MILITARY RECORDS:

History of and How to Use Them

 

© Linda Haas Davenport May 1998 (revised Sep 27, 1998 & Feb 2000)

  

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Information, War by War

 

The earliest wars, The Colonial Wars, offer little information beyond the name of the soldier and the unit he served in. The LDS library has microfilmed most of the records that are available. Colonial War records are also scattered within the colonial state records. When searching for an ancestor during the colonial period comb all local records available while keeping an eye open for mention of military service. During the Colonial Wars men that were disabled were supported by the town they lived in since the English Government didn't extend disability payments to the men in the Colonies.

The provision for benefits (pensions) to veterans was not widely adopted until after the Revolutionary War (disability pensions began in 1775, but most of the records were burned in 1800 and 1814 fires). Claims for supplies, equipment, etc. for fighters in the Indian Wars are usually found in local court records also. When looking for records for claims always check with the State Archives since many of these early records have been moved from the local Court Houses to the Archives.

The Revolutionary War produced more records of genealogical interest than the Colonial Wars. Some of the original military records for the Revolutionary War were destroyed by fire in 1800 and 1814. The majority, if not all of the existing records, are at the National Archives. Most of them have been microfilmed and many have been indexed. These records are available at all of the Branches of the National Archives, the LDS FHC (Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints Family History Centers), many local genealogical libraries and places that rent microfilm such as Heritage Quest.

The Service Records were compiled (in the later 1800s and early 1900s) primarily from rosters and rolls of soldiers serving in the Continental Army and the colonial/state militia units with additions from correspondence and field reports of military officers. The records contain at the least the name, rank and military unit of the soldier. Included in some records are the name of the state from which he served; the date that his name appears on one or more of the rolls; sometimes the date or dates of his enlistment or the date of his appointment; and rarely, the date of his separation from the service. His physical description, date and place of birth, residence at the time of enlistment and other personal details are also included in some categories.(1)

The first congressional legislation authorizing the payment of pensions for Revolutionary War Service was dated 26 Aug 1776 for Invalid officers and soldiers and 24 May 1780 for widows and orphans of officers, but the government did not begin paying pension allowances until 28 July 1789. The Act of 1818 provided for pensions for non-disabled Continental officers and enlisted men. The Act of 1820 required that anyone receiving a pension had to "show a need" and many men were struck from the pension rolls. The Acts of 1826 and 1828 reversed the 1820 Act and restored pension benefits.

The Act of Applications for pensions was made to the federal government from that date. Many of the early applications were destroyed by fire in 1800 and 1814. A partial record of the earlier pensions is included among reports to the Congress in 1792, 1794 and 1795. Officers became entitled to payment for life under the act of 15 May 1828.

The Act of 7 June 1832 was the one that enacted Service Pensions for all Revolutionary soldiers, sailors, militia, continental and state who had served at least six months or until the end of the war. Widows and orphans were entitled to the balance of money due a pensioner until 1864. Anyone still alive in 1832 (or their widows or minor children) were eligible to apply for a pension. These application for pension files are rich in family history, even those applications that were rejected contain a wealth of information. A rejection does not mean that your ancestor didn't serve in the War. The War ended in 1783 and this act was enacted 49 years later. If an ancestor was 30 at the time he got out of the service he would have been 79 at the time of this offer of pension. Many men or their survivors could not support their claim of military service. Discharge papers had been lost or destroyed by fires, men the soldier served with who could support their claim were dead or where not available to testify before the court and widows often didn't know the information on military units or commander names or where her husband actually served.

Pension Record Files for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed by NARA. An index to these records was published by the National Genealogical Society, Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives; National Genealogical Society Special Publication no. 40 (Washington, D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1976), p. 202.

Almost all of the Pension Applications for all wars have been indexed. The index is arranged in alphabetical order by the last name of the soldier. A separate set of microfilm contains the pension application files themselves. Copies of both the Indexes and the Application Files can be found at the NARS, LDS and many local libraries or state archives. Once an ancestor is located in the index the pension file can be ordered from NARS or the microfilm of pension applications can be searched. One thing you must remember is the microfilmed application files are limited to "selected records" from the file. If the application file contains over 10 pages then the "10 most genealogically important" papers were selected to be microfilmed. However, the microfilm gives no indication of how many pages are in a file. Sometimes the 10th page ends in such a manner that you KNOW there should be more, but that's not always the case. If you find that your ancestor applied for a pension, ALWAYS order copies of the complete file. You might end up with the same 10 pages only, but you have no way of knowing.

Although applications for pensions were made to the US government, they were initiated in the courts of the county and towns in which the veteran lived. Local court records should be searched for these records. The pension records for the Revolutionary War contain such items as; affidavits made by the veteran; character references by friends and neighbors; summaries of his service; his military unit; dates of service; names, date of birth, names of heirs; relationship to others who served with him; his places of residence after he left the service and sometimes Bible records to support his claims. (2)

Often as the army was on the move food and supplies were "requisitioned" from local farmers and businessmen. "Scripts" were given for the value of the items requisitioned which could later be turned in to the government for payment. These "scripts" can locate an ancestor in a particular time and place. After the Revolutionary War many of these scripts were presented to the government for payment. However, after the War the new, fledging government was flat broke. There was no money to redeem these scripts and they were recorded in many local courthouses or State Government records as debts from the Federal Government to the individual. Some were redeemed for Bounty land. These scripts list the items the army requisitioned and give a researcher insight into what supplies or farm animals an ancestor possessed. Always check with the State Archives for records from the Revolutionary War. I have received from the NC State Archives copies of actual "scripts" some of which were paid and some that are still unpaid.

Another source in your hunt for a Revolutionary War ancestor that should be searched is the DAR. (Daughters of the American Revolution) Records. Although many of the early submittals were not completely accurate they can be used as guides to search for original records. The D.A.R. indexes may be searched at Ancestry's site. Many of the larger genealogical libraries have the 100 volume Indexes.

Many Revolutionary Service men were still alive in 1840. The 1840 census lists the name, age, residence and heads of families with whom the pensioners resided on 1 Jun 1840. As you search the 1840 census keep a look out for these servicemen.

Many researchers become frustrated when there is no evidence in any of the records of ancestors who would have been of prime age to have served in the Revolutionary War. But all researchers need to remember that 30% (minimum) of the population in 1776 in some areas were Loyalist. Many Loyalists went to Canada, Florida, the West Indies, or even to England to avoid the conflict. There are many printed sources for Loyalists and these should be searched if no record of your ancestor exists in the US records.(4)

 

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