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Mini-Tips for U.S. Military Research

The veterans in your family tree are unique like every other ancestor and relative. So this year, instead of an attempt at a semi-comprehensive round-up of resources (covering the majority of the major U.S. conflicts) or a memorial post about the veterans in my family, I'm providing a post as unique to me as my ancestors.


You can think of this as a variety-pack of tips. It doesn't have a single focus. These are tips that might fall through the cracks because they're just a bit of information, not a full post.



I'll start with a dual purpose tip.

Residence: Not Just for Your Lineage Society Application

When I worked as a genealogist at the DAR, it seemed the most misunderstood aspect related to military service was residence.

If you're dealing with this for a DAR/SAR application it has certain significance but it's also important for genealogy in general. I could actually write an entire post about residence but it might be too boring to read.

Experienced genealogists often learn about this in the course of research without thinking about "residence" in the way we would refer to it at the DAR.

So here's the "tip."

Understand Residence for Different Kinds of Military Service

If you are researching someone with "military service," you need to understand how that relates to residence. I've put military service in parenthesis because this is useful to MANY genealogists when you are looking at militia service.

If you aren't familiar with militia service, it is similar (from a genealogical perspective) to draft registration. It's the precursor. Men of a required age had to show up for the local militia muster. Showing up doesn't mean they were involved in a military conflict, just as registering for the draft doesn't mean the person served.

Part one of this dual tips is as follows:

The Legal Requirements of Militia Service and Records Created

You need to know what the law was and what records exist. At the DAR, the issue was usually showing the ancestor lived where the service was.

As a genealogist, you may be able to do the opposite. You may be able to use service to show a more specific residence than you have.

The other side of this tip is understanding different types of service.

Unit's "Residence" Doesn't = Every Member's Residence

(sometimes not even remotely close!)

A man's residence doesn't always match the location associated with service. During the Revolutionary War, Georgia couldn't provide sufficient soldiers to fill her regiments. The state offered rewards to get soldiers from other states to join.

So you will have a number of men from Georgia regiments who may have nothing to do with a Georgia residence. It could also be the reason someone suddenly moved to Georgia (or, since you'd know they were from Georgia, why they don't have a reasonably close residence before they appear in Georgia).

Let's look at a chronologically later example.

Have you heard of "galvanized Yankees" during the Civil War? These were captured Confederates that joined Union units. Residence has nothing to do with that service.

It's pretty easy to find out (online for free), which counties many Civil War units recruited in and therefore the most likely residences of the members. However, younger men often joined the units that were stationed nearby if they came of age after the local unit was in service elsewhere.

RELATED LINK: Regimental Information from NPS's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database
(An easier option is if you find your soldier or sailor in the database, click on the unit name to pull up this information directly).

And one more Civil War service/residence problem I've seen over and over again...I have a number of Georgian ancestors that weren't galvanized Yankees, they were just pro-Union. After the short-lived 1st Georgia dissolved, they had to join Union units from other locations, there were no Georgia Union units to join.

So when you think you've found service for your ancestor, or can't find it, maybe you need to learn more.

A unit might be known for having men from one location or NOT having them from the obvious location.

A bit of research into the regiment might reveal details that explain your ancestor's involvement or indicate it's unlikely that soldier is your man. If you know your ancestor's service, learning about the unit might indirectly provide information about your ancestor.

The next tip follows along this same idea. Just as you shouldn't assume residence information, you can't always assume the information you've found is correct. This is particularly true with "controversial" service. It's also an issue when people give themselves a promotion.

"He Was Always Called Captain" Isn't Proof

You've probably heard of cases where someone goes by "Colonel" or "Captain." You have to verify a man has military service and what rank he really achieved.

You'd think long-time neighbors wouldn't fall for a story that was too far off, but you'd be surprised (plus, "long-time" doesn't mean they had any first-hand knowledge of military service). Always remember that someone called by a "rank" does not mean they had military service or achieved that rank if they did.

