Revolutionary War Military Records

by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

The Revolutionary War was a long one, beginning on 19 April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts between the local militia and British troops and finally ending, officially, with the signing of Treaty of Paris in 1783. If some of your ancestors were in America during this time, it is likely that you are a descendant of one or more Revolutionary War veterans.

This eight-year war generated a tremendous volume of records on the approximately 250,000 military participants, and additional records have survived that refer to several million wives and descendants of these veterans. Your ancestor's role may have been small, but it is worth the effort to search for all records that may mention him or her.

One of mine furnished corn and fodder to the North Carolina Militia, and was paid for it in 1782. His contribution to the Patriots' cause was neither heroic nor romantic, but it is small recorded deeds like this that allow us to find evidence of our ancestor's participation, however small, and to know that he was in a specific locality at a particular time period. Few of our ancestors were military heroes or were with General George Washington at Valley Forge, despite family legends to the contrary.

"Military records" is somewhat of a generic term that is often used by genealogists, but to understand the complexity of Revolutionary War records of genealogical value, one should be cognizant of the three major types of records that exist. These include: Service records, pension records, and bounty-land warrants, and it is important to know the difference. Lumped together they all are "military records."

Service Records

Most of the original service records and the earliest pension records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed in fires in 1800 and 1814. However, substitute records were used to make the compiled service records, which are now part of Record Group 93 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Service records document a person's involvement with the military and can provide you with the unit or organization to which he belonged. This information will make it easier to find and identify your ancestor in the pension records — there often are several men with the same or similar names in military records. However, service records seldom provide genealogical information about the solider or his family, but to neglect these records is a mistake.

If your ancestor served in a military unit (company or regiment), you should be able to find him on muster (attendance) rolls, which will give his name, date and place of enlistment and muster. Some records may show his age, physical description, marital status, occupation, even place of birth or residence.

The federal government has compiled military service records for soldiers serving in volunteer units in wars since 1775. These records, on cards, have abstracts of information taken from unmicrofilmed original records at National Archives, such as muster rolls, pay lists, hospital records, record books, orders and correspondence found in Record group 94, "Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917." A card was made for each soldier and put in an envelope along with some original documents. These files are arranged by state, military unit, then alphabetically by the soldier's name.

In addition to federal records, each state or colony kept service records for its own militia and volunteer regiments. These records are usually available at state archives, state historical societies or state adjutant general's offices. If a state unit was mustered into federal service, then the federal government might have sent copies of records to the office of the state adjutant general. Therefore it is usually necessary to search both federal and state (colony) sources. Check the following:

  • "General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers" (National Archives M860, 58 rolls); also available at the Family History Library (FHL films 882,841-98). This alphabetical index includes soldiers, sailors, members of Army staff departments and civilian employees of the Army and Navy (such as teamsters, carpenters and cooks). For each soldier or civilian, the index gives name, rank, unit and profession or office.
  • "Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War." (National Archives M881, 1,096 rolls); also available at the Family History Library — FHLC computer number 432762).

Pension Records

The federal government and some state governments granted pensions to officers, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans and veterans who served a certain length of time. Pension records usually contain more genealogical information than service records. However, not all of our veteran ancestors applied for or received a pension.

Pension files for 1775 to 1916 are available at the National Archives in Record Group 15, "Records of the Veterans Administration," and only those for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed. Lists of federal and state military pensioners have been published for the years 1792 to 1795, 1813, 1817, 1818, 1820, 1823, 1828, 1831, 1835, and 1840. These are most likely ones to contain information about a Revolutionary War ancestor and most of these lists can be found in the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set," available at federal repository libraries and many university libraries. Some have been reprinted and can be found in genealogical collections at many libraries.

Bounty-land Warrants

The federal government offered land to those who would serve in the military during the Revolutionary War. Additionally, some states offered the same. Bounty land could be claimed by veterans or their heirs. The federal government reserved tracts of land in the public domain for this purpose, and some states set aside tracts of bounty land for their Revolutionary War veterans. Accordingly, there may be bounty land files for soldiers in the Continental Line at both the federal and state levels. For details, state by state, regarding the bounty lands offered by the states and to check for mention of an ancestor in these records, see Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments, by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996).

A veteran requested bounty land by filing an application, usually at the local courthouse. The application papers and supporting documents were placed in bounty land files, kept by the federal or state agency. These files contain information similar to pension files — such as veteran's age, place of residence at time of application. If the application was approved, the individual was given either a WARRANT to receive the land or SCRIP which could be exchanged for a warrant. Later laws allowed for the sale or exchange of warrants. However, only a few soldiers actually received title to bounty land or settled on it, as most veterans sold or exchanged their warrants.

Federal bounty land applications and warrants for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed. They are available at the National Archives, its regional branches, and the Family History Library. "Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900" (National Archives M804).

