Although military service is part of most of our family trees, military records are often overlooked in learning about our families. Perhaps part of the hesitation is that many people aren’t sure what military records have to offer. Much more than telling if your ancestor was involved in a certain war or conflict, military records can unlock family stories. Here are just a few examples of unexpected discoveries—and some tips on where and how to look to make similar discoveries of your own:
Finding a Big Story from a Small Military Service
Before looking in military records, Elissa Powell knew only a little about her ancestor Victor Weltzien, who had been orphaned in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1866 at the age of 13. Although he was too young for the Civil War, Elissa found Victor in the Registers of Enlistments in the US Army, 1798–1914. This record provided some basic information about Victor. He had enlisted March 10, 1871 in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 7th Calvary Company under General George Custer. The record said he was born in Sweden (a mistake—he was actually born in Denmark) and was 21 1/6 years old (a lie he told in order to enlist—he was actually 17). The record also provided a description: blue eyes, light hair, a light complexion and 5′ 9 1/2" tall. Perhaps most interestingly, it stated that Victor deserted just five weeks into his five-year commitment. This piece of information pointed Elissa toward the court martial records at the National Archive Record Administration where she learned more. Captured and tried, Victor pleaded that he did not know what he was getting into, having no parents to advise him. That defense did not hold weight with the court though. He appealed three times but was denied each time. In the process, the records gave new insights into his personality.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Victor had fulfilled his commitment in the 7th Calvary Company, but it’s likely that he would have participated in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand, during which five of the cavalry companies were annihilated and the other companies suffered heavy losses. Instead, Victor spent a year in prison for his desertion before returning to Ohio where he eventually married and had four children.
This record for Victor “Wilson” (actually Weltzien) is from FamilySearch’s Registers of Enlistments in the US Army, 1798–1914. Search for your own ancestor in these records here.
Tracing an Escape across the Ocean
From the beginning of her research, Luana Darby knew her great-grandfather Joseph Wentz had an unusual story. He married Emma, Luana’s great-grandmother, and the couple had three children in the late 1870s. Online newspaper articles from the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed a story worthy of daytime television. One article described how Emma called the police, claiming her husband was having an affair with the woman living upstairs. The police arrested the woman but Joseph followed them proclaiming, “Throw me in the dungeon in her stead.” Another article described how Joseph had threatened his wife with a knife. After half a dozen dramatic articles, Joseph Wentz’s name is gone from the newspapers—and from the city directories and all other records in the area. Luana was stumped. Where did Joseph go?
Luana continued searching for Joseph in various records without luck. Then one day, she typed his name into FamilySearch—and up came a record with his name in it: the 1900 census. But this wasn’t just the regular census. This was the military and naval population census information—something that had not been out previously. The record showed why she couldn’t find Joseph: he was serving in the Philippines in the military after having enlisted in Los Angeles.
Because the record also provided Joseph’s regiment, Luana was able to continue her research at the National Archives. There she found a pension record from Joseph’s service in the Philippine Insurrection and the Spanish-American War. His new wife also applied for a widow’s pension.
Meanwhile, back at home, Emma was also stumped in her search for Joseph. In 1900, she went to a judge and told him she was dying and wanted to get her affairs in order. Her dying wish was to be granted a divorce. The judge agreed. Two days later, Emma remarried. She lived 25 years longer with her new husband.
This 1900 census record for the military and naval population provides Joseph’s US residence, birth date and place, and other information. You can look for your ancestor in the 1900 census here.
Uncovering the Rest of the Story
Peggy Lauritzen thought she knew the basics of Asbury Moore’s story. Asbury, her great-great-grandfather, was married to Catherine, and they had seven children. Peggy also knew Asbury served in the Civil War. She decided to investigate a little more to see if she could learn anything new.
Peggy ordered Asbury’s pension record and found it contained 212 pages! The record was packed full of details she didn’t know—and people to add to the family tree. It turned out Asbury’s family was much bigger than she realized. First, Catherine was a widow when she and Asbury got married. Some of the children Peggy had assumed were Catherine and Asbury’s were actually from Catherine’s first marriage. Catherine died early, and Asbury married a second time, having seven more children. Marriage certificates, death certificates, and questionnaires included in the pension gave this information.
The pension also provided personal glimpses of Asbury and his family not found anywhere else. Asbury applied for an invalid pension. To prove he was an invalid, he provided character references and other documentation. He told the story of his injury: while on a march to Nashville, he was loading wood onto a wagon. He slipped on frozen ground. The wood landed in his lap, giving him an inguinal hernia in his groin. After much back and forth, the government denied his claim.
From this military record, Peggy was able to greatly expand her knowledge of this ancestor—and many other ancestors also.
Pension records can include a variety of information such as this list of Asbury’s children found in his Civil War pension records. FamilySearch has an index available for these records that you can search here.
So if you’re ready to add some details and interesting stories to your family tree, give military records a try. You never know what you might learn!