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Military records can add color and spice to your genealogical research. The number of military records available at the National Archives alone is simply awe-inspiring. A partial summary (not including documents at state and local archives) of records that are available includes:
But how do you know whether your relative served in a war? First of all, you can get an idea of whether it is likely be considering your relative's age and comparing that with the dates of all wars and police actions in which America has been involved. Additionally, death certificates usually also record military service.
So, the real starting point is knowing which address to write to and which form to use. The more information that you can provide about your ancestor, the better. The amount of information that can be sent back to you will vary depending upon in which war your ancestor served, because some older records may incomplete or lost. Nevertheless whatever you find, will surely help in constructing your genealogy.
The first place to start looking for service records is the National Archives. However, you should be aware that, as with census records, military documents are considered private for 75 years, so you can only request specifically about your ancestor if the record is more than 75 years old. The earliest records, those from the 18th and 19th century, are often only muster rolls, a form of attendance registers that lists name, rank, and unit.
To obtain a copy of a service record, write to the National Archives and ask for a copy of NATF Form 80. Once you complete and mail back the form, a staff member will search for your ancestor's records and mail you results for a small photocopying fee. To obtain a copy of a service record for a veteran of the Civil War, you can also use NATF Form 80. However, if your relative served in the Confederacy, you may be out of luck, because the National Archives primarily houses records of the Union soldiers even though it does has some Confederate information, such as Confederate pension records. For Confederate records, you generally need to contact the archives of the states that comprised the Confederacy.
Probably the most important military records are pension applications. Out of the literally millions of applications, the National Archives has divided them into seven categories: Revolutionary War invalid, Revolutionary War service, Old Wars, War of 1812, Mexican War, Indian Wars, and Civil War and Later. Pension applications contain a variety of information, including letters from relatives, friends, and fellow soldiers, birth and marriage certificates - anything that would have added credibility to the veteran's pension clam. If the claim was filed by the veteran himself, then it most likely includes vital statistics and a summary of his duties in the Armed Forces. If filed by his widow, then it also includes her vital statistics and the names of their dependents. If it was filed by a dependent, then the application includes the dependent's vital statistics as well.
Female ancestors don't only show up as dependents in military record files. Until the nineteenth century, women's main contact with the military was pension application or support employment. Then, in 1890, Civil War nurses became eligible to apply for federal pensions for their own service. Later, women served in World War 1, and increased their numbers in World War II through such organizations as the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES), Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and other branches.
To find out more, examine records for the individual war department and indexes. When trying to find your ancestor's pension application, you must be able to provide the National Archives' staff with the exact state and preferably town or county that your ancestor came from, because of the number of duplicate names on file.
Finally, don't limit your search to the National Archives only. The Veteran's Administration also has many documents of interest, as does The American Legion bounty land grants. Land grants were one way the government rewarded its veterans. Patriots (or their heirs) who fought in wars between the years 1775 and 1855 were entitled to land that was part of the public domain. Besides providing an inducement for men to serve their country, land grants also brought about the migration of people to the western area of the United States.
So start researching, start writing, and you might be surprised what you can discover!
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