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U.S. Military Research for Occasional Genealogists

As an Occasional Genealogist (OG), someone who only gets to do genealogy occasionally, focusing on military research is a good option. There are several reasons. The "root" of many of these is the simple fact that military research has always been popular. Popular topics mean available resources.

As an Occasional Genealogist, focusing on military research is a good option. There are several reasons. The "root" of many of these is the simple fact that military research has always been popular. Popular topics mean available resources.


Here are several resources you should consider as an OG.
  • There are a lot of records or indexes online for military research. Fold3 focuses on military records and FamilySearch has a large number of digitized indexes. The link to FamilySearch will take you directly to the list of their U.S. military records. You can also narrow down to a specific state.
  • There are a lot of easily accessible military records.---If you have to look offline, these records are often easier to use in a repository than more obscure records. There are the mentioned indexes and finding aids to help you. as well as more offline aids.
  • There are a lot of online, and easily accessible offline, sources for military history. These range from dry academic work to works designed to be easily digested by the general public.
  • There are many sources to indirectly flesh out your ancestor's military service. Consider diaries written by comrades or unit histories, official or not.
In addition to the availability of records, there are some organizational advantages to focusing on military research. These give you an easy structure to follow that isn't hurt as much by time between research sessions (the Occasional Genealogist's perpetual enemy).
  • Limited ancestors/family to focus on. For most of our genealogy, we can ignore at least half our ancestors, the females, as they would not have been allowed to serve in the military. There's a good chance you will know about any exceptions (although there are always surprises in genealogy).
  • It's easy to pick the "most likely candidates." It's possible to create a list of ancestors and collaterals to focus on based on their birthdates and conflicts they might have served in (consider limiting conflicts by geography). Once again, there are always surprises but any "list" you can use as an OG is an advantage, even if you need to expand it, later.
  • Built in structure. The military is built on structure. It is much easier to create lists or other organizational tools using the units your ancestor served in.
Personally, I've found it much easier to work with military records in a disjointed fashion than to do general research with the same kind of starts and stops. As I've described, military records have unique advantages. The other advantage is choosing to do military research is giving you focus and a goal.

The above listed organizational considerations make it easier to keep track of on-going work and jump around to different ancestors based on what resources are available. Using lists can allow you to work in waves or phases, an advantage for OGs.

Often one phase will be easier than another so it's nice to have a list (of a reasonable size) to work through when there's time. Built in structure helps when there's not enough time to finish a complete phase. The structure makes it more obvious where you stopped, particularly when you are interrupted and didn't close out your research session in the preferred method (writing up notes and ideas or preferably, a report to yourself).


Military research isn't necessarily easy. It does tend to offer more "tools" in the form of indexes, finding aids, specialized request forms, and available historical information.

To top it off, for OGs, it's a bit easier to organize your search for military information. If you want to find court records about your ancestor, you might find them anytime in an ancestor's adult lifetime (and possibly even as a child).

If you want military information, you can focus on the conflicts he was of age to participate in. This gives you focus.

If you haven't focused on military research, this Veteran's Day, consider getting started.

There are a number of great free military sources out there. Here are three of my previous posts that featured free online records.

10 FREE U.S. Record Collections to Search Later
Free Civil War Records and Tips for Finding State Pensions
10 Easy to Search, FREE U.S. Record Collections

If you have a favorite free online source, leave a comment.

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