Genealogy: Searching for U.S. Military Records

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

Other Websites

Local Archives

National Archives

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

BPL Resources

  • 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 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