The past six lessons were the first of 20 projected lessons in this intermediate course on Tracing Immigrant Origins. The course focuses on using American records from before the 20th century in order to learn where an immigrant lived before coming to America. This means than in every lesson our goal is to discover the sources which have in the past contained the original home town or parish of a foreign-born individual.
Pre-Twentieth Century research is easily divided into three time periods:
- From 1820 through the Civil War, 1865 (which is the focus for the next several lessons)
- After the Civil War (which we covered in the past six lessons)
- Pre-1820 research (where we will complete our intermediate course)
The sources and strategies for research vary, depending upon the time period when the immigrant came. Later immigrants (20th century) are recorded in many sources that were not kept in earlier years.
As we move back in time, researching an immigrant's origins becomes more difficult. Fewer records were kept, many records were lost, and those that were kept were not as complete as later records. For example, passenger lists, which began to be kept in the United States in 1820, usually did not show the passenger's towns of origin until the 1890s.
Why Military Records are Important
Before you are tempted to skip over this lesson, because you are certain that your immigrant did not serve in the military, take note. Even when a direct immigrant did not serve, a brother (or father, uncle, cousin or son) often did serve . Learning about a close relative also provides significant information about the immigrant ancestor. In fact, experienced genealogists know that families are an incredible source of information, since close relatives often immigrated together, or closely followed one another.
For immigrants in all time periods, military records are very important. While certainly not all immigrants served in the United States military, those who did left behind excellent records. These records often (but not always) ask the soldier's birth place and birth date (or age at enlistment). These are two of the most important facts we need to learn about an immigrant.
It is true that the birth place may be recorded simply as "Ireland" or "Germany," but sometimes a more specific locality is listed. In addition to receiving possible immigration information, military records provide significant biographical detail about ancestors—often impossible to find in any other records. We will look in this lesson at the kind of information you can discover.
U.S. Civil War
The Civil War (1861-1864) was certainly one of the most significant events in the history of the United States. More Americans were directly affected by this event than any other. Between 3.0-3.5 million men served (on both sides) during the war. Since the entire population of the United States in 1860 was only 31.4 million persons, at least one in every 10 persons actually served in the war. Given that virtually all who served were men (and they only made up half of the population), this suggests that between one in four and one in five men in America served in the war. As a consequence, the vast majority of American families had one or more members serving in the war.
Immigrants were not immune from Civil War service. Indeed, many immigrants enlisted in the military as they disembarked from their ships at Castle Garden, New York often motivated by the following factors:
- Immigrants tended to greatly favor the Union side of the war (unless they had been living in the South for several years).
- Any able-bodied young man could serve.
- Naturalization, or native birth, was not a requirement.
- It was easier to be naturalized after service.
There was a cash bounty for all recruits–more for those with military experience. (The illustration shown here depicts the recruiters at Castle Garden signing up German, Irish, and other immigrants with a $600 bounty incentive.)
Therefore, if your immigrant, or his brother, uncle, father or cousin, was born between 1830 and 1845 (especially about 1840), you should check for Civil War military service.
Regardless of how long (or how well) a soldier served—even if he did not receive a pension—the government should have a record of his service. Most of the Civil War was fought by volunteer troops who enlisted in state regiments (infantry, cavalry, etc.), but there was also a significant number of federal (and confederate) troops, including regularly-enlisted and volunteer soldiers.
The federal government gathered information on individual soldiers from a variety of sources, including muster rolls, pay lists, order books, hospital records, and correspondence. Key information was then abstracted onto cards, which created the "Compiled Service Records."
These records are now arranged first by state, then by military unit, and finally by the soldier's name. They provide the soldier's rank, the state from which he entered service, the date of enlistment, the length of service and sometimes the soldier's age, residence, physical description and discharge date.
Indices to these service records are generally available on a statewide basis (even for most Confederate troops). While the indexes are on microfilm, most service records are not (except some Confederate states).
Enlistment / Discharge
Of even greater value for immigrant origin research are the enlistment and discharge records. These include "descriptive muster rolls," which provide the soldier's name, rank, age, description, marital status, occupation, residence, and often, city of birth.
Depending on the military unit, these records may be at the state's adjutant general's office, or at the National Archives. While actual discharge papers (or "paroles" for soldiers serving when the Civil War ended), were usually given to the soldier by the federal government, the same information may have been recorded by the state, or often in the county of residence.
Locating these records can be difficult and usually requires that you know the state and unit (including the company) in which the soldier served. That is why it is often best to use of the state index cards noted above. However, a better approach is usually to first seek a pension file.
The federal government, and some states (notably in the South) provided pensions to disabled soldiers, to widows or orphans of soldiers, and to veterans who had served a certain length of time. The rules and regulations governing eligibility for pensions, as well as qualifying criteria, changed over time, becoming more liberal as the majority of veterans aged.
The longer a veteran lived, and the greater need he had (physical or financial), the greater likelihood that he or his widow eventually received a pension. Typically, if a veteran lived past 1890, he or his widow would have received something.
Military pension records can be true gold mines of information. However, be aware that virtually all of the information in a pension file pertains to the soldier's activities after the war.
A soldier's pension file typically includes information about his military units, a physical description, which may include birth place, and information about where he lived after the war.
Depositions by friends, neighbors, and even relatives can provide significant clues for the researcher. They may identify where the soldier lived before the war, and on occasion, if he was an immigrant, where he lived in the old country. Since the soldier needed some degree of disability to receive a pension, there will also be medical attestations by doctors describing his health and how his war service impacted, or caused, the condition.
