November 19th, 2012

Know Your History, Find Those Records

Whenever I visit a library or a bookstore I am astounded by the number of books and periodicals that exist on military history. You can find books about armies, navies and every other military branch in existence, or historical. There are numerous accounts and analyses of individual units, engagements and strategies, form the present back to ancient times that have been published in books, journals, magazines and other media. You van find books and magazines about specific military equipment and transport such as; horses, jeeps, tanks, ships, airplanes, even detailed documentation on every weapon ever conceived.

When I think about it, there is no excuse for my not knowing more about military history than I should, and I still wouldn’t; unless I hadn’t found out how much a knowledge of military history could help me to locate military records. We all understand the importance of placing our ancestors and family members into historical context. This is entirely true when you are researching someone who served in the military. There is great personal and genealogical benefit to be had from studying the history of the country in which your ancestor lived, and particularly about the military at the time. Knowing what the requirements for service were and what conflicts the country was involved in can help you to understand what records might be available, and where you might find them.

In times of war it has been known for governments to enforce conscription or force people to join the military. For example; in the United Statesin the years 1917 and 1918 (World War 1), many young men were drafted by the military to boost the armed forces for fighting in Europe. Young men in particular age ranges were required to present themselves to the local draft board to fill out a draft card. Knowing the age ranges of the males who were required to register will prompt you to the early nineteenth century; it is an advantage to know that compulsory military service was required even during times of peace. You might then wish to investigate the existence of military records for your ancestor.

When You Can’t Find the Records

Many famous military leaders such as Horatio Nelson, Robert E. Lee, George Washington, and more recently George S. Patton, left detailed accounts of their military and personal lives. When there are no military records for your ancestor, unit histories, battle accounts and analysis, diaries and memoirs may provide some detail. It became especially fashionable for officers and veterans alike to compose exhaustive memoirs and historical accounts of their experiences. These accounts often contain many names of the officers and enlisted men they served with, in some cases complete rosters are included with anecdotal personal material about some individuals. In some instances these personal accounts and memoirs may be the only surviving details about soldiers who lost their lives to battle or disease.

There are as many historical accounts as personal ones regarding military units and the battles they took part in. Often these narratives include details from official records and eye witness accounts of events. You can find much of this type of material at military heritage organizations and societies, many of which have or are in the process of digitizing them and placing them online. The Daughters of the American Revolution are a well known society in the United States, while Ireland has the Military Heritage of Ireland Trust, Veterans Affairs Canada is a useful site if you’re searching Canadian ancestors, while in Great Britain the Society for Army Historical Research may be of assistance.

These are by no means the only organizations that are dedicated to preserving military records and histories. There are also countless magazines that are based on military and historical themes, among them are; World War II, Civil War Times, Naval History, Canadian Journal of History, and BBC History Magazine. Too often we rely solely on online sources, but if you are researching military ancestors, it is worth picking up a copy of one of these publications to see if it may be relevant to your search. They can definitely help to place your ancestors into context with the historical events of their time and may be well worth the small investment required to subscribe.

Whenever you begin to research an ancestor who has served in the military it is a good idea to do some preliminary footwork by investigating the geographical location and the time period in which the event occurred. Doing so will enlighten you as to what records you may hope to find. Once you know what was created, you can begin looking into where they might be kept. When you find your ancestor in military records, it’s a good idea to note the information in an accurate, clear and concise manner. We have some special Free Downloadable Genealogy Forms that may be of assistance. Feel free to download one of your own, and begin charting your family tree today!