This great American holiday of Veterans Day, what could be a nobler task for a genealogist than tracing the lives of the military veterans in his or her family?
Of course the first thing you should do is see if the veteran’s closest surviving relatives (assuming you are not the closest) have any records or have kept scrapbooks or folders.
Beyond that, a good place to start is the website of the National Archives at www.archives.gov. Then click on “Veterans Service Records.” You will quickly learn that only records at least 62 years old are “archival,” meaning they are available through an online request. As of 2013, therefore, only records from 1951 or earlier may be requested. Even then, the records are restricted to certain relatives. Veterans themselves may request their own records.
The National Archives site is a good one, answering just about any question a genealogist could have and providing forms. The various kinds of records are described. There is a separate section for requesting pre-World War I records.
You’ll be amazed by the kind of records that exist. The earliest war veterans often received land grants, while laws passed after the Civil War gave that war’s U.S. veterans a free headstone and a monthly pension. All those benefits generated records, some of which include a good deal of biography, names and key dates. (States of the Confederacy handled their own records and benefits, for the most part.) Remember that the veteran didn’t have to serve in a war to accumulate records.
State archives are another storehouse, with much available via websites. If you go to the Pennsylvania State Archives at www.portal.state.pa.us and click on “Historical and Museum Commission” then “history” then “state archives” then “genealogy” and finally “military records” you will find a listing of all available military records, though that is generally less than at the federal level. The county courthouse for the veteran’s hometown might have information as well.
The websites also will tell you how to arrange an in-person visit to the archives.
As a side benefit, military records can tell you odd little things about an ancestor that you would not otherwise learn, such as height, hair color and disciplinary actions. Knowing the place of enlistment or discharge and finding out where your ancestor was stationed at a given time can fill in gaps in the timeline you are constructing.
Still, you might have to do some outside research. Local history books and the Bates “History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers” can tell you what unit(s) your Civil War veteran served in, a vital piece of data in seeking that war’s records. Local histories also are full of names of men serving in the 18th century. Remember that the regular military and Reserves are national, while National Guard is state but can be federalized.
Newspaper obituaries are often treasure troves of military information. The biographies of professional men published in many old local histories always describe military background.
News Notes: Ellis Island, once the famed “gateway to America” for immigrants, has reopened, but only partially. Most of the artifacts and other exhibits are still in storage off-site, but visitors may still visit some areas, according to the National Park Service website. The island was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy last year. A full opening will not happen until sometime next year. For information, visit www.nps.gov. Ellis Island records are still available via www.ancestry.com.