The Story of Memorial Day

The history of Memorial Day–formerly Decoration Day–and what he will be doing to honor it are shared here by Military Minutes contributor Michael Strauss. We also give you quick links to more free family history articles on researching your ancestors who gave the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield.

(Image right: Gravesite in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, IL. Decoration Day, 1927. Photo: Chicago Daily News)

History of Memorial Day

In 1865, just after the close of the Civil War, a local druggist in Waterloo, New York suggested placing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers in his community.

The following year, another area resident, General John B. Murray, led the small village in putting flags at half-mast and decorating the gravestones of soldiers buried in the town’s three cemeteries. They repeated their efforts the following year. Many other communities in both the North and South also honored their war dead during this time period.

General John A. “Black Jack” Logan spearheaded the idea of a national day of remembrance for fallen Civil War soldiers in 1868. Logan, a former Union General, was the National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which constituted living veterans of the war. On May 5, 1868, the GAR issued General Order No. 11 to designate May 30, 1868 as the day to decorate and commemorate the graves of fallen comrades of the late Civil War.

The wording of the order is very specific: “Let us then at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland them with choicest flowers of springtime…Let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor…in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us…the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.” This order later became known as the “Memorial Day Order” and can be read on the website of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs as part of the National Cemetery Association.

On this date at Arlington National Cemetery, more than 20,000 gravestones of both Union and Confederate veterans were remembered. General James A. Garfield (who later became President of the United States) and other political leaders spoke to an audience of more than 5,000 persons. In following years, May 30th became known as Decoration Day, a national day of remembrance of the Civil War dead.

history of Memorial Day General John A. Logan

General John A. “Black Jack” Logan. Library of Congress image.

After the end of World War I in 1918, the scope of Decoration Day expanded to include all war dead since the Revolutionary War. The name gradually gave way to “Memorial Day,” a term first used in 1882 that didn’t become more generally accepted until after the end of World War II. A 1968 Act of the United States Congress, which went into effect in 1971, formally calendared the dates of several national holidays, including Labor Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day—the latter to be held in perpetuity on the last Monday in May. (Veterans Day, honoring all veterans who served rather than just our war dead, is held on November 11th.)

history of Memorial Day-1917 Poster

1917 poster, Library of Congress image.

Interestingly, not every part of the United States fully supported Decoration Day. The Civil War created divisions even in peacetime, long after the guns fell silent in 1865. A number of Southern states have over the years honored their own Confederate dead on specific dates. In Mississippi, for example, they remember Memorial Day the last Monday of April. Both North Carolina and South Carolina observe this date on May 10th.  In Virginia, the last Monday of May is observed as with most of the country, but it is often called Confederate Memorial Day. 

For a little more history (and some great historical re-enactment footage), enjoy this quick video.

How I will be honoring Memorial Day

Regardless of the name given this holiday, on Memorial Day here in Utah I will remember and honor those who sacrificed so much for our country by attending a free public event at Camp Floyd. I will be wearing my Civil War uniform with other members of the Utah Living History Association as we recreate and experience camp life; drill; and fire our period weapons to remember when the camp was occupied by the Union Army from 1858-1861. I am the second person in the left in this 2016 photo from the Utah Living History Association. We strive for historical accuracy in our representation of the men stationed at this camp in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. (With the start of the war, the camp was abandoned and the men stationed here moved back East to the fighting. Next to the museum at the camp sits a small rural cemetery to honor the burials of 85 men who died from 1857-1861 who were stationed at the camp while serving with the United States Army.)

Memorial Day isn’t just about remembering those soldiers who died in battle, but about honoring all veterans who have honored us with service. We give this honor—regardless of sectional differences—to those who lost their lives during both wartime and peacetime periods.

Explore and honor your own war dead

Michael Strauss contributes the Military Minutes segment on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast. Why not use his expert tips to trace the stories of those on your own family tree who served in the U.S. military?

Find your ancestors in the 5 branches of the U.S. military

Intro to US military terminology: regular, volunteer, or militiaman?

US draft registration records: Civil War to WWII and beyond

Author: Michael Strauss, AG

Author: 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.

Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 158

In the new Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 158, get an exclusive Chronicling America tutorial from the manager of this enormous, free historical newspaper website. Also: a loving daughter hears her father answer important questions 35 years after his death;, a fallen soldier’s remains are identified, a DNA question about Native American ancestry, and reading picks from the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

The newest episode of the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast has a headline-worthy interview for everyone with U.S. roots! Newspaper research guru Lisa Louise Cooke goes deep into the free, fabulous Chronicling America historical newspaper website with Deborah Thomas, Library of Congress manager for the sponsoring National Digital Newspaper Program. Premium eLearning members will get the scoop on how the site came to be and who chooses what content gets digitized. Hear about a lesser-known tool on the site that can help you find copies of your ancestors’ local papers. Best of all, get tips from both Deborah and Lisa on how to search the site for newspaper stories that reveal your family history.

Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast 158: More newsworthy highlights

Here’s what else Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning members will find in this exclusive podcast episode:

  • A family finally lays to rest their fallen U.S. soldier in Arlington National Cemetery–and solves the mystery of his fate after decades.
  • A listener writes in to tell us about a precious discovery, 35 years after she lost her father: recordings of his voice, telling the stories she always wanted to hear from him.
  • A fascinating DNA question about identifying Native American ancestry.
  • Great reading suggestions for fans of the Genealogy Gems Book Club–a listener recommendation and two more titles inspired by the episode itself.

Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning opens doors

The new Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning (previously known as Premium Membership) opens doors to new ideas and inspiration for your family history research. Premium Podcast episodes such as this one are published every month–and Premium eLearning has the entire archive. New Premium Videos publish regularly, and now include a full DNA tutorial series (click here to see a list of all the videos). All Premium eLearning materials are packed with genealogy strategies, tips, how-tos and links you can use right away. Click here to learn more about Premium eLearning and how it can help you open doors to your own family stories.

Celebrating Women in US Military History

Our female ancestors in the U.S. military had to serve incognito. Only in the 20th century have women served openly and with greater frequency—and in combat roles. Here, military expert Michael Strauss salutes the women who have bravely served, including one in his own family.

In times of emergency, men primarily bore arms in U.S. history. However, not all women filled the traditional roles relegated to them by society. From the days of the Revolutionary War, any woman who chose to fight would have to disguise herself as a man. This was the case of Deborah Sampson, who served under the alias of Robert Shirtliffe until she was discovered and discharged from the Army.

Other women, such as one named Margaret Corbin, were camp followers and served by cleaning and cooking. During the battle at Fort Washington in New York, her husband John was mortally wounded while manning his artillery piece. Margaret took his place on the gun, continuing the fight against the British. For both women their sacrifice was not forgotten; each was awarded pensions from the Government based on their military service–although Corbin received only half of the pension allowance because she was a woman.

During the Civil War, women again sought to join the ranks of the military. Take, for example, Jennie Irene Hodgers, a native of Ireland who enlisted in Company G of the 95th Illinois Infantry, where she served using the alias of Albert Cashier. Her identity was kept secret during the entire war. It wasn’t until she was much older—in 1911—that a doctor discovered she was actually a woman.

The turn of the twentieth century had women more accepted in the ranks of the Army. The establishment of the Nursing Corps in 1901 saw the first large scale enlistment of women.  Still later in World War II was the forming of the Woman’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC) and the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) who flew to great heights.

The other military branches took nearly as long to accept women in their ranks. The Navy in 1908 established the Nursing Corp with the first enlistments of women. In 1918, Opha Johnson became one of the first women to put on the uniform of the United States Marine. Twin Sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker were the first women to join the Coast Guard during in 1917. Like the Army’s organizations in 1942 the Naval Women’s Reserve (known as the WAVES), was followed shortly by the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (known as the SPARS).

Many of these women were relegated to nursing and clerical positions, with very little opportunity for actual combat experience. It wasn’t until World War II that larger numbers of women were sent into combat. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act that allowed for a permanent presence of women in all of the military branches, a tradition that still holds strong. Today, the descendants of these early pioneers can look back to learn from their past experiences by striving for continued service to the United States for future generations.

Women in U.S. military history: My family

Recently I shared a profile of my relative Russell Strauss, who served in the Navy during World War II. One of his two Sisters also served during the war. His younger sibling Kathryn Strauss served in the United States Army.

Kathryn graduated in 1930 from the University of Pennsylvania Nursing School at the age of twenty years old. She worked in the University Hospital in Philadelphia and later in the Public Health Department in Vineland, New Jersey until the start of World War II.

Kathryn joined the United States Army on September 15, 1943 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. She was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Nursing Corps. Kathryn served both in the United States and overseas. From her enlistment date until September 2, 1944, she was stationed in New Jersey and New York. She served overseas stationed aboard the S.S. Jarrett Huddlston, a hospital ship on which she made 34 trips across the Atlantic Ocean.

Kathryn afterwards was sent back to the United States where she was discharged on November 13, 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. She returned to Pennsylvania, where she continued to work in the nursing field until her death on November 12, 1972 in Jonestown. The above photograph of her in uniform and postcard of her hospital ship were passed down to me through my relatives.

I located her application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1950 on Ancestry.com. It gives details about her military service during World War II (see below). This personal story along with genealogy documents that I was able to locate shared how women in my family served alongside some of the men during war and how their place in history is reserved for honor.

Keep watching this blog for an upcoming post about unique research resources for finding your female ancestors in U.S. military records. Meanwhile, here’s something fun to read:

Genealogy Gems Book Club Recommendation: Story of a WASP

Want to read a fun and fascinating novel about women of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS)? Genealogy Gems Book Club Guru Sunny Morton highly recommends The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, in which a lively, lovable Southern lady searches for her biological family and finds women of the WASPs. The story is by internationally-acclaimed novelist Fannie Flagg, a Genealogy Gems Book Club author who appeared on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #148. Want to browse more fantastic Genealogy Gems Book Club picks? Click here!

Author: Michael Strauss, AG

Author: 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.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

New! North American Genealogy Records Online

New North American genealogy records online this week! Featured are U.S. military, passenger and yearbook records (including WWII film footage); regional collections for New England and Great Lakes; Congressional statutes; and over 63 million Mexican genealogy records now free at FamilySearch.org.

North American genealogy records

New online recently are North American genealogy records from all four “genealogy giants,” plus tons of other websites, including the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Archives. For those with Mexican roots, you’ll also love the enormous new cache of Mexican civil registration records online, all free to search from a central portal listed below.

U.S. military collections

World War II film footage. The U.S. National Archives has uploaded over 16 minutes’ worth of silent film footage identified as outtakes from the 1944 documentary, “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” The film images are from 1942 and 1943. The shot scenes include combat missions and tour scenes.

Veterans History Project adds Guadalcanal coverage. The Library of Congress blog recently announced,The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project (VHP) today launched its new “Experiencing War” website feature, titled “Guadalcanal: 75 Years Later,” recognizing the anniversary of the end of the major World War II campaign known as the Battle of Guadalcanal. The feature highlights 12 digitized collections found in the VHP archive, each of which includes the first-person narrative of a veteran who fought in this epic, six-month offensive in the South Pacific during 1942 and 1943.”

Military service rolls and records: Revolutionary War through Indian Wars. The always-free genealogy giant, FamilySearch.org, has added significantly to its resources about Revolutionary War soldiers:

Genealogy giant and subscription website Ancestry.com has added a new database, “U.S. Army Indian Campaign Service Records Index, 1815-1858. According to the collection description, this database contains alphabetical card indexes to compiled service records of Volunteer soldiers who served 1836-1939 from units in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee or the Volunteer Field and Staff of the Army of the Cherokee Nation. Also included are others who “served in various Indian wars or participated in the quelling or solving of Indian disturbances or problems, 1815-1858.”

More historical statutes online

The Library of Congress has posted new materials that will enable you to more easily research the laws relating to your ancestors’ lives. According to the site, “The individual statutes for congresses 68 through 81 are now available on the Law Library of Congress website. This addition closes the gap for the years for which the Statutes at Large were not available on the Internet. As with the volumes for previous congresses, each of these statutes is tagged with tailored, descriptive metadata to help users search and browse by facets.” Click here to explore these online collections for free.

U.S. passenger lists: Virgin Islands arrivals

FamilySearch.org has published a small but significant new collection of indexed records,  United States, Virgin Islands Index to Passenger Arrivals, 1906-1947. According to the collection description, “This collection corresponds with NARA publications A3404 and A3407, both of which are passenger index lists. Publication roll A3404 serves as an index to the series “Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, July 16, 1907- May 12, 1923” NAID 2953525 and “Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, June 5, 1925 to-June 30, 1948” NAID 2953511. Publication roll A3407 consists of microfilmed index cards, which contain passenger list information for ships arriving at Honolulu 1900-1952 (ARC identifier 4493348).” Note that the title doesn’t reference Honolulu arrivals but the collection description does.

