Still a novice, I read all the helpful hints I could find about exploring your family tree. I came across a few articles that talked about the useful information you could find in military records. Besides the obvious information — name, rank and service dates — military records could yield information on residence at the time of enlistment and possibly even give a physical description of the person. In some cases, especially in early records like Revolutionary War files, there was not a lot of consistency in what was recorded, so there could be other bits of information lurking there as well.
Some early military records were destroyed by fire, but surviving records have been microfilmed and indexed, and are available through the National Archives and its regional branches, or at the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its family history centers. Some records, such as Civil War records, are not available in the National Archives regional offices, but can be ordered by mail from the national headquarters, as long as you have some basic information to start with (person's name, branch of service, state from which he served). Revolutionary War records are available in the regional offices. If you have one nearby, this makes an interesting and rewarding field trip.
I was ready to advance to what I considered to be the next level in my research. So I took a look at the computer-generated pedigree chart I had posted on my wall — now nearly four feet tall — to see if there were any ancestors on it who would have been alive during our country's significant military conflicts. I found a good candidate — my fourth great-grandfather, Elisha Wales. My grandfather's chart said Elisha was born in 1753, which could have put him right in the middle of the Revolutionary War. I did a quick search on Ancestry.com and found an Elisha Wales on the Revolutionary War pension index. Was it "my" Elisha? Only one way to find out. I printed out the Ancestry information and planned a trip to a local branch of the National Archives, about a half hour from home.
With a little help from one of the staffers at the archives, I quickly found the roll of microfilm that corresponded to the index information I'd found. I set it up on a film reader, and with bated breath began to turn the reel, looking for anything that resembled the words "Elisha" or "Wales." Before long I found it. There, written with a flourish in hand-writing more than 150 years old, was the cover page to the pension file I was looking for: Wales, Elisha; Thayer, Lydia – widow. "My" Elisha's wife was Lydia Thayer, so this was him!
I continued to turn the reel, and found page after page of hand-written documents, which were very difficult to read. I decided I'd better just make copies and figure out the details at home. I copied thirty-one pages and eagerly headed for home, to discover and savor what I'd found. (I was lucky — not all military files contain this much information.)
The first page alone was worth the trip to the archives. Elisha's widow had applied for a military pension after his death. The first page stated:
"Lydia Thayer, formerly widow of Elisha Wales who died on the 7th of August, 1811 . . . who was a sgt. and waggonmaster in the company commanded by Captain Belcher."
On March 4, 1831, the government granted Lydia a pension of $242 per year.
I was tantalized, and waded through the rest of the documents to see what I could find. It seems that after Lydia's death, her last surviving child, Relief, was receiving her mother's pension, and applied to the government for an increase in 1844. At some point her parents' house had burned down, and along with it all of Elisha's service records. Therefore she had to build her case with the testimony of people who served under Elisha during the war, who knew Elisha or Lydia, or could vouch for the character of the people who provided the testimony. Here are just a few of the nuggets I found buried in the pages of testimony:
• In1775, 1776 and 1779, Elisha served several months in Captain Seth Turner's company, guarding the shores around Boston harbor.
• In 1776 he enlisted in Captain Nathaniel Belcher's company and marched to New York as a sergeant and served there three or four months.
• He again entered the service (around 1781-1782) as a "Waggon Master Captain" and enlisted a company of men and wagons and marched to New York/New Jersey from Braintree, Massachusetts.
• As "Waggon Master Captain" Elisha served under "Waggonmaster General Cogswell."
• On the march to New York/New Jersey, Elisha's company drove a herd of cattle, which were branded in Fishkill, NY.
The best came from a page of testimony by Samuel Ludden, a man who served under Elisha's command:
"In our company, as near as I can recollect, there were twenty-four men and twenty-two teams. The teams belonged to the United States…the said Elisha Wales we called Captain. I think he had a commission recognizing him as such. When I returned and others who enlisted under him, he still remained at North River, I think in New York State, having received orders from General Washington by the Waggon Master General, to stay and assist in selling out the teams. We were employed in removing cannon, provisions, and I think we removed Col. Lamb's regiment of artillery from Burlington to North River, with his baggage. I think, if I remember right, Cogswell was Waggon Master General. General Washington was there with his army and the French troops."
It gave me goose bumps to read this, and brought tears to my eyes. What a piece of history! And I might be the first person in more than one-and-a-half centuries to have laid eyes on it.
Besides this historical gem, I also found some important family information in the pension file, including the name of the man Lydia married after Elisha's death, and the name of a sister of Elisha.
I'll have to confess that I probably haven't mined all the information out of this pension file yet. I was so excited about my discoveries, I wanted to find more ancestral military records. I skipped around on the family tree, looking for other ancestors who might have been in the armed services. So far I've collected almost a dozen military files, including Elisha's. Some of them have given up a wealth of information — copies of marriage and death certificates, medical information, names of other family members — some have been disappointingly sparse. But the precious nuggets I have found are more than worth the time I've spent poring over copies of these old documents.