Digging into military records can yield an incredible amount of information about our ancestors. (My favorite is my 3rd-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension file. It showed that he married his second wife 12 days after she divorced her previous husband. Yeah, that.) While some records will spell out military service, there are times when we need to tease that fact out. Here are clues to look for to discover your ancestor’s military service.
Henry Clay Ruby’s obituary doesn’t come out and say that he was a Civil War veteran. However, it does state that he was a member of the O. P. Morton post, Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was an organization comprised of honorably discharged Union veterans. Knowing about the Grand Army of the Republic gives us the clue we need to start exploring Henry’s Civil War service.
Henry Clay Ruby obituary, Joplin Globe, 27 January 1929, page 6. Image courtesy Newspapers.com.
Taking a few minutes to learn about the organizations listed in any record can give you great clues to follow up on.
Cemeteries: Tombstones, Etc.
Not all information on tombstones is words and numbers. Not to sound like The Da Vinci Code, but there can be meaning in the symbols. Look for things like crossed swords, crossed flags, cannons, etc.
One symbol that often isn’t a clue to military service is the anchor. An anchor on a tombstone is often used as a symbol of hope.
We can get so focused on the names and relationships in the census that we skip looking at the whole record.
The 1950 US Census has a set of supplemental questions that were asked of random people on a page. (These supplemental questions are at the bottom of the page.) One of the questions asked of men was did he ever serve in the US Armed Forces. Note that it was only asked of men; women who served (including WACs and WAVEs during WWII) were not included in this question.
Similarly, the 1940 US census also had a supplemental question about military service. Men were asked if they served; women were asked if they were the wife or widow of a veteran; children were asked if their father was a veteran. (Note again that women’s service was overlooked… and yes, women did serve in the US military during WWI.)
In the 1910 census, Question 30 (yes, 30!) lists whether the person was a veteran of the Union Army (UA), Union Navy (UN), Confederate Army (CA), or Confederate Navy (CN). Below shows what you’re looking for:
When you’re looking at the 1910 census, be careful, as the Census Bureau also used those right-hand columns for statistical notations.
The 1840 census listed Revolutionary War pensioners by name and age. What’s neat about this is that the pensioner might not be the head-of-household, who is typically the only person listed by name in the 1840 census. There’s also the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Widows.
Pay attention to other family members. Does a great-aunt’s obituary or tombstone show that she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution? She didn’t serve in the American Revolution, but she did show her descent from a proven patriot; you could contact the DAR to see who the patriot was.
What’s been your best military discovery?