Anything but a boring read, military records are another invaluable source of documentation. The first step is to determine when and where your ancestor served. Often clues to an ancestor’s military service are found in family stories, old photos, death records and obituaries, grave markers and/or cemetery records, local town histories, and other family records or correspondence.
Many military records are available at Ancestry.com. You will find draft registration cards for WW I and WW II, enlistment and service records, soldier and prisoner lists, casualty lists, pension records, etc. In searching Ancestry’s records for this article, I found the Revolutionary War pension application file for my ancestor, John C. McNeill. I had purchased the complete file several years ago through the national archives at NARA.gov. So much more data has been placed online at repositories like Ancestry.com than was available when I began researching in the late 1990s.
Search for records at the website for National Archives. Click on the Veterans’ Service Records section to begin. You will find military service records, pension records of veterans’ claims, draft registration records, and bounty land warrant application files and records available. I found the WWII enlistment records at both Ancestry and NARA websites for two of my paternal grandfather’s brothers. They had served in Europe and the South Pacific. NARA’s website allows you to download free forms in order to purchase the full military records which may not be available elsewhere.
Military records can provide a good deal of genealogical and historical data about an ancestor. The various records may include date of birth, birthplace, age, date of enlistment, occupation, names of immediate family members, and service records listing battles fought, capture, discharge, death, etc.
However, bear in mind that military records may not include all data you seek. My John C. McNeill did not note a date of birth or age in his Rev War pension application affidavit, and stated only that he had “nine children…5 sons and 4 daughters”, without listing any of their names. Talk about frustration! However, Jesse McNeill, my ancestor, verified in his signed affidavit that he was a son of John and that was key evidence. Thankfully, John’s wife, Hannah, noted their marriage date, town, name of the Justice of the Peace who married them, and her sister’s name in her affidavit when applying for her widow’s pension.
With military records, you can take a little data and round it out with further research. My John C. McNeill answered the call of fellow patriots to serve with the New Hampshire Line at Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill) in June 1775. He was a Sergeant under Captain Daniel Wilkins in Colonel Timothy Bedel’s regiment of rangers, in charge of pasturing cattle to feed the men. In 1776, Bedel’s regiment was ordered to join the Northern Continental Army in New York to reinforce the military presence in Canada.
McNeill’s pension file affidavits note capture at The Cedars, a fort west of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, where they were plundered of all possessions. They were taken to an island and left naked, without shelter and scant rations for eight days. At The Cedars, “Bedel left the fort, either [to]… seek reinforcements or convey intelligence. The command devolved on Major Isaac Butterfield… who on the 19th of May  disgracefully surrendered his force of about four hundred men to the British and Indians [who were] about five hundred in number.” (History of Goffstown [N.H.] by George Plumer Hadley, page 124.)
Morris Commager’s “The Spirit of Seventy-Six” (pgs. 212-220) provides further corroboration of this capture with many injured, killed, taken prisoner, or dying of disease. McNeill was among survivors exchanged and returned in a cartel between the British Captain George Foster and American Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. McNeill then served out his military enlistment at Saratoga, NY. McNeill’s cousin and friends sign an affidavit in his pension application file stating they survived the ordeal with him, celebrating their release annually thereafter.
Another excellent source, a great read which confirmed the information I had on Bedel’s New York Regiment, is found in “Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution” by James Nelson, 2006, The McGraw-Hill Companies.
I further assumed that, having served in New York for a time, McNeill later sought fertile land in what historians call the “Breadbasket of the American Revolution” – Schoharie County, New York. After settling in my mother’s home town of Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York in the mid-1790s, one of his neighbors, and likely good friend, was Thomas Machin, whose farmland I have seen on a side road just into Montgomery County and very near Schoharie County.
Machin “supervised the making and laying of The Great Chain across the Hudson River near West Point.” “W. Thomas Machin, Engineer, Washington’s Staff, Founding Father of Masonry in Schoharie County…Member Boston Tea Party; 1744-1816.” (Personal view of two New York State plaques commemorating Machin at Carlisle Rural Cemetery, Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY, just a short distance up the road from where my mother grew up.) However, Machin was not likely to have been part of the Boston Tea Party per my additional research. Living in close proximity to each other, I am sure there must have been a good friendship between the two military men and their families – Machin’s grandson, James Daniel Machin, married John C. McNeill’s granddaughter, Lucy Jane/Jeanette McNeill, in 1852.
There is so much to be gleaned from in-depth research of ancestors, learning about their lives, extended family, and the historical era in which they lived!
COMING NEXT: Last Will and Testament.
Original blog post at: Homespun Ancestors