Finding Your Roots: Researching Military Records

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2012 12:00

Like many of you, I was an Army brat. We brats know what it meant to move every year or so, following our fathers from base to base. We made friends quickly because we knew we’d be on the move again soon.

My family’s military history has a long reach: My father, grandfather, brother and uncle served in the Canadian Army while other relatives served in Highland Regiments in Scotland. My husband served in the U.S. Army, in two wars.

It used to take a lot of ingenious research to find our military ancestor’s records, but as with other records, it has become much simpler. We still have to work to find them, but at least now it can be done.

For research in the U.S., it helps if you know the regiment in which your ancestor served, or when he or she served. For starters, follow this online link, which will list all of the wars and when they took place:

This site lists wars in chronological order and by length, and includes the typical years of birth of the service members and their typical ages. This helps determine the war in which your ancestor fought. Click the highlighted blue name of the war in question, and the site provides even more information. Below the online chart are more links to U.S. military records.

World War II historian Eric Olson of Soulsbyville recommends an excellent book on U.S. Army records: “Finding Your Father’s War,” by Jonathan Gawne, helps you understand the myriad records involved in a typical search. Every chapter includes websites of the various WWII veterans’ record repositories, starting with the National Archives:

For the genealogist, the best chapter in Gawne’s book is “Finding Records: Next of Kin and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” He explains the forms needed to locate your ancestor’s army records, and discusses helpful information and documents you may already have. These include serial numbers, Military Occupational Specialty and Specification numbers, and other individual records such as dog tags, service records, Army mail, discharge records and death records.

Until the FOIA was passed, government agencies were under no obligation to help you find information. “Unless you are requesting material as the next of kin, you need to state that your request is being submitted under the FOIA,” Gawne advises.

Do you have memorabilia such as patches on your soldier’s uniform? In the chapter, “Introduction to Army Units,” Gawne describes and shows insignia worn by our soldiers.

Gawne’s book is available at your local library via interlibrary loan (free at the Tuolumne County and Amador County libraries; at the Calaveras County Library, $3.50), which draws from libraries statewide and beyond. Research book availability through the Sonora library’s online site,, or call the reference desk for help (533-5507).

A great first step in researching military records is to go to, enter your question in the search field – for example, “Tennessee Military” – and then click on search.

Did your ancestor serve in the Canadian Army? Check out this link:

Here you will find a comprehensive list of records for Canadian wars. For those searching during the years 1775-1789, your ancestor may have been a United Empire Loyalist. Loyalists were residents of the British North American Colonies who did not join the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783, instead remaining loyal to King George III. (In Canada they are honored, but in the U.S. they are not.)

In the strictest sense, these soldiers are defined are only those who served in a loyalist corps in the Thirteen Colonies. The American Loyalists who actually served the Crown must be distinguished from the more numerous “late Loyalists” who went to Canada from the United States, beginning in about 1790, for land or other economic opportunities.

Also, Cyndi’s List (free), at, covers most military records.

While is a paid site, you can use it free at the Sonora Family History Center, 19481 Hillsdale Drive, and at Amador County Library’s main branch, 530 Sutter Street, Jackson.

Until next time, good luck with your research!

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2012 12:00
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