Military Records have been maintained in the United States since pre-revolutionary times. The earliest form were "militia" records, which were kept by local towns and counties. The militia was a group of men on call at a moments notice to protect the town, whether from invading armies or Indians. Almost every town or county in the colonies had a militia and chances are that even if your direct ancestor did not serve in a militia or the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, one of his relatives or people in the collateral lines of your family tree, did. Information that may be found on military records includes:
Name and their place of enlistment
Date of birth
Place of birth
Country of Origin if not born in the U.S.
Notes on the literacy of the person
Surviving widow or children who drew a pension
Description of military service for a the unit (on older records)
Description of all military service (on more recent records)
List of service medals (on more recent records)
A physical description.
The American Revolution ran from 1755 to 1783, --- even later if we include conflicts on the "frontier." The British instigated many of those conflicts as they tried to put down the Colonial rebellion. Military records from this era will include documentation of military service in the unit histories themselves; but, will also include bounty-land and pension records. These three types of military records are intertwined and any attempt to address military records per se, without also discussing bounty lands and pension records would be incomplete.
The military service records themselves can be found in the offices of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The NARA records are no longer available on interlibrary loan, but they will send you a copy for a fee, and a rough 6 to 8-week wait. Or --- for convenience and to save time and money --- you can utilize your nearest Family History Center (FHC) operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to review their copies of Revolutionary War Records. If you are lucky enough to live in the area you are researching, your local library may even have a microfilm copy of the records you need in their genealogy department.
You should start your Revolutionary war record search with NARA microfilm number M860. This is the "General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers." This particular record is considered the most comprehensive list of Revolutionary War service, exceeding the records of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR.). It lists soldiers and sailors, as well as civilians who provided "service" to the revolution. This will provide you with the person's name and unit. From this list, you should go next to the "Revolutionary War Rolls, List of Jackets, 1775-83," which is NARA microfilm number M246. Since this second microfilm roll covers rolls, payrolls and supply lists for each regiment, you'll want to check all categories. Your ancestor's name may appear more than once.
If your ancestor served in the naval forces, proceed to microfilm roll M880. The name of this record says it all --- "Complied Service Records of American Naval Personnel and Members of the Departments of Quartermaster General and Commissary General of Military Stores Who Served During the Revolutionary War" --- what a mouthful! For a full list of military records held by NARA, visit their website at www.archives.gov.
Records of the DAR and SAR may also be helpful since they help to show various family lines of descent. However, bear in mind that even these records can have errors. In genealogy research, one learns early on to go by the "preponderance of evidence" rather than cling foolishly to one record as an absolute truth. Bibles, birth certificates, obituaries and tombstones have been proven wrong, time after time.
Men who served on the side of the American colonies were eligible for land grants. If you know an ancestor served, there may be land grant records to add to your growing family history. On the other hand, if you know an ancestor received a bounty land grant, you now have a clue to military records somewhere in the family line. In 1776, the Continental Congress authorized bounty-land warrants in lieu of wages. If the soldier was dead, his heirs could lay claim to the bounty land. Bear this in mind when you find an ancestor who received bounty lands. It does not confirm that he served in the Revolution, only that someone in his family did. The applications for these lands provide valuable family tree information, whether or not the application was approved. If more than one application was filed, which happened often if one was incomplete or inconclusive, be sure to search for more application records. If an heir made claim to the lands, there will be information on the heirs' names, ages and residences in addition to the information on the ancestor who served.
In addition to the federal government bounty-land program, several states issued land to their veterans. Be sure to check state archival records for Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.
You will find few, if any, federal pension records for service in the Continental Army. If you find pension records for an ancestor for the time period of roughly 1789 to 1861, these records will mainly be for service in the Indian Wars or the War of 1812 --- the subject of a future article.
Almost all of the Revolutionary War service records have been published in some form or another and a complete bibliography would be almost impossible to prepare. As always, check your local library or FHC for copies of these records. Both the DAR and the SAR have websites online.
If your ancestor was the right age to serve in the Revolution, and you cannot find any military data on him, consider that he may have been a "Loyalist." The term refers to people who remained loyal to the Crown of Britain. If your family migrated north to Canada, Nova Scotia, or New Brunswick --- the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and Ontario --- either during or shortly after the Revolution, they may have been Loyalists. I find it unfortunate that many descendants of Loyalists fail to point out that particular ancestor's political stance.
Imagine the courage it took these people to cling to their heart-felt beliefs in the face of extreme opposition. Many Loyalists were killed, their homes and families destroyed by their own neighbors, over their refusal to abdicate an oath they had sworn to all their lives. To put it in perspective, imagine that the majority of your neighbors had decided to create a new country and you took a stance to remain loyal to the United States. This is the same position your "Loyalist" ancestor was in. Again, there are numerous publications available on Loyalist families. A quick Internet search with the terms "Loyalist" and "bibliography" should provide you with a good list of books for late-night reading and research.
An often-overlooked source for Revolutionary War records is the Library of Congress, which maintains all the records of the Continental Congress. You may want to visit the website at www.loc.gov. A transcription of congressional records that mention your ancestor would be a nice addition to your growing family history documentation.
For online research I always urge beginners, and remind the experienced, to utilize "Cyndi's List." (www.cyndislist.com) for both free and fee-required resources. With more than 100,000 links in multiple categories, it should keep you busy for quite a while.
Other Articles in the Series:
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.
Would you like to browse through our collection of GenWeekly articles written exclusively for Genealogy Today? Yes, take me there Would you like to keep up-to-date with the latest releases from Genealogy Today, along with news from a variety of other sources by receiving The Genealogy News (a FREE service) by email? Yes, sign me up Would you like to become a Genealogy Today member and be able to manage your research experience, post messages to forums, add comments to resources and much more? Yes, show me how Would you like to tap into our community of over 85,000 members by posting a query and get assistance breaking down your most difficult brickwalls? Yes, show me how Would you like to go shopping in a marketplace of over 700 items, including charts, scrapbooking materials, books and a variety of unique gifts and supplies? Yes, take me there