Compiled Military Service Records
When researching volunteers, start with the compiled military service records.
Some years after the Civil War, the War Department needed an efficient method of checking military and medical records in connection with claims for pensions and other benefits. Beginning in 1886 the staff of General Fred Crayton Ainsworth began the ambitious project of abstracting various military service records for volunteer soldiers: muster and pay rolls, descriptive rolls, returns, hospital records, prison records, accounts for subsistence and other materials. For each time an individual volunteer's name appeared in these records a card was prepared.
The card abstracts for each individual soldier were placed into a jacket-envelope bearing the soldier's name, rank, and military unit. This jacket-envelope, containing one or more abstracts and, in some instances, including one or more original documents relating specifically to that soldier, is called a compiled military service record. (I've also seen various shortened forms of this long term such as military service record, compiled service record or simply CMSR.)
A compiled military service record is only as lengthy as the material about an individual soldier and their unit. A typical record shows nothing but the soldier's name, rank, military unit, dates of entry into service and discharge or separation by desertion, death or dismissal. It may also show age, place of birth and residence at time of enlistment. If you are extremely lucky, for some wars it can include pension and benefit correspondence and documents between the soldier or his survivors and the war department. (For some wars, this material is held separately from CMSRs.) This type of material is the gold you are hoping to discover.
The cards were so carefully prepared that there is virtually no need to consult the original records from which they were made. The original records are thought to rarely contain additional information about particular soldiers.
Compiled military service records were arranged by war/historical period, thereunder by state or other designation, thereunder by military unit (usually regiment) and thereunder alphabetically by soldier surname. Microfilmed or computerized CMSRs typically maintain this organization.
While a historical period may bear the name of a war, records of other conflicts during the stated time period may be included. For example, War of 1812 includes years 1813-14 of the Creek Indian War. The wars and historical periods are:
|War or historical period
|Index on microfilm
|CMSRs on microfilm
|The Revolutionary War
|Post-Revolutionary War period
|War of 1812
|M278, M351, M638, M863, M1028, M1970
|Ancestry* (USCT), Footnote*
N.A. = Not available
* A few are available
† Most are available
Various indexes exist to facilitate finding compiled military service records. Before computers were available, two types of card indexes were prepared for most of these records: general (nation-wide) and state indexes. These card indexes are available on microfilm and some have been computerized. New, computerized indexes exist for compiled military service records published online.
Consult an available index to learn if a CMSR exists for an ancestor and if so, the state and military unit or units (usually a regiment) in which he served. General indexes are available for every war or historical period, and state indexes exist for federal military units bearing a state name (for example, 1st Virginia Militia) except for the Mexican War and the Philippine Insurrection.
Each index card contains the soldier's name, rank, and military unit. General indexes include cross-references to variants of soldiers' names. Cross-references are made to the final unit designation if a unit was known by more than one name, and the various names are shown on one or more abstracts. In addition, cross-references are made to the appropriate unit designation if the records of the soldier's service in different units are consolidated into a single record.
Depending on the care taken in preparation and the search capabilities available, computerized indexes may or may not incorporate these cross-references. When searching online, be prepared to manually search for name variations and alternate unit names. For difficult to find ancestors, you may wish to consult all available indexes.
A researcher may fail to locate the record of an individual's volunteer military service for several reasons. The soldier may have served in the Regular Army (covered in Chapter 4 of Genealogical Research) or in a state unit that was not Federalized. His name may have been misspelled. (My ancestor Paul was denied a pension because he was indexed under Raul.) Proper records of his service may not have been made; or, if made, they may have been lost or destroyed in the confusion that often attended military operations. Or references to the soldier in the original records may be so vague that proper identification could not be made.
Sources for this article
Today's article is largely quoted (with liberal adaptations) from page 127 of Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, chapter 5 ("Service Records of Volunteers"), section 5.1 ("Introduction"). Minor sources are
- "Fred Crayton Ainsworth, Major General, United States Army," Michael Robert Patterson, Arlington National Cemetery Website (www.arlingtoncemetery.net: Michael Robert Patterson, accessed 4 Dec 2008); this is a private, not a government website.
- "CWSS System Overview," National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (www.civilwar.nps.gov: accessed 4 Dec 2008).
- National Archives Trust Fund Board, Military Service Records : a select catalog of National Archives microfilm publications (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, National Archives and Service Administration, 1985); equivalent catalog lists available online.