Military records can offer a fuller picture of an ancestor’s life. As largely government-produced records, they are also easily accessible if you know where to look. The below information will hopefully provide a starting point.
Tips and Tricks
What you should have before you start searching:
- The name of the person you are researching
- The state in which they enlisted or were drafted from
- The approximate dates of their service
- A clear idea of what kind of records you are looking for (i.e., a complete personnel file, an enlistment record, a draft card, etc...)
Useful Things to Know
- For wars in the U.S. (e.g., the Revolutionary War), cities/towns with any significant ties to military action will often have their own collections related to it
- It may be worthwhile to try contacting local libraries or historical societies in such places to see what they have.
- Depending on the period you are researching, you may or may not be able to access certain records
- Access to records for anyone who is still living are generally restricted to the person who served and their next of kin
- If you know the name of the unit your ancestor or relative served in, a Google search may turn up unit histories online that could contain useful information
US Government and Military Websites
- Air Force Historical Support Division - Includes histories, chronologies, lists of awards recipients, and more.
- American Battlefield Monuments Commission - Database of cemetery records of US servicemen buried in overseas cemeteries.
- Naval History and Heritage Command - Includes the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, oral histories, research guides, digitized books, and more.
- U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center - Holds contemporary and historical materials related to strategic leadership, the global application of Landpower, and U.S. Army Heritage.
- U.S. Coast Guard History - Includes biographies, award recipients, ship information, and more.
- U.S. Mexican War Soldiers & Sailors Database - An ongoing joint effort between the National Park Service and the Federation of Genealogical Societies
- USMC History Division, Research Tools/Facts and Figures - Includes lineal lists, casualty lists from 1775-2016, chronologies, and more.
- FamilySearch.org- United States Military Online Genealogy Records - Provides access to digitized records.
- Internment.net - Database and link compilation of cemetery records.
- National Purple Heart Hall of Honor - Searchable database of Purple Heart recipients who have been enrolled in the Hall.
- Olive Tree Genealogy- Military Ancestors - Provides access to free transcribed and digitized records online.
- Online Military Indexes and Records - USA - A directory of links to military records online.
- Massachusetts Historical Society - An historical archive specializing in colonial history, with a particular focus on Massachusetts.
- Massachusetts National Guard- Military Records Branch - Holds military records of Massachusetts servicemen from 1940 to the present.
- Massachusetts State Archives-Collections, Military Records - Holds military records of Massachusetts servicemen dating prior to 1940
- Massachusetts State Archives- Massachusetts Archives Collection - A collection of 328 volumes of records relating to the early history of Massachusetts, including several volumes of muster rolls from colonial wars.
- Military Records in Waltham - Microfilmed sets of military records available at the National Archives at Boston.
The National Archives can be the best place to get military records for those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Some digitized records are available on their website. Physical records are at their facilities in Washington, D.C. (before 1917) and St. Louis, Missouri (1917-present.) You can request records online, via mail, or in-person.
Good Things to Know
- Records of individuals who left service 62 years ago or more are considered public record and can be requested by anyone.
- Complete records of individuals who left service less than 62 years ago can only be requested by the individual themselves or, if they are deceased, their next-of-kin.
- Next-of-kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister of the deceased veteran.
- A fire at the St. Louis facility in 1973 destroyed millions of personnel files, including most records for those who served in the Army in WWI and WWII.
From the National Archives Website
- Auxiliary and Organizational Records, Holdings - An overview of records relating to military service aside from personnel records.
- Genealogy Research in Military Records - A guide to using military records for genealogical research.
- Military and Veterans Research and Resources at The National Archives - An overview of researching military and veterans' records.
- Request Military Personnel Records Using Standard Form 180 - Information about and a link to the form (SF-180) used to request post WWI records.
- Online Veterans and Military Documents - Collections includes photographs of navy ships, casualty records for multiple wars, and Civil War era photographs.
- Requesting Copies of Older Military Service Records - Provides information for requesting pre-WWI records.
- National Archives Blog Post: One fire, 5 days, and 381 men - Posted on the 40th anniversary of the fire at the St. Louis facility.
- Ancestry Library Edition - Ancestry Library Edition contains numerous collections of military records including draft registration cards, military headstone applications, enlistment records, and more. Available for in library use only.
- American Ancestors - American Ancestors includes collections of veterans’ lists, pension records, and other published records. Available for use at the Central Library only.
- Newspapers often carried news of war including casualty lists, enlistment information, and news of troop movements.
- Boston Globe (1872-1990) - The Historical Boston Globe collection offers both full page and article digital images in PDF format with searchable full text back to the first issue.
- 19th Century US Newspapers - Provides access to primary source newspaper content from the 19th century, featuring full-text content and images.
- Military Registers - The War Department, (now called the Department of Defense), published registers of officers in each branch of the armed forces. The BPL has digitized registers for the Army and the Navy. We also have registers for the Air Force and Coast Guard that have not been digitized.
Military Records section of Genealogy research guide - Includes information about locating records from specific wars:
- Colonial Wars (i.e., King Phillip’s War, French & Indian War)
- Revolutionary War
- American Civil War
- World War I
- World War II