I have seen people with the given name of Major, it is possible someone could be named "Captain" or "Colonel" (and I've seen people named "Dock" or "Doctor" as well as that just being a nickname unrelated to a medical professional). Your ancestors were often named after people, not necessarily relatives, and possibly after military men.

In other words, there are lots of ways someone could end up called a military rank and it not be a rank he acheived.

That brings me to another issue involving "fooling" the neighbors.

Military service can be controversial and that's a reason to try and convince the neighbors (and eventually you, the genealogist) of something that may be the opposite of the truth.

What is "controversial?"

It may be something you could easily figure out (as in the example below) but you may need to do some history research to figure it out.

As I said, I have pro-Union ancestors from Georgia. They were not extremely controversial in their county during the war. It was controversial (to the point of murders happening over it) but their county had a pretty large group of Union supporters so it's not as controversial as in other places in the south. My ancestors were known to be pro-Union at the time because they were fairly proud of it.

Jump ahead fifty years and my two galvanized Yankees, collecting Union pensions, are listed with Confederate service in their obituaries.

People write their dissertations on the reasons why people went from proud pro-Union to convincing the neighbors of the opposite. If you're lucky, you'll come across someone else's well done historical research explain the phenomenon. You might be chasing your tail looking for non-existent service (or simply missing some major records, like the voluminous Union pensions mentioned above), otherwise.

There's a reason genealogy requires proof, not just one statement providing information.

I happened to find the obituaries after I had lots of evidence of their actual military service. Normally you'd probably start with an obituary and go looking for that service. Can you imagine the years you might spend if you never tried to find other clues but only tried to find that exact service?

Below is a tombstone for a different ancestor that illustrates the same tip.


Here's a tip to help you get started.

Union tombstones are rounded on the top. Confederate tombstones are pointed.

You can remember because the Confederate stones are designed so the d**n Yankees can't sit on them (that's obviously just a way to remember which is which).

So what's the photo above?

If you said Confederate, you're wrong, sort of. That's his correct Union regiment on the stone. I've found a record when his Union tombstone was ordered, for the adjoining cemetery, not this one. I haven't figured out exactly what is going on, yet.

Was his Union stone vandalized or the family targetted after it was placed? Is the photo above the same stone, just edited (i.e. did someone turn the rounded top into a point---I took this photo, I'm not saying the photo was edited)? I don't know.

If you started with his tombstone and went looking for Confederate service, you'd have a problem. In this case you'd quickly find an issue as you wouldn't find this exact Confederate unit but in many cases you might.

(Just as a note, this man did serve in his local Confederate militia unit briefly near the beginning of the war. Why and how is a whole different story with no clear answer, either. Luckily there isn't a lot of confusion of men with the same name or I might have never sorted things out.)

With such "controversial" ancestors making research difficult, following one "fact" doggedly could easily have made me frustrated leading to me giving up.

Don't set yourself up for failure. The Genealogical Proof Standard was created to help you navigate situations exactly like this. Although it helps you determine if you've established "proof," understanding it helps you adjust your thinking for success.



So maybe this post did have a focus. When doing military research, don't assume anything. You need to understand what records you are using and know some historical background.

Americans have long been interested in their own military history. By researching the military involvement of your ancestors, and even their relatives and neighbors, you can often flesh out their lives in ways that might not be possible, otherwise.

You want to be sure you are researching your ancestor and not a different man of the same name, though. Follow the tips in this post to help you learn more about YOUR ancestors.

  • Learn to use residence for genealogical research.
  • Understand residence for a lineage society application may need to be handled differently than for your personal research.
  • Know the legal requirements for militia service. This can flesh out your ancestor's story.
  • Realize residence for military service during a conflict (not just showing up for a militia muster) can be totally different.
  • Treat clues as clues, not proof.
  • Use the Genealogical Proof Standard to avoid problems caused by relying on one source for a type of information like military service.

Do you have an example you'd like to share? Leave a comment!

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