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A Special Thanks to Craig R. Scott of Willow Bend Books who was kind enough to proof this essay and who sent me valuable corrections and suggestions.
Everyone who researches their family history hits a "brick wall" sooner or later, those barriers that seem insurmountable and are "oh so frustrating". One line of research that is often ignored in trying to knock down a "Brick Wall" is Military Records. Walking into any genealogical library and looking at the number of books on the Revolutionary War or the Civil War can cause the strongest of researchers to turn to other shelves, yet these records can usually unearth an ancestor. Maybe not your direct ancestor, but perhaps a brother, cousin, uncle or other indirect ancestor. A clue that an ancestor served in a war (conflict, action, or whatever term was applied to a particular engagement) can start chipping away at your "brick wall". The very least that you can find will be a place of residence at a particular time and the very most is a pension application file that contains a copy of (if not the actual) family pages from a Bible and a statement of almost every event is a person's life since they left the "service".
As an example, the pension application file for my BROWN ancestor contained an account of his service in the American-Mexican war; his injuries; his health problems; where he had lived after the left the service; the names and birth dates of all of his children; marriage information; affidavits actually signed by his sons; an affidavit by his wife with her history; and a land warrant. I can't imagine any researcher who would not be more than delighted to receive this kind of information on a family member.
Not every serviceman put in an application for a pension. By far most applied for "Free Land", well actually not really free. From the time of the Revolutionary War until about 1855 the Government issued Bounty Land Warrants in lieu of pay for military service. The Application Files for Bounty Land normally doesn't contain a lot of information but they do give you information on an ancestor's service. Both the Bounty Land and Pension Files are found at the National Archives. (SeeLand Records for more detailed information on Bounty land Warrants).
Not every war left these kinds of records. Some early Colonial servicemen received pensions from their colonies, but the bulk of the records are after the Revolutionary War when pensions and Bounty Land Warrants were granted to servicemen or their families. It is the Pension Application files that contain the most valuable genealogical information. But, even if your ancestor didn't apply for a pension or Bounty Land, it's still fun to find an enlistment record that gives his physical description. I know when I found an enlistment record for one of my ancestors and read that he had black wavy hair, blue eyes, was 6 foot and was of light complexion I was astonished! For, I had only to look in the mirror or at any of my cousins, aunts and uncles to see that these physical traits had carried down from the civil war to now. So, even if you never find that pension file which will fill out a complete generation or two, don't overlook Military Records as a wonderful source of information.
Military Records cannot compare with such research tools as Land Records, Census Records and Court Records, but they should never be ignored. Finding an ancestor's Military Unit can lead you to records about the Unit itself, where it was formed, who was in charge, where the unit went, what towns they were stationed in or by, battles engaged in and often Rosters of members. This information can be used to "flesh out" the bare bones of name, date of birth and date of death.
It can also sometimes lead to the finding of a marriage record. In her book, "Mothers of Invention; Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War" (3) Ms. Faust describes the every day life of women during the Civil War (using excerpts from the women's own diaries). Many women left their homes and went to live with friends and relatives in other areas. Since the War occurred between the 1860 & 1870 Census there may be no record of this move. Ms. Faust notes the lack of men of marriageable age in most towns except for the soldiers quartered or stationed in or near the town. What little social activity there was included these soldiers and since the major occupation for Women (until the late 20th Century) was being a wife, many marriages resulted from these encounters. If you haven't been able to find a marriage record for your ancestor don't overlook checking the marriage records of the towns where you ancestor was stationed.
The US was engaged in several wars, actions, conflicts or engagements. If one of your ancestors lived during these time frames, be sure to check the Military Records that are available.
Major Conficts In Which the US Furnished Servicemen
Revolutionary War 1775-83
Civil War 1861-65
Spanish-American War 1898
What Records Are Available?
The Federal and State records of a man's service in any war is usually limited to his name, rank, military unit of service, where he enlisted and sometimes his physical description. Until the Modern Wars this is about the extent of information available. However, it's not the actual war record that knocks down the brick wall it's the Pension Application Files, Bounty Land Application and after the Civil War, the Homestead Files that can supply a wealth of family information. Most of the Pension Application Files have been indexed and the Indexes are available on microfilm. You can head directly to these Pension file indexes and start searching.
By traveling this route you will be missing information that can add stories to your family history and give you insight into the life of an ancestor. Most men enlisted close to their homes and usually with friends or family. Enrollment / Enlistment records and Unit Rolls list all men who served in a particular unit. From the Civil War on there are Pension Indexes available that list everyone in a given Unit who received a pension but, it's still a good idea to look at the Unit Rosters. You may very well find an ancestor who did not apply for a Pension, spot neighbors or find collateral ancestors. Another thought to keep in mind at all times is that many more men applied for Military Bounty Land than ever applied for pensions.
I cannot tell you the number of researchers who have failed to find an ancestor in the indexes or service records because they checked only for thecorrect spelling of their ancestor's name. The man who filled out the paperwork for enlistment's, muster rolls, hospital records, etc. was usually a soldier himself or someone on the injured list who said they could read and write. Names were written AS THEY SOUNDED or as the man "thought" they should be spelled. The NARA web site offers an example of two brothers, one whose record is recorded as William P. Western and the other as Frederick Weston. My ancestor who's name was Haas (pronounced as Hass) was found as Hassey. Why the "ey"? Who knows, but if I had searched only for Haas I would never have found the record.
Another common error occurred in the transcription of some records, the misinterpretation of the 1st letter of a name. One record for my Haas (Hass) ancestor was found under Bass. The old style H and B looking much alike and the name Bass being a more common name than Hass. Never assume your ancestor is not in the records until you have exhausted all possible spellings. Remember that the vowels (a,e,i,o,u) were used interchangeably within a name. My Haas name has been found as Hoss, Hiss, Hess, Huss and of course as Horse in the south where Hauss was the way to pronounce Horse.