Family Tree Friday: Volunteer vs. Regular Army service was documented differently.

Most people have a relative or ancestor who either served in the military or fought during a specific war.  Many researchers are unaware, however, that a significant distinction exists between volunteer soldiers and Regular soldiers, and that the two types of service are documented differently.  Volunteers (citizen soldiers) were enlisted to serve during specific wars or national crises; hence, the National Archives has records of volunteers who fought in all the major conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1902.  Regular soldiers, by contrast, were the professional or career soldiers who served during peace and war.  They also fought in all of the major wars from 1775 to 1902, but their service was continuous; their units carried on in peacetime while the volunteer regiments disbanded.

Volunteer soldiers are documented in the Compiled Military Service Records (CMSRs), which contain all of their enlistment (muster-in) and discharge (muster-out) information.  The War Department recorded the service of Regular soldiers in the Register of Enlistments (ARC ID 575272), which also showed the beginning and end of their terms of service.  More information about both types of military service records is available on the Archival Research Catalog (ARC). 

In the twentieth century and beyond, volunteer or citizen soldiers became a thing of the past (at least in the old sense) as the U.S. military conducted all of the fighting in America’s major wars (although you could now make a case for the National guardsmen who have been called to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan).   The  records of twentieth-century soldiers are probably a good subject for a separate blog!

7 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: Volunteer vs. Regular Army service was documented differently.

  1. I have an ancestor who was in the 3rd NC Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. I’ve found his enlistment/muster record, but I’m wondering would there be a picture of him anywhere, perhaps on an original application or something, and if so, where would that be?

  2. The CMSR is very accurate and knowledgeable. It has helped me locate ancestors who have served in the 20th century.

    1. Hi Anthony,

      I’m glad to hear you have found the Compiled Military Service Records (CMSRs) to be a useful resource for your family research. Stay tuned for my next blog…you’ll learn some additional, little-known info about the CMSRs!

  3. Hi Renate,

    You posed a good followup question about military service records, but I’m not aware of any specific military records that included photographs of the individual soldier. The only photos I have come across were in pension files, but they were very much the exception rather than the rule; sometimes veterans submitted photos of themselves in uniform to prove they were in the Army, sometimes (but very rarely) they photographed their specific injuries as evidence of their disabilities. These kinds of photos were not required as part of the pension application, but there’s always a chance your ancestor included one if he applied for benefits.

  4. My grandfather served in the army during World War 2. He served as a civilian. I found his inlistment information, but what i’m looking for is if there’s any pictures of him in some file. Where can i find this information?

  5. My next door neighbor who I grew up with in S.F. was killed in Vietnam. How can I get a copy of his Army photo in uniform? His parents and siblings are now all deceased. I would like to add his photo to his Find-A-Grave Online Memorial Page.
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Linda,

      It is difficult to say whether or not individual photos of soldiers exist within the National Archives. The Army did not typically keep file photos of military personnel; more often, those kinds of photos would have been taken by family or friends when the soldier was home on leave, so if they exist, they would be in private hands. You can, however, contact our Still Pictures unit – they might be able to assist you with your research. More information about Still Pictures and their contact information can be found here:

      Best of luck with your research,

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