Military Terminology for Genealogists: Regulars, Volunteers and Militia

Military terminology for genealogists: What’s the difference between “regulars,” “volunteers” and “militia” in your U.S. ancestors’ military service records? It matters! Researching the records of each–and what you find–may be very different. Expert Michael Strauss explains here.

Military terminology for genealogists (and why it matters)

If you’ve looked through your U.S. ancestors’ military records, you’ve likely come across terms like Regulars, Volunteers, and Militia. What do those terms mean? You’ll want to know because the records were different and so were their terms of service. Also, you may come across relatives who served in more than one capacity.

Regulars were those men who enlisted for a specific period of time as part of the standing army. These men could have enlisted during a war period or peacetime. During the colonial period, they may have been recorded with other names, as either the Continental Line or part of the Flying Camp. The latter were men who served directly under General George Washington. Look for service records of Regulars at the National Archives. (Click here for a free download: Military Service Records at the National Archives by Trevor K. Plante.)

Volunteers were men who served during wartime or any period of emergency whose service was considered to be in the interest of the Federal Government. Recorded from the Revolutionary War onward, these men at that time might also be listed early on as “Associators.” Not to be confused with militia, Volunteers were not subject to fines for non-service. Like the Regulars, records of volunteers’ service are also found at the National Archives.

(A good example of the difference between Regulars and Volunteers can be found during the Spanish American War of 1898. During the war, there was a Regular Army 1st U.S. Cavalry that served alongside the Volunteer 1st U.S. Cavalry. The latter was known as the “Rough Riders,” led by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.)

The militia was organized initially by colonial, then state and even county governments. (Pennsylvania’s colonial militia is a great example of typical colonial militia laws, rules, and regulations, and parent organizations; click here to read an article about the Pennsylvania militia.) Militia was generally men called up for limited military duty between the ages of 17-60 as needed for the common defense. They were often required to serve for a period of time that was based on the militia laws on the books. The men were subject to fines or penalties for non-service. Records of militia are going to be found at your local or state archives. (Click here for a directory of state archives in the U.S.)

Example: He was a Volunteer and a Regular

My ancestor, Samuel Howard, served during the Civil War. Because of his age he wasn’t able to enlist until 1865, when he turned 18.

  • He was first a Volunteer soldier, who served as a substitute for another man who was drafted.
  • After his discharge, he enlisted in the Regular Army in 1866. He was assigned to the 13th U.S. Infantry, where he served one month before deserting at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
  • Samuel was married in 1867 (this may have some relevance to his decision to leave the military). He lived in Pennsylvania from the end of the war until his death in 1913. He is shown here in this 1876 tintype photograph in Lebanon, PA.

Both his Volunteer and Regular Army enlistment forms are shown below. The forms look very similar, as each contains common information asked of a typical recruit. However, they are decidedly different as the one covers his Civil War service and the other his post-war service when he joined the regular Army after the men who served during the war would have been discharged.

military terminology for genealogists

Take-home point for you: I believe the key to finding your ancestors, whether they served in the Regulars, were Volunteers or Militiaman, is to look at not only federal records but also search your state records. The latter may be the only place you find proof of military service. Samuel Howard’s Regular Army military service, although brief, was completely unknown to me until a couple of years ago. When he applied for his Civil War pension, which was granted to him, he never mentioned his Regular army service.

And keep learning more helpful military terminology for genealogists! Click here for resources on military acronyms, abbreviations, and dictionaries from the National Archives that can help that you research exactly how your ancestors served.

More military terminology for genealogists

Researching your relatives’ military service can be fascinating, but also frustrating if you aren’t familiar with military terminology, history, and records. In the Military Minutes segment of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, expert Michael Strauss shares gems like these that can help you explore this important part of your ancestors’ lives. Start listening to the Genealogy Gems Podcast (Michael began contributing in Episode 207) or take a quick peek at more Military Minutes segments: Michael’s explanations of Compiled Military Service Records and Official Military Personnel Files,

Michael Strauss, AG

Michael Strauss, AG

Michael Strauss, AG is the principal owner of Genealogy Research Network and an Accredited Genealogist since 1995. He is a native of Pennsylvania and a resident of Utah and has been an avid genealogist for more than 30 years. Strauss holds a BA in History and is a United States Coast Guard veteran.

