How Can I Find My Ancestor’s Military Records?

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The men in this picture are from Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Theirs was one of the detachments assigned to guard the nation’s capital during the Civil War.
Wikimedia Commons
The men in this picture are from Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Theirs was one of the detachments assigned to guard the nation’s capital during the Civil War.
Wikimedia Commons

This week, we decided to tackle a common question that we get from people researching their roots:

What are the best resources for finding records on African-American veterans of the 19th and 20th centuries? 

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Military draft, enrollment and service records can provide a gold mine of information about an ancestor. In the case of African-American forebears, the segregation of troops prior to 1948 may complicate your search, but there are resources you can turn to that may hold the answers you seek. Our advice below starts with records holding the most recent information, and works backward through to the early 19th century.

Personnel Records

You can request military personnel files for the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard through the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis by using Standard Form 180. The last page of the form includes a list of addresses to where the request should be mailed based on the current status of the serviceman or servicewoman. Keep in mind when searching for military personnel files for service in either world war that a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Record Center destroyed 80 percent of personnel files for those discharged from the Army between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960, and 75 percent of those discharged from the Air Force between Sept. 25, 1947, and Jan. 1, 1964.

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Access to modern records is more restricted for privacy reasons, since the service member may still be alive. For records of individuals who were discharged, retired or died in service less than 62 years ago, only the serviceman or servicewoman can request copies of his or her military personnel file. Others requesting the records must have a signature of the service member to authorize the release of the record. If the service member is deceased, a next of kin may submit a request with proof of death, such as a death certificate or obituary.

Personnel records can include information such as the individual’s enlistment, post and assignments, awards and medals, insurance and emergency information, training and performance reviews, discharge and retirement, and other personal information.

National Archives Records

The National Archives holds a wealth of archival military records, but they can be difficult to navigate. Reference information papers published through the National Archives and Records Administration provide descriptions of collections and how they are organized.

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One such paper is particularly useful for researching African-American veterans: “Records of Military Agencies Relating to African Americans From the Post-World War I Period to the Korean War” (pdf), by Lisha B. Penn, focuses on records of African-American participation in World War I, World War II and the Korean War that are held at the National Archives facility in Washington, D.C. It includes information on 145 series of records that contain data on African-American servicemen and women.

Each section of the document provides a history of the agency or program and a historic overview of the contents in the records, before describing each series. The document also provides the finding-aid number and a note about how the series is arranged to make searching through the collection a bit easier. This is a very helpful source when you’re trying to locate records at the National Archives, particularly during the period of segregation in the armed forces through the end of World War II, when African-American troop records were often recorded separately from other military records.

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20th-Century Online Resources

Websites such as Ancestry.com (subscription required) and FamilySearch have collections that can aid you in your search for African-American ancestors that served in the 20th century. These collections are particularly helpful in piecing together the service of an ancestor if his or her personnel file was destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Record Center.

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World War I draft-registration cards are available to search through both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. There are also some World War II draft-registration cards available to the public, though they are only for the fourth registration because of privacy laws. This draft is referred to as the “old man’s registration” because it included men who were between the ages of 45 and 64 at the time, born between April 28, 1877, and Feb. 16, 1897. These records include the race and physical description of the registrant and can sometimes contain information about next of kin and residence.

Another helpful database is the “U.S. Veterans Gravesites, 1775-2006,” which contains records for veterans and their dependents who are buried in various Veterans Affairs national cemeteries.

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For wars after World War II, FamilySearch also has a collection of records of “United States Korean War Dead and Army Wounded, 1950-1953” and a record collection of “United States Military Personnel Who Died During the Vietnam War.” The records in both collections contain personal information such as birth date and residence as well as military unit, service number and date of death.

19th-Century Sources

Troops were segregated during the Civil War, so because of this, you can focus your search on African-American regiments that served during and after the Civil War. The African-American Archives through Fold3 (subscription required) contain Civil War records, including “Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops, 2nd through 7th Colored Infantry” and “Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 8th through 13th, Including the 11th (New).” These records include muster and hospital rolls; lists of soldiers, deserters, returns; and casualty sheets, enlistment papers and lists of prisoners of war. Some pension records have also been digitized and are available through Fold3.

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The African-American regiments that served during the so-called Indian Wars in the American West became known as buffalo soldiers. Irene and Frank Schubert have compiled a great resource on the men who served in these regiments, titled, On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II: New and Revised Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1917. The book has short biographies of each buffalo soldier, including a description of his service. The book also contains statistics of black enlisted men in the Regular Army, 1867-1916, and lists of officers.

Also, as mentioned in a previous column, the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau kept by the National Archives include a trove of information about newly freed men who fought in the Civil War. The collection, titled “Freedmen’s Branch, Office of the Adjutant General,” spans the years 1872-1878, and the documents in it contain “valuable genealogical information on black soldiers and sailors found in documents and letters they submitted for bounty, pension, arrears of pay, commutation of rations and prize money,” according to the National Archives. “Other documents include letters sent, lists and registers of claimants, reports of persons and articles hired, returns of public property and affidavits. The records can be useful when used in conjunction with military service and pension records.”

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War of 1812

In the first American war of the 19th century, African Americans served in regiments alongside white soldiers in the Regular Army, primarily in the 26th Infantry. In the National Archives and Records Administration’s Appendix III, a “B” follows the names of those whose physical description indicates black or mulatto heritage. The list includes the year, regiment and company of each soldier. Such information may help guide you to further records on your ancestor if you research the actions of the regiment.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.

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