The Desert Shamrock

Arizona’s Original Irish Newspaper

Volume 10, Number 3, May/June 1999, page 20


Military Records


By Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.

Professional Genealogist & Historian


        Ever since the beginning of humankind, the need for survival, and the differences of opinion, have often led to armed conflict.  As nations developed in Europe, the purpose of conflicts grew to politics and/or the basic need for more land.  With the discovery of the vast new world, the Americas, the settlers, hoping to escape the constant wars and conflicts in Europe, found themselves threatened by new peoples, as well as their old enemies.

        With the formation of armies comes the creation of records.  While wars cost the lives of people and the destruction of civilian and government property and records, they also create a new type of record with a potential wealth of genealogical information.  Military records can provide details of the soldier, including date and place of birth, occupation, residence, name of parents, physical description, etc.

        Many Irish young men were often very quick to join any military.  They found service in the military to be an exciting adventure.  It also provided them with much of the necessities of life which were difficult to obtain as civilians in Ireland, and offered the potential to improve their status in life.

        A great number of Irish served in the British Army from its formation in 1661 until 1922.  It is estimated that as many as 15% of the Irish either served or had family that served.  Catholics were not prevented from joining, though for a time they were prevented from being officers.  These Irish soldiers primarily served in the far reaches of the British Empire.

        In the United States as well, the military provided an excellent opportunity for the Irish.  Many newly arrived immigrants would join when they couldn’t support themselves in a new land, or for the offer of bounty land, or for a quicker way to become naturalized as an American citizen. 

The American Civil War, 1861-1865, is a perfect example of the great numbers of Irish who served in the American military.  During this conflict the Irish were the largest group of immigrants to serve in either the Union or Confederate armies.  Numerous regiments, 1000 men each, were comprised entirely of Irish.  The green flag with the harp of Brian Boru, shamrocks, and “Erin Go Braugh” in gold, was the third most common flag in this war.  Four Union Generals and five Confederate Generals were natives of Ireland.

        The military records of primary interest to genealogists are divided into two categories:  Service Records and Benefits Records.  A third category of records, lesser used by genealogists but no less important, is best described as Miscellaneous.

Service Records are the records created at the time of the active service of the soldier.  Soldiers were written down in muster lists, roll call lists, payment vouchers, hospital records, Quartermaster records, and other such records created at the time of the soldier being in military service.

Benefits Records are records created after the soldier was no longer in the service. Acts of Congress created such benefits as pensions and/or bounty land records. Bounty land was the disbursement of land as reward for past service.  A veteran’s widow and/or orphans could also receive such benefits and so can also be found in such records, adding a wealth of genealogical detail to the family tree.

The Miscellaneous category would include lesser known or used forms of records, such as records of Old Soldiers Homes, headstone and burial records, lists of soldiers who died overseas, were missing in action, or prisoners of war, as well as records relating to civilians.

There is a great wealth of records for the British Army which are housed at the Public Record Office in Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England.  Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive or partial index with which to search for a specific individual who served. Explaining in detail how to research these records would require more space than I have here. There are numerous guides which can help, including the book Ireland: A Genealogical Guide, by Kyle Betit and Dwight Radford of Salt Lake City.

In America there were a number of wars and conflicts from the early colonial period to the American Revolution.  As the United States was not yet a country, military records were kept by the individual states and can now be found at the States’ Archives.  Many of these records have been transcribed into books available at most genealogy libraries.

After the formation of this country and government, the military became primarily a federal matter and therefore the records are more uniform and reliable than the records at the state and county level.  Also, they are all in one place, the National Archives in Washington D.C.

These military records are organized primarily by the various wars that America was involved in.  The service records are then organized by state or unit designation, the company, and then alphabetically by surname.  The benefit records, also organized by war, are filed alphabetically by name of the soldier.  There are consolidated indexes for each war and conflict up through the Civil War.

The indexes for the service and benefits records for all of America’s wars have been microfilmed and are available at the National Archives, the 12 regional branches, and various other facilities, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and thus through its local branch centers.

Only the service records of certain wars and only the pensions of Revolutionary War veterans are available on microfilm.  Copies of service and benefits records for all wars can be obtained directly from the National Archives by filling out NATF Form 80 to order copies of veterans records.  Copies are $10.00 per file only if a record is found.

        For previous articles on the basics of searching for your family history, visit my web site at; click on Professional Services, then Genealogical Writings.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013