U.S. yearbooks

MyHeritage has published US Yearbooks, 1890-1979, a new collection claiming 36,207,173 digitized pages in 253,429 yearbooks, “one of the largest collections of digitized US yearbooks in existence,” states the collection description. “Yearbooks are excellent genealogical records that include personal portraits and group photographs. These books can give a researcher insight into students, faculty, and staff who attended or worked at a school. The yearbooks in this huge compendium are primarily from high schools, which in the United States normally comprise grades 9 to 12 or 10 to 12.”

New England

The New England Historic Genealogical Society has published new resources for those with New England heritage:

  • “Thanks to our volunteers, we’re announcing three improved databases this week. These databases are now indexed by first name, last name, parents’ names, spouse’s name, location, date, and record type. They also now include images scanned from our manuscript collection. The improved databases are Guilford, CT Deaths, 1883-1890, Lincoln County, ME: Commissioners Marriages Records, 1759-1777, and Westfield, MA: Deaths in the First Church, 1728-1836.”
  • “The Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS is pleased to announce the launch of our new website, JewishHeritageCenter.org. This enhanced website will be another resource for patrons to explore the history of Boston and New England’s Jewish communities, and provide the Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS the opportunity to further tell the stories of families, organizations, and synagogues. The website offers subject guides, links to featured exhibits and events, collection finding aids, and a variety of other resources for those with an interest in Jewish history and genealogy. Make sure to bookmark our website, and check back often for updated content!”

Great Lakes rail history

The Lake States Railway Historical Association is working to build an online archive and expand awareness of its important historical collections. According to this article in the Baraboo News Republic, “The collections at the Lake States Railway Historical Association contain countless stories of early railroads and the people who worked on them, and the organization’s leaders want to share them with the world. The 5,000-square-foot historical archive on Lynn Street in Baraboo is home to thousands of books, negatives, photographs, blueprints, drawings and other historical documents that detail early railroads, with a principal focus on the Western Great Lakes Region from 1880 to 1916. Volunteers are in the process of cataloging the collections in an online database so railroad enthusiasts around the globe can see what resources the organization has to offer.” Click here to explore their online catalog to their collection.

More Mexico civil registration records now online

FamilySearch.org has recently added over 63 million Mexico civil registration records! Among them are records from Aguascalientes, Baja California (and Sur), Campeche, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Colima, Distrito Federal, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Mexico, Michoacan, Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosi, Sonora, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Yucatan and Zacatecas. Search them all from the main search portal for Mexican genealogy.

Please share these North American genealogy records

We scour the internet every week looking for the best new collections you’ll want to see, then group them to help you better find the ones you need. These Friday record roundups are some of our most popular posts. Please help us get the word out about these new North American genealogy records online! Share this post on your favorite social media site or email it to your genie friends and society buddies. Thank you for sharing! You’re a gem!

About the Author: Sunny Morton

About the Author: Sunny Morton

Sunny is a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems; her voice is often heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast and Premium Podcasts. She’s  known for her expertise on the world’s biggest family history websites (she’s the author of Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites); writing personal and family histories (she also wrote Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy); and sharing her favorite reads for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

5 Branches of US Military Records for Genealogy

Finding US military records for genealogy depends on which of the five branches your relative served in:

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Marines
  • or Coast Guard.

Here, military expert Michael Strauss introduces each one and tells us where to look for their records, both online and offline.

Over the last 30+ years doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that nearly all of my family members who served in the military were in the United States Army. But I have been occasionally surprised to find relatives who served in other branches of the military, like my grandfather’s first cousin, Russell G. Strauss, shown below.

His uniform indicated that he was a third class petty officer in the Navy during the war. I looked further at his uniform and noticed a diamond shaped “S” as part of the insignia. This military occupation indicated that he was a specialist that would require further research. I spoke with a couple of my older family members who knew Russell. All of my family interviewed said that he in the military police (M.P.) during the war. With additional research, I discovered that his insignia was that of the Shore Patrol. On Ancestry.com, I found his application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when he served in the Shore Patrol in Norfolk, Virginia as part of his military duty:

Finding US military records for genealogy

If you’d like to learn gems like these about your relatives, you need to know that US military records for genealogy research are organized separately for the five branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard. Some branches have more online research resources than others. In a future article, I’ll talk about identifying military service details based on pictures like I did above. This article introduces the five branches and where to start learning about them.

US Army and its records

The largest of the five military branches dates back to June 14, 1775, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the formation of the Army, each colony had companies and battalions of Associators and local militia. With the war, the need for a professional standing army to fight the British saw the formation of the Continental Army.

