Family Tree Friday: War of 1812 certificates of discharge

In this post I’d like to highlight a particular set of records that probably don’t get as much attention as they deserve: certificates of discharge for Regular Army soldiers from the War of 1812.  The most likely reason for the slight attention these wonderful records receive is likely the fact that only a small portion exist.  Typically, when terms of service ended, soldiers in both the Regular Army and the state militias received an official discharge certificate to document their formal separation from the Army; these documents became the veteran’s personal property and, over time, probably a cherished memento of his military service. The War Department rarely kept file copies of these records during the early 19th century, and so the original certificates usually remained in private hands–with one notable exception.

After the war, many of these 1812 veterans applied to the War Department to collect back pay; in the process they returned their discharge certificates as proof of service.  And so, the original discharge certificates and other related records for approximately 2,200 Regular Army soldiers from the War of 1812 eventually came to the National Archives, mixed together with other War Department pay records that comprised the textual series “Post Revolutionary War Papers, 1784-1815” (Entry 19) in the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917.  Eventually, the discharge certificates were removed and reproduced on microfilm in National Archives Publication M1856, Discharge Certificates and Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Discharge of Soldiers from the Regular Army, 1792-1815.

Certificates of discharge provide a variety of useful information about the soldier, showing when he was released from service on a particular day and often indicating the reason for separation (in addition to expiration of service, soldiers were often discharged for injuries or ill health). They also typically include the dates of the soldier’s enlistment and discharge, the company and regiment in which he served, an inventory of clothing provided to him, and the period for which he was due pay upon discharge. To prevent fraudulent use in the event the record was lost or stolen from the veteran, the certificates also provide what would now be considered PII (personally identifable information): place of birth, age, a physical description (height, complexion, hair and eye color), and civilian occupation.

Discharge certificate for Pvt. John Waring, 2nd U.S. Light Dragoons.

Along with the original certificates, the microfilmed records include three other types of documents: descriptive lists, certificates of death, and pay vouchers.  The descriptive lists, handwritten in both narrative paragraphs and in chart form, provided the same information as the discharge, including an inventory of clothing an military accoutrements issued to the soldier.  Some provide extra details not found elsewhere, such as descriptions of physical injuries or character of service.  For those soldiers who died during their term of service,  the regiment often issued a formal certificate of death in place of a discharge, which noted the specific circumstances surrounding the soldier’s demise.  The pay vouchers, of course, documented the amount of pay due upon discharge, as well as reimbursements for rations and other subsistence paid out-of-pocket (including forage for horses and clothing for personal servants hired by officers).

Although they document only a small portion of the men who served in the Regular Army during the War of 1812, the certificates of discharge and related records are a valuable resource that should not be overlooked.   For a more detailed discussion of these records, there is a Prologue article available on the National Archives web site.  Take a moment to check them out!

2 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: War of 1812 certificates of discharge

    1. Hi Dave,

      The published Descriptive Pamphlet for microfilm publication M1856 contains a complete name index to these records, and it is available online. Go to the “Resources for Genealogists” page on the NARA web site at and click on “Microfilm Catalog.” Enter “M1856” in the microfilm search box, hit search, then click on the hot link for the publication title. On the result page, over on the right, there is a heading for “Publication Details.” Click on the link to “View Important Publication Details” and that will open up the Decriptive Pamphlet in PDF format.

      I hope that helps!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *