War has always been a part of American life. And with more than 200 years of wars, odds are good some of your male ancestors participated in a war. Military service generates records. The content and availability of the records varies depending on the war.
Don't know if your ancestor served in the military? Evaluating birth, marriage, death, census, newspapers, tombstone, local histories, letters and other home records may produce clues about military service. Make a checklist or time line for your male ancestors using the records that you have collected. If they were between 16 and 60 during a major conflict, they are a good candidate for the military.
John Martin Potter
Birth-1874, Dearborn Co., Indiana
Marriage-1896, Cincinnati, Hamilton Co., Ohio
Death-1955, Newport, Campbell Co., Kentucky
1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 Census-Campbell Co., Kentucky
Looking at a list of American wars, I determined John would have been the correct ages to serve between 1890 and 1934. The wars during that time were the Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and World War I. A World War I draft card was found for him but all other searches were negative. The draft card is not a military record and in no way suggests that he served in the military. Many men registered for the draft but did not serve and others served who did not register because they had already enlisted.
Census records which can contain information about military service are: 1840–names and ages of Revolutionary War veterans or their widows; 1890–Special Union Veterans and widows schedule; 1910–column 30 lists survivors of Union Army, Union Navy, Confederate Army, and Confederate Navy; 1930–column 30 and 31 lists veterans who served during Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, Mexican Expedition, World War; state census records-many state census' have questions about military service.
Military records before World War I are in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The following abbreviated list should help you get started searching for military records.
The records for this time period consist mainly of militia lists and can be found in state archives. Some of the lists have been published.
There are compiled service records for patriot Revolutionary War soldiers. Most of these records are on microfilm at NARA, along with the indexes. Many of the Loyalists lists have been published and are available in libraries. Some indexes for both Patriots and Loyalists can also be found on the Internet at subscription sites and various free sites.
Post Revolutionary War Period
The index for this period has been consolidated. Both the records and indexes have been microfilmed and are available at NARA.
War of 1812
NARA has a consolidated index of all the states on microfilm, plus they have state indexes for Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The records themselves have not been microfilmed except for the Territory of Mississippi.
Indian Wars and Mexican War
There is a consolidated index on microfilm at NARA, but only a few of these records have been microfilmed.
These records have been indexed and are on microfilm at NARA. Indexes are also available on the "National Park Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System" website and at Ancestry.com. Union compiled service records have not been microfilmed. They must be ordered from the National Archives in Washington. There may also be records in the state from which the soldier served. Confederate compiled records have been microfilmed and are available at NARA.
Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, Mexican Expedition
Indexes for Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection are available on microfilm at NARA. The military records for these wars are not on microfilm and must be ordered from NARA.
World War I and after
Most of these records were destroyed in a fire in 1973. I would encourage you to order the records in the off chance that the record you need has survived. These records can only be ordered by the veteran or next-of- kin.
To order the Military records for Pre-World War I, use form Compiled Service Records NATF 86 or go online to https://eservices.archives.gov/orderonline. The cost is $25 per record.
To order records for World War I and after, use Standard Form 180 to National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. The form can be downloaded or records can be ordered online at http://archives.gov/veterans/evetrecs.
Did your grandpa, great-grandpa, or great-great grandpa march off to war? Do some research and you might be surprised to find there are some veterans lurking in your family tree.