Write or Email

Once you have identified an ancestor who was about 16 years of age or older in 1783, you can write to General Reference Branch (NNRG), National Archives and Records Administration, 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20408 and request several (free) copies of Form NATF-80. You also can request via email that copies of NATF-80 be mailed to you:

Fill out the forms as completely as possible for the search. Service (military), Pension, and Bounty-land Warrants Application are three separate searches. Each will cost about $10 — if files are found. Military (service) records will provide you with information about the unit(s) in which an individual served, battles in which he/she fought, and other details. However, it is the pension records that are the most valuable — genealogically. Not all veterans received a pension, and not all of their records have survived, but the National Archives records should be searched. Bounty-land Warrants should also be searched.

Since many persons who served in the Revolutionary War were not included in federal records, especially those who served in state militia, you should write to the state archives of the state in which your ancestor lived at this time, and ask about available records pertaining to him. State archives may have bounty-land records because many veterans received bounty land from the states rather than from the federal government.

Local public and academic libraries will have several references on the Revolutionary War — not only histories and military engagements, but genealogical material, such as the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) Patriot Indexes, or the Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications, (published by the National Genealogical Society in 1980), Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files (three volumes), by Virgil D. White [Waynesboro, Tenn.: National Historical Publishing Co., 1990-92], and be sure to check Rider's American Genealogical-Biographical Index for mention of your ancestor.

While the Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) indexes are valuable, they are not complete. Your ancestor may have served and not be mentioned in these references. However, if you find your ancestor is mentioned as a patriot (as they are called), it means that someone has joined the DAR upon the service of this person. You may obtain a photocopy of an application paper of related members by writing to: Office of the Organizing Secretary General, NSDAR, 1776 D Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20006. There is a small fee per record and the order must include: Date of request, your name and address, name of ancestor and page number in the DAR Patriot Index. The Centennial Edition of the Patriot Index (1994) is the most recently published and is in three volumes.

More Tips

Not all of our ancestors joined the American cause during the Revolutionary War, and if you are unable to find your ancestors consider these possibilities:

  • They may have belonged to a pacifist church, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers)
  • They may have been ministers,
  • They may have been German mercenaries
  • They may have been Tories or Loyalists.

It is estimated that one-third of the Colonial population could be classified as Loyalist. A true Loyalist was one who actively participated in the war to aid the cause of Crown, usually in British uniform. Tories were sympathetic to Great Britain, and they suffered, especially if they refused to take an oath of allegiance. However, their property was not usually confiscated, and they were not generally charged with treason, as were the Loyalists.

You may discover an ancestor who enlisted in the British regular army or navy or in a Loyalist militia. About 15,000 Loyalist militiamen organized themselves and chose their own officers during the British occupation of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York and Maine. In many places Loyalists were harassed, expelled and/or their property confiscated. Approximately 100,000 Loyalists left America; but some of them eventually returned, and some switched sides during the war.

In addition to Canada and Florida, many Loyalists and Tories went to the West Indies, especially Jamaica, and some returned to Britain. About four-fifths of Upper Canada's (now Ontario) settlers came from the American colonies. There are many printed sources pertaining to Loyalists. Consult Val Greenwood's book The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, and the index to American & British Genealogy & Heraldry: A Selected List of Books, (Third Edition) compiled by P. William Filby (both available in many public libraries).

Perhaps your ancestors were among the 30,000 German mercenaries who fought with the British and participated in every major battle campaign. More than 5,000 of them deserted to remain in this country, while others received permission after the war to stay here. Although this group is loosely referred to as "Hessians," they actually came from several different areas of Germany. See Genealogical & Local History Books in Print: General Reference & World Resources Volume, (5th edition) compiled by Marian Hoffman — under Section I: General Reference under "Revolutionary War" for numerous publications available pertaining to Hessians and German troops.

If your ancestor was a man of the cloth, there are two books of especial interest: Soldiers of God: The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War, by E. F. Williams and J. T. Headley's The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution.

An excellent source for those tracing African-American lines is Black Courage, 1775-1783: Documentation of Black Participation in the American Revolution, by Robert Ewell Greene. It was published by National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1984.

If your ancestor fought with the American forces and you know his military unit, you may be able to uncover more historical information for your family history by contacting: Reference Branch, The U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. Its staff will not do genealogical research, but will locate historical material about his military unit, and permit your local library to borrow books for you on interlibrary loan.

About the Author
Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Additionally, she writes articles on the subject of genealogy for Colonial Homes magazine. She is the co-editor of Missing Links and RootsWeb Review, two weekly e-zine genealogy newsletters. A certified genealogist, she has written three books, Prima's Official Companion to Family Tree Maker, Family Diseases: Are You at Risk? and Cherokee Connections. In her spare time she searches for her own elusive ancestors.

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