How To Order Military & Pension Records
for Union Civil War Veterans from the National Archives

By Cyndi Ingle Howells

Table of Contents

My First Success Story

Many times the beginning of any part of a genealogist's research will start with a family story. My search for a Union Civil War veteran began with my third great-grandfather, Xerxes Knox. I had a copy of a letter, written by his youngest son in 1963, to my grandmother. In it he stated simply that his father was a Civil War veteran, along with the date of birth and date of death for his father. Not much to go on, but then I hadn't yet found out about the wonderful treasure-trove of information that was waiting for me in a musty-old file in Washington, DC. On a visit to the National Archives branch in Seattle, I had spent the entire day searching for various ancestors and had no luck locating anyone in any of the places they were supposed to be. I had a half-hour to kill before closing and thought I would explore the back room. There was a tall filing cabinet filled with rolls of microfilm called the General Index to Pension Files, 1866 to 1934. The boxes were labeled as to which surnames of the alphabet were contained on each roll. I pulled out the box which would contain Knox and went back to the microfilm reader to see what was contained on the film. Of course, I had a lot of luck in the fact that I was working with a bit of an uncommon name like Xerxes Knox. In a matter of a few minutes I found the index card on the roll that listed his name, the unit and state that he served with during the war, his wife's name, his application number and his pension number! I couldn't believe that in the last half-hour of my day I had more luck finding information than I had in the previous seven-and-a-half hours of diligent, serious research. (Since then on all the other trips I have made to the archives, I have found that the last half-hour is, in fact, always a magical time of day. The most interesting facts and bits of information always find a way of popping up at the last minute, which in turn forces me to go back to the archives as soon as I can.) I obtained the order form I needed from the volunteer and sent it to the National Archives in Washington, DC right away. Eight weeks and US$10 later I had the first set of copies of Xerxes' pension papers. I have learned more about this man from these papers than I ever would have learned had I known him personally. In fact, he may have been a bit disconcerted if he were aware of what sorts of information his third-great granddaughter knew regarding his health and his anatomy! Regardless of this, the information on Xerxes was priceless and by the end of the whole research process into his Civil War service, I felt that I was very close to him. That summer I repeated the whole wonderful story to my great-aunt who hadn't known about Xerxes. When she proudly brought out a picture to share with me I cried and screamed to my husband, "Mark, it's him! It's him!". The picture was a four-generation photo of Xerxes, his daughter Nellie, her daughter Clara and her daughter, my grandmother, LaVern. Having a picture of my grandmother, who I had known and loved dearly, in the same photo with Xerxes, was quite unbelievable to me. At this moment that picture hangs proudly over my computer and I still am a bit amazed when I look at it. I hope that in following this line of research, you have as much success in your initial ventures as I did with mine.

A. The General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. T288

  1. The first place to start is on the General Index to Pensions at the National Archives. This index is on microfilm and the rolls are available at the National Archives regional branches and also from the Family History Library (In the FHL catalog, do a Place Search for "United States" then page through the topics until you reach "United States - Military records - Civil War, 1861-1865 - Pensions - Indexes." Click on the link for the General index to pension files, 1861-1934 and then "View Film Notes." Once you find the correct roll of microfilm for the surname in your research, you can order a copy of the microfilm to view at your local LDS Family History Center). If your ancestor fought for the Union and lived through the war, more than likely he would have applied for a pension. If he died during the war, many times his widow or even his children would have applied for his pension. I have had luck under both those circumstances. If your ancestor fought for the South, the individual southern states provided pensions. I haven't done any research on these, so I can't advise on Confederate pensions or service records. See links to related web sites at the bottom of this page for help with these types of records.

  2. The Index is arranged alphabetically and is contained on dozens of rolls of microfilm. You will need to order the film which would contain your ancestor's surname. The National Archives has a list of the microfilm roll numbers online at for the General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. T288. Determine which roll of microlm contains your ancestor's surname, then rent a copy of this film via your local FHC or through the National Archives as mentioned in the paragraph above. The films contain pictures of index cards that list the name of the soldier and the unit, regiment, and state which he served with. Also listed are the application number, the certificate number and if a widow or child also applied, their names will appear on the card as well. Make a copy of all the information contained on this index card.

  3. Using the information from the index card you can now order copies of the veteran's military records as well as their pension records directly from the National Archives in Washington, DC. There is more information contained on the pension papers that is useful for genealogy than the information that you will find contained in the military records. The military records will generally contain copies of the muster roll cards for the military unit, enlistment papers, a physical description of the soldier and in some cases they also contained discharge papers. It is not necessary to order copies of the military records in order to obtain genealogical information, because the pension papers will have most of what you need. However, I ordered the military papers to satisfy my own curiosity and really enjoy having them.

