How to Trace Your U.S. Military Ancestors

Discover the Veterans in Your Family Tree

Cannon at the site of Picket's Charge, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania. Getty / Nine OK

Nearly every generation of Americans has known war. From the early colonists, to the men and women currently serving in America's armed forces, most of us can claim at least one relative or ancestor who has served our country in the military. Even if you have never heard of military veterans in your family tree, try a bit of research and you might be surprised!

Determine if your ancestor served in the military

The first step in searching for the military records of an ancestor is to determine when and where the soldier served, as well as their military branch, rank and/or unit. Clues to an ancestor's military service may be found in the following records:

  • Family stories
  • Photographs
  • Census records
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Journals, diaries & correspondence
  • Death records & obituaries
  • Local histories
  • Grave markers

Look for military records

Military records often provide an abundance of genealogical material about our ancestors. Once you have determined that an individual served in the military, there are a variety of military records which can help to document their service, and provide useful information about your military ancestors such as birthplace, age at enlistment, occupation, and names of immediate family members. The primary types of military records include:

Military service records

Enlisted men who served in the regular Army throughout our country's history, as well as discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century, can be researched through military service records. These records are primarily available through the National Archives and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). Unfortunately, a disastrous fire at the NPRC on July 12, 1973, about 80 percent of the records of veterans discharged from the Army between November, 1912 and January, 1960, and about 75 percent for individuals discharged from the Air Force between September, 1947 and January, 1964, alphabetically through Hubbard, James E. These destroyed records were one of a kind and had not been duplicated or microfilmed prior to the fire.

Compiled military service records

Most of the records of the American Army and Navy in the custody of the War Department were destroyed by fire in 1800 and 1814. In an effort to reconstruct these lost records, a project was begun in 1894 to collect military documents from a variety of sources. The Compiled Military Service Record, as these collected records have come to be called, is an envelope (sometimes referred to as a 'jacket') containing abstracts of an individual's service records including such items as muster rolls, rank rolls, hospital records, prison records, enlistment and discharge documents, and payrolls. These compiled military service records are primarily available for veterans of the American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Civil War.

Pension records or veteran's claims

The National Archives has pension applications and records of pension payments for veterans, their widows, and other heirs. The pension records are based on service in the armed forces of the United States between 1775 and 1916. Application files often contain supporting documents such as discharge papers, affidavits, depositions of witnesses, narratives of events during service, marriage certificates, birth records, death certificates, pages from family bibles, and other supporting papers. Pension files usually provide the most genealogical information for researchers.
More: Where to Find Union Pension Records | Confederate Pension Records

Draft registration records

More than twenty-four million men born between 1873 and 1900 registered in one of three World War I drafts. These draft registrations cards may contain such information as name, birth date and place, occupation, dependents, nearest relative, physical description, and country of allegiance of an alien. The original WWI draft registration cards are at the National Archives, Southeast Region, in East Point, Georgia. A mandatory draft registration was also conducted for WWII, but the majority of WWII draft registration records are still protected by privacy laws. The fourth registration (often called the "old man's registration"), for men born between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897, is currently available to the public. Other selected WWII draft records may also be available.
More: Where to Find WWI Draft Registration Records | WWII Draft Registration Records

Bounty land records

A land bounty is a grant of land from a government as a reward to citizens for the risks and hardships they endured in the service of their country, usually in a military related capacity. At the national level, these bounty land claims are based on wartime service between 1775 and 3 March 1855. If your ancestor served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, early Indian Wars, or the Mexican War, a search of bounty land warrant application files may be worthwhile. Documents found in these records are similar to those in pension files.
More: Where to Find Bounty Land Warrants

The two main repositories for records relating to military service are the National Archives and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), with the earliest records dating from the Revolutionary War. Some military records may also be found in state or regional archives and libraries.

The National Archives Building, Washington, D.C., holds records relating to:

  • Volunteer enlisted men and officers whose military service was performed during an emergency and whose service was considered to be in the federal interest, 1775 to 1902
  • Regular Army enlisted personnel, 1789–October 31, 1912
  • Regular Army officers, 1789–June 30, 1917 li]U.S. Navy enlisted personnel, 1798–1885
  • US Navy officers, 1798–1902
  • US Marine Corps enlisted personnel, 1798–1904
  • Some US Marine Corps officers, 1798–1895
  • Those who served in predecessor agencies to the US Coast Guard (i.e., the Revenue Cutter Service [Revenue Marine], the Life-Saving Service, and the Lighthouse Service, 1791–1919)

The National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri, holds military personnel files of

  • US Army officers separated after June 30, 1917, and enlisted personnel separated after October 31, 1912
  • US Air Force officers and enlisted personnel separated after September 1947
  • US Navy officers separated after 1902 and enlisted personnel separated after 1885
  • US Marine Corps officers separated after 1895 and enlisted personnel separated after 1904
  • US Coast Guard officers separated after 1928 and enlisted personnel separated after 1914; civilian employees of Coast Guard predecessor agencies such as Revenue Cutter Service, Lifesaving Service, and Lighthouse Service, 1864–1919

The National Archives - Southeast Region, Atlanta, Georgia, holds draft registration records for World War I To have the National Archives staff search these records for you, get a "World War I Registration Card Request" form by sending an email to, or contacting:

National Archives - Southeast Region
5780 Jonesboro Road
Morrow, Georgia 30260
(770) 968-2100

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How to Trace Your U.S. Military Ancestors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). How to Trace Your U.S. Military Ancestors. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Trace Your U.S. Military Ancestors." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).