Military service can be an important part of family history. My father and six uncles volunteered to serve in World War II (all returned safely), and I now recognize a missed opportunity to obtain firsthand accounts from this era. My dad was of the generation that didn’t say much, even when prodded, but I wish I’d tried.
Instead, it’s research that’s gifted me a glimpse into my dad’s life at seventeen. Among other things, I learned he was a Gunner’s Mate on Ship LST-265 assigned to the European Theater and involved in the invasion of Southern France in 1944. (And yes, I even found a photo!)
Many have ancestors who served in or were dramatically impacted by wars, such as WWII Japanese internment victims or post-Civil War freedmen. Whatever your family history, there are many free online resources available for your research.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
NARA is a great place to start your search for military records. Databases such as the WWII Japanese American Internment and Relocation Records are also available.
Family Search has a collection of U.S. military databases including pensions, draft registrations, and roster lists. Check out their Wiki page for an index of links to available record collections.
The National Park Service
This site provides an index of more than six million records (including name, rank, and unit) of those who fought during the Civil War. It also contains regiment histories and selected prisoner-of-war records.
Freedmen’s Bureau Records
The Freedmen’s Bureau was organized near the end of the Civil War to aid those recently freed from slavery. Many details were collected, resulting in millions of available records.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
ICRC maintains a database of more than ten million records of servicemen and civilians captured and sent to detention camps during World War I.
National Gravesite Locator
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hosts a massive collection of burial information for veterans and their families. Records also provide rank and dates of birth and death.
Daughters of the American Revolution and Sons of the American Revolution
Both sites enable the search for Revolutionary War ancestors. These free online databases contain information of Revolutionary patriots and their descendants.
Your ancestors’ U.S. military files aren’t available online but can be requested from the National Archives and Records Administration. These files contain not only the soldier’s service history, but personal details such as height, weight, next of kin, visible birthmarks and/or scars, history of dental work, and surgeries. Each bit of information humanizes our ancestors. (I do a happy dance whenever I’m lucky enough to find one!)
I ordered my dad’s file, which included his military and medical records, free of charge from archives.gov/research/military/genealogy. (Charges may apply for records prior to WWII.) Pension claim files for military service from the American Revolution to pre-WWI and Bounty-land warrant applications for military service prior to 1856 are also available.
Accurate military records can add essential information to your family tree. If you’re running up against a brick wall in your family history research, they may be able to guide your search toward possible birthplaces and spouses. Who knows? You may even discover that your ancestors served alongside famous figures.
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member, Association of Professional Genealogists member as well as a guest lecturer and freelance writer. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.