If a widow received a pension, the file will have some documentation about her marriage to the soldier, and about his death. Often these are copies (abstracts or duplicates) of the actual marriage and death records. Birth dates of minor children (sometimes all children) also appear on depositions, usually from the soldier or the widow.
The sheer number of soldiers and the size of these files (often a hundred pages or more each) have not permitted them to be microfilmed. They are only available to be copied at the National Archives. However, a card index to all Union pension records is available on microfilm. Strictly alphabetical for the entire country, the index uses about 550 rolls of film. Our GRA Record Lookup Service provides a regular search of this index, for more information see Union Pension Files Index.
The Union pension index card includes the soldier's name and unit as well as the date of filing and the state from which he filed. If a widow or minor dependent filed for a pension, that name (or names) is also listed. This information often makes it easy to recognize the soldier, even when you don't know his unit of service.
For example, if you know the widow's name, about when the soldier died, and the last state where he lived (census records often help here), you can recognize the correct index card, as widows usually applied within two months of the soldier's death.
The index also includes the application number and, if a pension was granted, the certificate number. Many pensions were rejected, but even rejected pensions provide identifying information on the soldier and should be obtained.
Getting Copies of Records
Since most actual service and pension records are not on microfilm, they must be obtained in person, by hired researchers, or by using a NATF [National Archives Trust Fund] Form 80 to mail in a request. See our sample.
NATF Form 80, issued by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is explained on NARA's Web site (www.nara.gov). However, electronic copies for download of Form 80 are not available. There are two ways to request copies of Form 80:
1. By e-mail to [email protected]. For quicker service be sure to include your first and last name, telephone number, FAX number (if you have one), mailing address, and Internet e-mail address.
2. By writing to:
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Completed copies of Form 80 are mailed to:
Textual Reference Branch (NWDT1)
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20408
You cannot order a pension AND service record on the same form. Each request must have its own form filled out. Use this form for any military records prior to World War I service. And please be patient as they receive thousands of orders. This is why GRA, which provides Record Lookup Services, has its own researchers in the National Archives to obtain the information faster. While you can use Form 80 without having seen the various indices yourself, it is better if you view the index rather than assume that a National Archives worker will correctly identify your soldier. If you decide to rely on workers at the National Archives, you should take the following precautions.
Since the workers first identify the existence of a file, then send you a confirmation before asking for payment, you should also write on the form that you would like to know the price to copy the entire file. If you do not specifically request this, they will select $10.00 worth of copies, and they may not copy the information you need. If you provide as much information as you can on your soldier besides the minimal information requested by the National Archives, our experienced GRA searchers can check the indexes for you.
You can also request Record Lookup Services provide these other indexes and actual records once the index has been located:
- Confederate Service Records Index
- Confederate Pension Files Index
- Union Service Records Index
- Union Pension Files Index
- Confederate Service Records
- Confederate Pension Files
- Union Service Records
- Union Pension Files
Not to be overlooked are the records of soldiers homes, a benefit provided to soldiers who could no longer care for themselves. While the federal government operated about 15 homes for disabled volunteer soldiers, 28 northern states also maintained one or more such facilities. Here, older veterans could get the care they needed in their declining years.
Such homes required an application, in which the soldier would have to identify his birth place, and other personal information. In addition, his file would include significant medical information. Many of those records are still available. In fact, some of these homes, such as the Iowa State Soldiers Home in Marshaltown, Iowa are still operating and make their records available to researchers.
Registers for the homes include a federal soldier's birth place, occupation, residence, religion, marital status, and other information. They are available at the National Archives, and on 282 rolls of microfilm (through the Family History Library and other sources).
Other Military Activity During This Period
The Civil War was not the only military action taken by the United States during the early 19th Century. The regular Army fought many battles with Indians (Native Americans) throughout the South and the Plains states. The 1848 War with Mexico saw a surge of enlistment in the military (Army and Navy) as well. Click here to see GRA's Record Lookup Service for the Mexican War.
After the Civil War, battles continued to be fought with Indians in the Western states. Generally these actions were handled by standing (enlisted) military personnel. However, immigrants also enlisted in the regular Army—they did not wait to be drafted.
Regular enlistment registers (for 1789-1914) are available on microfilm from the National Archives (and the Family History Library). They are not indexed, so you need to know approximately when a soldier enlisted. Often it is easier to learn, from various indexes, in which unit a soldier served, and then request his service, and possible pension files, as discussed above.
Military records are significant to researchers, not just immigrants. They have perhaps been the focus of more discussion and research than any other group of historical records. This lesson has not tried to explain all about military records, rather to emphasize their usage for immigrant origin research. For more information about military records for the United States, see James Neagles, U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal & State Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1994).
1. Study your personal pedigree chart. Are there any men who immigrated to the United States, who had been born in another country between 1830 and 1845 (especially around 1840)? If so, where were they living in 1860? If they lived in a northern state, search the nationwide Union Pension Records index mentioned in this lesson. Copies of the index rolls may be ordered on loan and sent to a local Family History Center for under $4.00 each. Use the Family History Library Catalog on line at www.familysearch.org.
2. Or, if the soldier lived in the southern states, the Family History Library provides indexes to the Confederate Pension files. Copies of the index rolls may be ordered on loan and sent to a local Family History Center for under $4.00. Try to determine where you ancestor lived between 1860 and 1870 by using census records and then searching the index. Remember, however, that Confederate soldiers could apply for a pension in any other state, not just the one they lived in during the war.
3. Once you receive a pension application file or a military service record, analyze the information carefully by placing each event on a time line. As you list these dates and events, look for locations you have never noticed before, people who associated with your ancestor who you could also follow (perhaps they came from the same area in the foreign country), and other information you never knew about your ancestor. Write this on a chart similar to the sample below.