Official Military Personnel Files for US Military Ancestors in WWI, WWII and Beyond

Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) are 20th and 21st U.S. military records for conflicts such as WWI, WWII, and beyond. OMPFs are packed with great genealogy clues, but millions were destroyed by a 1973 fire. Here’s how to find what records still remain, and what you might find if your relative’s OMPF went up in flames.

What are Official Military Personnel Files?

If your ancestor served in the U.S. military during the 20th or 21st century, related service records are called Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs), or sometimes “201 files,” named after the brown file folder that holds them. These are available for each of the military branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. They are generally held at the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Exceptions for veterans discharged since 1995 may be at other government offices.)

According to the National Archives, Official Military Personnel Files are “primarily an administrative record, containing information about the subject’s service history such as: date and type of enlistment/appointment; duty stations and assignments; training, qualifications, performance; awards and decorations received; disciplinary actions; insurance; emergency data; administrative remarks; date and type of separation/discharge/retirement; and other personnel actions.” The level of detail in complete files make them invaluable genealogical records.

How to Access Official Military Personnel Files

On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire ravaged the building where the OMPFs were housed. Between 16 and 18 million personnel files were destroyed or damaged; these affected names alphabetically after James E. Hubbard. It was a serious loss for two particular branches of the military:

  • Army Personnel discharged 1912-1960: 80% Loss (4 in every 5 files). 
  • Air Force Personnel discharged 1947-1964: 75%  Loss (3 in every 4 files). (Remember: the Air Force wasn’t officially organized until September 14, 1947. Before this date Air Force records were part of the United States Army Air Corps, then part of the U.S. Army.)

The Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard records were largely unaffected by the fire.

Surviving OMPFs and reconstructed records relating to destroyed files are considered to be archival (or open to researchers without restrictions) 62 years after the date of discharge. This is a rolling date, so discharge dates of 1955 and earlier are open to the public. In 2018, that date will change to 1956, and so on. More recent records are considered non-archival and subject to restrictions; only the veteran or next-of-kin have full access to the files.

You can access Official Military Personnel Files in three ways:

1. Go to St. Louis in person. Appointments are recommended, as research space is limited. Click here for information about requesting an appointment, the availability of records, copy fees, and hours of operation.

2. Employ an independent researcher. Click here for the National Archives’ list of researchers.

3. Request records by mail. Here’s a link to the online portal for requesting these records; here’s a direct link to the PDF format of Standard Form 180, which you can print and mail in.

My grandfather’s OMPF: What survived?

I didn’t fully grasp how many records were lost in the fire in 1973 until I ordered a record of one of my family members. When my grandfather Richard Keller was a small child, he received postcards from his great Uncle Zerbe Howard: I remember him. He died when I was 10 years old. Zerbe served during World War I and was a resident of Lebanon, PA.

Official military personnel files

I have in my possession the 2 postcards sent my grandfather that listed his name, rank, and military unit. I ordered his file which took several months, and when it arrived I expected it to be full of information. Unfortunately, his file was completely destroyed.

The only reconstructed records located were three pages recording him on a final payment roll with other men from his unit. Here’s an image of that record, which seems so sparse compared to what that original OMPF may have contained:

This final payment roll from Camp Dix, New Jersey is dated from April 1918 to May of 1919. It reveals that the soldiers on this roll were discharged on this date, that they were entitled to travel allowance and foreign service bonus pay of $60 and what their individual payments were. Zerbe even appears to have signed the record in his own scrawling handwriting. While it may be discouraging to have such limited information available due to the 1973 fire, it’s still worth pulling records such as these to track your military ancestors.

The National Personnel Record Center now has other records available to researchers to help fill in some of the gaps. For example, the Army filed Morning Reports, organized by unit. I also found local records in Pennsylvania that were not in the hands of the federal government. Listen to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast or come back to this blog for future tips on researching your 20th-century U.S. relatives’ military service.

Looking for 19th century US military records?

If your ancestor served in the military during the 1800s or earlier, you’ll want to look for his Compiled Military Service Records at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exact dates for each military branch vary in years accordingly. Click here to learn more about those.

For more ongoing training in tracing your military ancestors, tune in to the free Genealogy Gems Podcastand listen for my segment, “Military Minutes.”

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