Florida State Genealogical Society
Florida State Genealogical Society

When Johnny Came Marching Home

Military records can be a great source of family history.

Wars and conflicts have been part of the American experience almost from the moment of the arrival of the first European settlers. The records of our ancestors’ military service in these conflicts give us a glimpse into their lives — where and how they lived before, during, and after their military service. Here are some basic steps that may help you learn if your ancestor served.

First, determine what wars or conflicts occurred during your ancestor’s most likely years of service (typically, ages 16 to 60). With your list in hand, search the appropriate indexes to the military service and veterans benefit records (see below). Don’t stop looking if you find him in one index. I found a Florida man serving in the Mexican War, the Third Florida Seminole Indian War and the Civil War.

The next step is to identify your soldier’s unit and determine whether he was in the regular Army, the state militia or some other local unit. Was he soldier, marine or sailor? Answers to these questions determine where the records are.

Finally, find out which side of the fight he was on. A Revolutionary War ancestor who fought for the British will not have his service records filed along with those of American patriots at the National Archives and Records Administration. All Union vet records of the Civil War are held at NARA. Confederate records are split, with compiled service records at NARA and pension records held at the state level.

Some Valuable Military Records

These are the most common types of military records:

  • Compiled service records: Service records vary widely but may include abstracts of muster rolls, pay vouchers and other records. Information usually includes the soldier’s rank, unit, dates of service and possibly medical and biographical information.
  • Records of Events: These records, which were compiled from information on the original muster rolls and returns, are intended as a rough record of a units movements and actions.  Like the muster rolls from which they were taken, the information can vary considerably from unit to unit. Some provide day-by-day narratives of a company's activities, while others simply the company's duty station during the reporting period. individual soldiers are seldom named, but the descriptions of the activities and movements of the company can be joined with information from the soldier's CMSR and pension file, to give an idea where the soldier served and what he was doing there.
  • Pension applications and pension-payment records: These records on veterans, their widows and other heirs contain the best genealogical information. Pension-application files often contain supporting documents — narratives of military experience, marriage certificates, birth and death records, letters and many other useful documents.
  • Bounty-land warrants: Bounty-land warrants are rights to land granted by the federal government to veterans in return for military service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, early Indian Wars and the Mexican War.

Where to Find Them

  • Pension applications, pension-payment records and many other military records for all U.S. forces 1775–1916 are held at the NARA in Washington, D.C. (www.archives.gov/genealogy/military).
  • The Florida State Archives has copies of the National Archives microfilms of Revolutionary War pension-applications and bounty-land warrants from the War of 1812. Through the Florida Memory Project, the Archives have made the Civil War Confederate Pension applications available onlinw at Florida Memory. The State Archives also has compiled-service records for Confederate soldiers from Florida, muster roles from the Indian and Mexican Wars and many other military records. Muster rolls for the Florida Militia serving during the Florida War (Seminold & Creek War) are also available online at
  • Footnote (www.footnote.com/) provides access to scanned images of original documents, including Revolutionary War pension-application files and bounty-land warrant application files, Revolutionary War rolls (muster rolls, payrolls, etc.). This is a subscription site. You can search for free but must pay before viewing the documents.
  • Ancestry.com (www.Ancestry.com/) provides access to a variety of Revolutionary War databases. It is a subscription site but is free at most Florida libraries. It also has Civil War records, scanned images of World War I Draft Registration Cards and many other military records.
  • Library collections - major libraries, and especially university libraries, will hold military records and are worth checking.