Introduction to Military Records at the National Archives

This year the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will host a Virtual Genealogy Fair on September 3–4, 2013. As part of the planned programming, the Virtual Fair will include introductory sessions on civilian and military records at NARA that are useful for genealogical research. Military service, of course, represents one of the major aspects of family history. From 1775 to the mid-20th century, the United States engaged in numerous military conflicts, both internally and against foreign foes. These wars were fought by the U.S. military establishment, including the Regular Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as by citizen volunteers in State and local militias called into Federal service. In the lecture “Introduction to Military Records at the National Archives,” Genealogy Specialist John Deeben will explain various records that document military service from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam.

Focusing primarily on research in the Washington, DC area, the “Introduction to Military Records” examines how NARA’s military holdings are divided into two main periods: “Old” Military (1775–1912) and “Modern” Military (World War I and later). The “Old Military” records cover Volunteer and Regular Army service from the Revolutionary War (1775–83) to the Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), including border disputes (The Patriot War) and the Old Indian Wars (1784–1858). During this period, Volunteer and Regular service were documented very differently. Beginning in the 1890s, the War Department gathered or transcribed information about state volunteers from various wars, using records created during those conflicts such as muster and payrolls, hospital registers, and prisoner of war rolls. The end result was a “compiled” service file for each veteran that also contained other personal papers held by the War Department, including extra copies of enlistment and discharge papers, orders, subsistence accounts, and sometimes correspondence. For the Regular military (Army, Navy, and Marine Corps), however, the War Department maintained a variety of formal recruiting records, including the Army Register of Enlistments and Navy rendezvous reports. Regardless of the type of service (Regular or Volunteer), pension records from the Revolutionary War to the Philippine Insurrection provide additional information about the veterans’ service as well as his family.

“Modern” Military records generally cover service during the 20th century from World War I to the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in 1991. The lecture explains the general availability of official military personnel folders at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis (the Virtual Fair will also include a more detailed lecture on the NPRC’s civilian and military holdings), but focuses specifically on the military unit and operational records for each 20th-century conflict that are available for research at College Park. If you know what regiment or division a relative served in during World War I or II, for example, you can learn about the activities those units engaged in during combat in such records as unit histories, war diaries, and operational and command reports. Unit histories from the Korean War and division and brigade records (but very few company-level records) for the Vietnam War are also available. As an added bonus, an overview of draft registration records from World War I to Vietnam is also included in the presentation. For a unique opportunity to learn how to research military service at the National Archives, tune in to “Introduction to Military Records” on day one of the fair, September 3!

5 thoughts on “Introduction to Military Records at the National Archives

  1. All of this will be most helpful and appreciated, but I still do not understand why in the world someone in the federal government has not contacted the good folks at Google and have them to set up as special search system designed especially for searching all the items stored in our national archives. Google would probably do this at no charge just as a public service. This would really be a feather in their cap. I don’t know who in our government has the most influence as to what goes on in our archives, but I would suggest once again have them to contact Google and see what they have to say. Remember it don’t cost anything to ask!


    Millard Greer
    Cedartown, Georgia

  2. In response to the question as to why the National Archives doesn’t have its indexes of holdings on-line, please understand this is not as easy as it sounds. Speaking just for our holdings in St. Louis, we have tens of millions of records of individuals which are not indexed, rather they are arranged by alpha or service number or a combination of alpha and numeric designations. This is due to the fact they were created before the days of computers or databases. Modern military personnel records from the mid-portions of the 20th Century forward are indexed however all of these records are full of Personally Identifiable Information (most notably millions and millions of social security numbers) which by law we must safeguard from 3rd party disclosure. The time and resources to redact this information, and/or index the older records is especially daunting and has a return on the investment of over 200 years from our earlier studies and analysis. However, we are always looking for ways and new methods to accomplish this goal, but this is a very challenging issue.

  3. Given how the older “modern” records are organized, then, what kind of information can I provide to NARA in order to best locate a DD214 for my great-grandfather? I submitted the SF180 several weeks ago in the hopes of getting more information about him, as my dad doesn’t remember exactly when he’d served — but they just sent back the forms hoping that I could provide *them* with more info! All I know about his military service is that he was in the 152nd field artillery of the Maine National Guard sometime between the 1920s and 1940s.
    I do like your explanation as to why it’s not so simple to have Google index all those records – well said!

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