Finding Your Military Ancestors

military records veterans May 31, 2021

Do you have military veterans in your family tree?  Often we do not know who they are or even details about their service because many did not make it home, and those that did often found it difficult to talk about the sacrifices they made.

Thank them for their service by discovering their stories in the military records left behind. Here’s how to get started.

What Can you Find in Military Records?

Military records are a valuable resource for learning about your ancestors. Unlike other records, military records not only contain genealogical clues, they also contain family historical information not found anywhere else.

Military records contain basic genealogical information such as birth date, place of birth, locations, and sometimes relatives. This information can help you evaluate other information you have located or provide new clues to trace your ancestors.

The real value of military records is all the bonus information and historical details they contain. These are the details that tell your ancestor’s story. You might discover your Revolutionary War ancestor was a farmer who led his regiment into the Battle of Bunker Hill and received a 300-acre land grant. You might discover your Civil War ancestor lost his leg in the battle of Gettysburg and spent time as a prisoner of war.

A widow’s pension record might reveal details about your ancestor's service in the war of 1812 and the large family he left behind. Military records could reveal your World War II ancestor was one of the oldest pilots and in the battle of Guadalcanal where he shot down 26 enemy aircraft with his team of 8 Wildcats.

Where to Start?

To know which records to search, you first need to identify your military ancestors. Here are some tips for locating your military ancestors:

  1. Talk to your family, looking through old family photos, searching newspapers, and examining their gravesite which might have their rank or branch of service on their gravestone.

  2. Check your ancestor's 1840, 1910, and 1930 U.S. census records which included questions about military service.

  3. You can also narrow down which ancestors in your family tree might have served based on their birthdate and U.S. conflicts. The chart below can help you determine which records to research, based upon your ancestor's birth date.

Types of Military Records

The types of military records and what they contain vary for each war and veteran. Some records are cards with a soldier’s vital statistics or indexes with little information. Other records are files containing multiple documents. Below is a list of the most common military records available, which wars they cover, and the details they contain.

Service Records
Available for all wars

Service records are proof your ancestor served in the military and can provide their unit or organization. Some of the details you might find include:

  • full name

  • service number

  • unit

  • address 

  • date enlisted, date mustered in and out

  • rank and final rank

  • basic biographical and medical information

Record Example: Service Record, Pennsylvania Application for WW II Compensation

  1. Name of Applicant. This is the full name of the applicant. In this case, Fred A Abbondi is a Jr. Which is a significant clue to his father’s name.

  2. Address to Which CHECK and MAIL is to be Sent. This current address is a location where you can search for other records such as census, directory, newspaper and more.

  3. Date and Place of Birth. This is very helpful information if you are looking for vital records or to confirm this Fred Abbondi is the same ancestor you are researching. In this case, the city in Italy he referenced is helpful for locating immigration and naturalization records. In some cases, it was only in military records where I’ve found the specific city of birth in Italy, not just the country, mentioned.

  4. Date of Beginning and Date of Ending of Each Period of Service Between December 7, 1941 and March 2, 1946 During Which Applicant Was in DOMESTIC SERVICE. This information is used to determine pay rate for those months. It also can be used when searching and evaluating other service records and muster rolls.

  5. Date of Beginning and Date of Ending of Each Period of Service Between December 7, 1941, and March 2, 1946, During Which Applicant Was in FOREIGN SERVICE. This information is used to determine the pay rate for those months. It also can be used when searching and evaluating other service records and muster rolls.

  6. Date and Place Applicant Entered Active Service. This information puts your ancestor in a specific place on a certain date. It can be used to look for documents around that time and place. It also can let you know at what point in the war did they enlist or were drafted.

  7. Service or Serial Numbers Assigned To Applicant. This number can be used to search for other records and confirm they are for the same individual.

  8. Date and Place Where Applicant Was Separated From Active Service.

Draft Registration Cards
World War I and World War II

Even if your male ancestor did not serve in the military, if they were of a certain age during wartime, they might have completed a draft registration card. World War I and World War II draft registration cards can be found on and NARA. They contain details such as:

  • name

  • current address

  • age and date of birth

  • place of birth

  • occupation, employer, and address

  • name and address of relative or friend

  • physical description

Bounty Land Warrants
Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Mexican War

A Bounty Land Warrant was a right to free land on the public domain. During the Revolutionary War in 1776, the Continental Congress promised bounty land to officers and soldiers as an inducement to continued military service. The bounty land warrant could be passed onto their heirs if they were killed in action. A private or noncommissioned officer was entitled to 100 acres of bounty land, an ensign to 150 acres, a lieutenant to 200 acres, a captain to 300 acres, a major to 400 acres, a lieutenant colonel to 450 acres, a colonel to 500 acres, a brigadier general to 850 acres and a major general to 1,100 acres.

Bounty land warrants continued for all other wars in which the United States engaged during the years 1812-1855. The records available vary, but generally, they contain these details:

  • number of warrant

  • name of veteran

  • rank

  • date of issuance

  • number of acres

Pension Records
Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Mexican War, and Civil War

Pension records provide the most genealogical information and historical details not found anywhere else. They contain a treasure trove of information on their service and their family.

Unfortunately, not every veteran who served in the military from 1775 to 1865 received a pension. Veterans and their widows had to qualify under existing laws, complete lengthy applications, provide extensive documentation, and be approved by the government to receive benefits. It was a complicated process, and many veterans and their widows were denied.

Pension records often contain documentation such as:

  • full name of the veteran

  • date of birth and location

  • residence when enlisted, previous residences, and current address

  • rank, unit, and name of company

  • dates of service and enlistment location

  • age at time of enlistment and length of service

  • battles and injuries sustained during service

  • names and ages of spouse and children

  • pension balances and checks

  • occupations

  • death dates

  • correspondences


Where to Find Military Records Online

Now that you know what exciting family history details military records might contain, where do you find them? Fortunately, many genealogical websites have military records. has over 260 million U.S. military records. You can explore documents such as draft cards, service records, and prisoner and casualty lists. Records include:

  • U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918

  • U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942

  • U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865

  • U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958

Fold3 is not offering free records this Veterans weekend, but if you have several military ancestors it’s well worth a subscription. Their collections include military records for the following wars:

  • American Revolution

  • The War of 1812

  • Mexican American and Early Indian Wars

  • The Civil War

  • Spanish American War

  • World War I

  • World War II

  • Korean War

  • Vietnam War

American Ancestors

You can search over 1.4 billion records on These records span twenty-two countries covering the United States, the British Isles, continental Europe, and beyond, including one of the most extensive online collections of early American genealogical records, the largest searchable collection of published genealogical research journals and magazines, and the largest collection of U.S Catholic records online.

Daughters of the American Revolution

If you have an ancestor who lived in the United States during the American Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Ancestors and Descendants Databases offers a wealth of information about those who served in the Revolutionary War, including a simple way to search for your ancestors. They also offer a database of more than 7 million descendants of these service members.

FamilySearch has an extensive collection of military records including:

  • United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918

  • United States Civil War Soldiers Index, 1861-1865

  • United States World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946

  • United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900

  • United States Casualties of the Vietnam War, 1956-1998

Cyndi’s List

An extensive list of online military record sources can be found on Cyndi’s List.

Take some time over the next week to reflect on your ancestors’ sacrifices, and remember the old adage: Freedom isn’t free.

Every Family Has a Story. Ready to Discover Yours?

Subscribe to my newsletter for tips, exclusive content, and special offers.


50% Complete

Let's Stay in Touch

Sign-up for our newsletter and get research tips, exclusive content, and special offers direct to your inbox.