompassed the state regiments and local militia that
were raised for specific wars or national emergencies. The regiments were recruited
and then fought in and served and then, at the end of the wars, the regiments were disbanded
and then went home, and that was the extent of their service. Because of that, the War
Department never had any official documents per se to record the history of their service.
So, in the 1890s, they decided to create the compiled military service records. And these
are the basic records that we have to document volunteer service in the U.S. Military. They
started to do it originally for Union veterans to document their service in terms of verifying
their service for pension benefits, and then afterward they went back and documented volunteer
soldiers for other wars as well going back to the Revolutionary War. So, the records
that we have there were extracted information from original records that were were kept
at the time of the wars took place including muster rolls, pay rolls, unit returns, hospital
records, prison records, and things of that nature. And they went through these records
and they had employed thousands of workers to go through all these records and extract
very specific information about individual soldiers from these records. They copied the
information down on individual cards, and those cards became that soldier’s compiled
service record. So, the compiled military service records that we now have are arranged
by war, by state, then by unit, and then alphabetically by the soldier’s name. And we have compiled
service records then going back from the Revolutionary War in 1775 all the way up to the early 20th
Century and the Philippine Insurrection which ended in 1902. So, we have for the Revolutionary
War, we have compiled service records for the post-Revolutionary period from 1784 to
1811 which included a lot of militias that were raised to protect the frontiers against
the Indian warfare, the War of 1812, other antebellum Indian wars from the First Seminole
War to the Third Seminole War which ended in 1858, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the
Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection. All those records, the compiled service records,
are available in textual form with a few exceptions. For the Revolutionary War, for the post-Revolutionary
period, and for selected records from the Civil War are available on microfilm. For
the Civil War specifically what we have available on film for compiled service records are the
Confederate service records, and on the Union side we have selected records for the border
states, Western states and territories, and Southern states who supplied Union troops
during the war. So, for your major Northern states Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey,
Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and so on, those records are still only available in
textual form. So, what basic information can you find in a compiled service record for
a volunteer soldier? It will give his full name, his dates of enlistment or when he was
mustered into service and also his dates of discharge, show when he was mustered out sometimes
it will give you his period of service if he enlisted for a three-year term or two year
and nine month term and so forth. It usually gives his residence not necessarily the place
he was born but where he was residing at the time that he enlisted, some personal information,
sometimes you get a person’s description…height, weight, eye and hair colors, and so forth.
And then it will also have notations regarding specific activities or events of notice that
took place during his service. If he was assigned to special duty for some reason, if he was
captured and served time in a prisoner of war camp, or if he was in a hospital wounded
or things of that nature. That will be noted on the service record’s cards as well. So,
we’ll take a look at a specific example looking at William Graham who served in the
First Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War. If you look at the first image from that
service record, this actually image of the jacket that the record is contained in, and
it gives you the basic information right on the jacket about the soldier including his
name, his unit, the war he served in, and it will also provide the rank that he held
when he went into service and the rank that he held when he was discharged from service.
There are also a series of card numbers that are arranged on the front of the jacket. Generally
what these cards refer to, each number is stamped on the back of one of the cards that
are inside the jacket. So, basically this was basically a recordkeeping technique that
was used by the War Department to make sure that the right cards were filed with the right
jacket. So, they don’t lead necessarily to any other specific records. However, if
you look at the bottom of the jacket where it says bookmark if you see information recorded
there, numbers or any other notations, those could lead you to other textual that we might
have in our holdings. So, it would definitely be worthwhile to take a look at that. If we
look at some of the cards inside the jacket, um you’ll find other more specific information
about the soldier. The first card in this slide shows more specific information about
the company that he served in and in this case it shows the name of his company commander,
Captain Abraham Hunt, and it also shows his regimental commander, Colonel Joseph Vose.
So, that’s more specific information that we didn’t have from the front of the jacket.
Sometimes you also notice variations in spelling of the last name. Here you’ll see his last
name spelled G-R-A-Y-H-A-M as well as traditional Graham G-R-A-H-A-M. You’ll have to remember
that when these original records were at a time when all the information was transmitted
verbally, so there are going to be spelling variations. So, you just need to be aware
of that. The cards also show his date of enlistment, January 26, 1776, and you’ll also notice
that between two of the cards there’s a change in rank. In January of 1778, he’s
still holding the rank of corporal that he went into the service with. But um in May
of 1779, he’s a private. We don’t know why. The records don’t indicate on the cards,
but something happened at some point in time that he’s broken in rank from corporal to
private. But as we saw on the jacket, he ended his service as a corporal. So whatever happened,
he must have redeemed himself and regained his original rank. But of course the records
don’t specifically indicate what might have happened. So just to summarize then, the basic
information that you can find in the compiled service record. We have the soldier’s name
William Graham. We learned that he served in Captain Abraham Hunt’s company of Colonel
Joseph Vose’s First Massachusetts Regiment. It’s also known sometimes and recorded as
the First Massachusetts Battalion of Forces. He enlisted January 26 of 1776. After three
years of holding the rank of corporal, he had been demoted to private, but ending his
service as a corporal again. And it also shows that the various pay raises that he received
during his time of service. For example, when he was serving as a corporal in January of
1778, he was being paid seven and a third dollars per month for that service. When he
was serving those few months as a private, he received six and two thirds dollars per
month for that service. Where can you generally find the records? Well, the textual records
are available here at the National Archives building. The records that are available on
microfilm and also online you can also find on Footnote, Ancestry or Heritage Quest online.
And you can also, if you can’t visit the National Archives in Washington in person,
you can request the records through the mail using traditional mailing form that’s available
to download from our website ""