B. NATF Form 85, National Archives Order for Copies of Federal Pension or Bounty Land Warrant Applications

  1. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor on the pension index and have recorded the appropriate information, you can send to the National Archives for copies of the pension papers. You will need one copy of NATF Form 85* for each soldier. Many libraries and various branches of the National Archives have these forms on hand. You can now also order these forms by e-mail. Send a message to [email protected], requesting the forms and be sure to give them your postal mailing address. If you prefer, you can order copies of the forms by postal mail:
    National Archives and Records Administration
    Attn: NWDT1, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
    Washington, DC 20408-0001

    *Additionally, you can order copies of the military records for the soldier by using form NATF Form 86. Copies of this form can be ordered by the same methods described above.

  2. At the top of the form, check the box for the Full Pension Applicatiion File. Currently, the charge for copies of the full file are US$37.00. There are also options to order a smaller portion of that file for $14.75, but I highly recommend that you spend the extra money and get a complete copy of the pension file. Several times now I have found little jewels of information hiding in the last few pages of a pension file. So, I have been very satisfied by ordering the complete file. If you check the credit card box and supply them with your card number, they will charge your card and send you the copies. Otherwise, they locate the file, send you back a request for payment and then send the file after receiving your payment. That adds several weeks to the waiting period. It generally takes about 8 to 10 weeks to get the copies back from the National Archives. You must complete blocks 2 through 5 in order to have the file searched. Be sure to fill out the rest of the form as completely as possible.

  3. You can also send a copy of NATF Form 86 to request copies of the military file. They include the muster roll cards of when the soldier was present with the regiment or absent in the hospital, etc. They also have a physical description of the soldier, although a lot of times the pension file has that too. Some of the military files that I have received also had the documents that the soldier signed when they volunteered for service.

  4. Keep the pink copies of the form for your files. I generally write the date I am mailing the forms on the top of my copy to keep track of when I mailed them. Send the completed pension forms to:

    Old Military and Civil Records (NWCTB-Pension)
    Textual Archives Services Division
    National Archives and Records Administration
    700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
    Washington, DC 20408-0001

C. The Waiting Can Be Bearable - If You Use Your Time Wisely!

  1. After you have filled out the forms and are patiently waiting for the packages to come to you in the mail, you should explore other resources at hand. Now that you know what state your ancestor served from, you can check to see if there are any books at your local library regarding the soldiers who served from that state. Quite often there were regimental histories or State Adjutant General's Reports written which may detail the areas that your soldier fought in, what battles they participated in, etc.

  2. Another resource is known as the "OR" or "Official Record". The full title is The Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. This reference contains over one-hundred and twenty volumes and can usually be found in many of the larger libraries. Check to see if the library you use has a set. These volumes are also available on CD-ROM. These books mostly contain copies of correspondence between high ranking officials and officers that participated in the Civil War. However, if you use the index and look up the unit that your ancestor served in, you may find references to battles and engagements that give details about that unit's participation. In the example of my third great-grandfather, Xerxes Knox, there were many references regarding his unit's involvement in Arkansas. The details we learned using the "OR" explained why Xerxes was in Arkansas at the time of his capture by the Confederate Army.

  3. Another resource is the state which your ancestor served from. Check to see if there any records kept by the state regarding Civil War veterans. Write to the local historical or genealogical societies to see if they can supply you with names of people or organizations to contact.

  4. The following are web pages which list e-mail addresses for people who have done research or who are involved in historical study regarding specific military units which participated in the Civil War. Check these lists to see if there is a person involved in the study of the unit you are interested in:

D. The Fruits of Your Research

I have 7 Civil War vets in my family and I have ordered the pension and military papers for all of them. Here is some of the information I have gotten from these papers: state marriage records, lists of children and their births, lists of siblings, birth/death dates and places for the soldier, his wife and sometimes their parents. In the case of a pension, most soldiers were claiming some sort of disability. Most seem to have claimed severe rheumatism from the cold and damp weather conditions. Because of this, there are pages and pages of doctors examinations. Also affidavits signed by neighbors and fellow soldiers attesting to the disability. Many times the neighbors in my papers turned out to be brothers, in-laws, cousins, etc. I even had a copy of a letter written by a granddaughter. In it, she was asking about the records for that soldier and also wanted to know about 4 other soldiers in the family. They turned out to be people I hadn't known had served in the military - one during the Mexican-American war and one during the War of 1812. It was a wonderful find! One of my vets died right after enlistment and left 8 children by his first wife and 7 more by his second wife. The second wife and children applied for the pension. This packet was by far the most informational, because they had to prove that they were his wife and children, etc. The papers were full of birthdates, places, affidavits, etc. So for the genealogical researcher, the amount of information in a pension file of this type is much more plentiful.

I might also suggest a book that has been very helpful to me. It is a paperback titled: Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor by Bertram Hawthorne Groene, ISBN 0-345-36192-X, about US$8.00.

E. Visiting NARA to Copy the Files Yourself

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