With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Army disbanded in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Later in 1796, the two legions formed under the command of General Anthony Wayne would later become the nucleus of the United States Army. The Encyclopedia Britannica published this nice article on the history of the Army from its inception to the present.

A number of excellent genealogical resources are available to search for ancestors who served in the United States Army since the beginning. These databases are found on Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch. One of the largest collections of records covers the United States Regular Army enlistments from 1798 to 1914 (available by subscription at Ancestry.com). Searching the card catalogs of Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch will yield many databases that contain information about soldiers who served and sacrificed their lives with the Army over the last two centuries.

US Navy and its records

For those who had ancestors who trod the quarterdeck of a frigate, the United States Navy has a fine tradition of service. On October 13, 1775, it was officially established by an Act passed by the Continental Congress. At the end of the Revolutionary War, it was disbanded but again was reestablished under the Naval Act of 1794, which created the Navy as a permanent branch of the military.

The earlier period of naval history is called the “Old Navy.” It was the age of wooden sailing ships. Still later came the birth of the ironclads (during the Civil War). The later period, called the “New Navy,” occurred with further innovations in the late nineteenth century, as the United States transformed into a global power.

The United States Navy website has a nice background history of the service. Numerous databases and searches for records of the Navy covering multiple war period detailing pensions, continental sailors, muster rolls, ships logs, and cruise books are located on Ancestry.com, Fold3, and FamilySearch.  Consult each database individually for records of interest.

Another organization related to the Navy is the United States Merchant Marines. Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war. Here’s an excellent website on the history of the Merchant Marines.

US Air Force and its records

Officially the youngest of the military branches, the Air Force was formed as part of the Security Act of 1947. But the Air Force and military aviation history began under the authority of the United States Army starting on August 1, 1907, when it was organized under the name of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Over the next 30 years the service changed names several times:

  • Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (1914-1918);
  • Division of Military Aeronautics (1918);
  • Air Service of the United States Army (1918-1926);
  • United States Army Air Corps (1926-1941);
  • United States Army Air Forces (1941-1947).

In that final year, it was separated as its own organization as it is known today. Click here for a complete history of the Air Force from 1907 to the present.

Two excellent online sources covering the early history of the Air Force from World War I and World War II are located on Fold3:

US Marines and its records

This elite branch of the military began with the organization of the Continental Marines on November 19, 1775. The mission of the Marines initially comprised ship-to-ship fighting, security on-board naval vessels, and assistance in landing force operations. This mission would continue to evolve over the years.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines were disbanded (like the Navy). But along with the Navy, under the Naval Act of 1794 the United States Marines were again re-established and would serve faithfully in every major war period and in peacetime between conflicts. The Marines will forever remain true to their motto of “Semper Fidelis” or “Always Faithful” as they continue to live up to their long-running tradition of honor and service. Here’s an interesting (and accurate) history of the Marine Corps.

Ancestry.com has an excellent online genealogical resource for discovering Marine Corps ancestors: fully searchable Marine Corps muster rolls from 1798 to 1958 for enlistees.

US Coast Guard and its records

Although first envisioned as a force of revenue tax collectors, the Coast Guard’s ability to conduct diverse missions during peacetime and war became the hallmark of this service. Its history dates back to August 4, 1790. Established as the Revenue Cutter Marines under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, the name was changed in 1894 to the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1915, Congress passed and signed the “Act to Create Coast Guard.” In so doing, the United States Live Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came together. Later, in 1939, the United States Light House Service was added to form the modern-day United States Coast Guard.

The complete history of the United States Coast Guard from 1790 is online at its Historians Office. It includes information about each of the separate organizations that came together to form the Coast Guard.

Genealogy giant Ancestry.com has a collection of casualties of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Very few additional online sources are available online for this branch of the service. Researchers must access these documents and records onsite at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

More on US military records for genealogy

As the Military Minutes contributor to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, Michael Strauss is systematically guiding us through the world of US military records for genealogy. Click above to listen–or below to read up on what he’s already taught here at Genealogy Gems:

Intro to US military terminology: regular, volunteer, or militiaman?

Compiled Military Service Records: US Military Records before the 1900s

Official Military Personnel Files for WWI, WWII and beyond

US draft registration records: Civil War to WWII and beyond

Author: Michael Strauss, AG

Author: 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.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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.

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