Early Navy Personnel Records at the National Archives, 1776-1860
Spring 1995, Vol. 27, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes
By Lee D. Bacon
United States Navy personnel records can be a useful source of information for genealogical research. Although modern (1861 and later) navy records have more information useful for genealogists than the records described here, the pre-1861 personnel records can provide information that is unobtainable in other early federal records. The personnel records include military service records and pension records. The former document volunteer military service, and the latter document compensation due a veteran or widow for disability or loss.
Military Service Records
These documents give information such as dates of service and vessel of duty. The National Archives, however, has compiled military service records only for the Revolutionary War. These compiled service records were abstracted from extant records in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary Records (Record Group [RG] 93). This record group resulted from the War Department's attempt to find substitutes for records that had been destroyed by fire in 1800 and 1814. The War Department, however, was not able to reconstruct every record.
Begin with National Archives Microfilm Publication M879, Index to Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel Who Served in the Revolutionary War, which is an easy to use alphabetical index. The service records themselves are on microfilm publication M880, Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel and Members of the Quartermaster General and the Commissary General of Military Stores Who Served During the Revolutionary War. Researchers should also check M860, General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers. This microfilm publication also contains navy servicemen's names that may not be on M879. It is therefore useful as a cross-reference.
After the Revolutionary War, there are no naval service records that correspond to army compiled military service records. For the navy, rendezvous reports, keys to enlistments, and muster rolls document a veteran's service. It is also possible to find information related to a veteran's service in the various pension indexes (described later in the article) that makes it easier to find service-record-related information.
Records for the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 are difficult to use because there is no consolidated index to records relating to enlisted personnel or officers. Service records do not exist for either the Barbary Wars or War of 1812. If the researcher does not already know the veteran's rank (officer or enlisted), consult Lewis R. Hamersly's General Register or Edward W. Callahan's List of Officers.1 Either of these sources will reveal the veteran's rank or rating. The absence of a veteran's name in the latter index will confirm that the veteran was not an officer.
If the veteran is an officer, there are several different sources that provide service information. First, Callahan or Hamersly usually give information concerning the officer's early service, such as the date he became a midshipman and the succession of commands he held. Second, a researcher should consult M330, Abstracts of Service Records of Naval Officers ("Records of Officers"), 1798 - 1893. This microfilm publication gives a basic overview of an officer's service life along with such key information as ship assignments and important events as death in the line of duty or a court-martial. These sources will also suggest additional records to search. For example, a researcher who finds a reference to a court-martial in a given file should check microfilm publication M273, Records of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799 - 1867.
If the veteran is enlisted personnel, the easiest way to find information on War of 1812 service is to first look for a pension record even if you are not sure that the veteran received a pension. Fortunately, researchers can use the indexes mentioned above to trace particulars of a veteran's service. If a researcher succeeds in locating a reference to the veteran in question, the next step is to obtain copies of either the muster rolls or payrolls for the ships aboard which the veteran served. A muster roll is a record of enlisted personnel present for a roll call. If there are no muster rolls available for the appropriate ship or period, then the last alternative is to check carded medical records in RG 52, Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. These records sometimes give information on a veteran's later years in the care of one of various navy hospitals.
The National Archives' navy records for the period after the War of 1812 are more extensive than for any period before the Civil War. As with the War of 1812 records, it is important to determine whether the veteran is an officer or enlisted man. Check Hamersly's General Register or Callahan's List of Officers to determine the veteran's rank. If the veteran is enlisted personnel for the period from 1815 to 1846, the method of obtaining military service information is the same as for the War of 1812. First check the pension record indexes, Old War Index to Pension Files, 1815 - 1926 (T316) and Index to Mexican War Pension Files, 1887 - 1926 (T317) to determine the ship(s) and the dates of service. Next, determine if there are muster rolls or payrolls available for the ship(s) in question. If there is not a reference to the veteran's ship, then try the carded medical records among the Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (RG 52) to find a reference to the veteran. For the period from 1846 to 1860, however, the National Archives has two additional resources to find evidence of navy service. The first resource is microfilm publication T1098, Index to Rendezvous Reports, Before and After the Civil War, 1846 - 1861, 1865 - 1884. This alphabetical index allows a researcher to determine the ship on which the veteran served and the dates of the veteran's service. With this information you can then either check the muster rolls and payrolls (if they are available for the ship) or obtain the rendezvous reports themselves, which give proof of the date that the veteran enlisted.
If the veteran was an officer, it is easy to get some basic information on him from M330, Abstracts of Service Records of Naval Officers ("Records of Officers"), 1798 - 1893, or M1328, Abstracts Of Service Records of Naval Officers ("Records of Officers"), 1829 - 1924. Both of these microfilm publications are arranged by date, thereunder by rank, and finally alphabetically by the subject's last name. If the officer in question held more than one rank during the period that the index covers, you must check the listings under each different rank for an entry about the officer. Both M330 and M1328 give important information such as ship assignment and events of note, such as court-martial or death in the line of duty.
Pension records are more likely than military service records to contain genealogical information because a dependent had to prove his or her relationship to the veteran. The proof the federal government required included signed affidavits, marriage licenses, and in the case of an invalid pension, personal testimonies of service. From these records you can learn such genealogical information as the sailor's name and rank, name of ship and period of service, and the sailor's date of birth or age and place of residence. Other information may be in a sailor's file as well. Because pension indexes are arranged without regard to rank, a researcher can use the same indexes to search for either an enlisted man or an officer.
Pensions for Revolutionary War service are also easy to use. Researchers should consult the Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives.2 This alphabetical index provides reference numbers to the original pension or bounty land file number as well as alternate spellings for the veteran's name. The pensions themselves are alphabetically arranged in microfilm publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files.
There are three possible indexes to check for pension and bounty land information for the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812: Index to War of 1812 Pension Application Files (M313)and Old War Index to Pension Files, 1815 - 1926 (T316), which include information on the name of a sailor's' ship or the dates of a sailor's service; and War of 1812 Bounty Land Warrants, 1815 - 1858 (M848). Bounty land information is valuable because it gives researchers a possible clue to the veteran's postwar residence, if the veteran did not sell the land to speculators. Even if the veteran did sell his land, there is still genealogical information in the file. It is important to note that a veteran did not necessarily receive a pension or bounty land warrant directly after the cessation of his service. Therefore, a veteran who served during the Barbary Wars might be listed in T316 as having a pension.
Pension research for the period after the War of 1812 and before the Civil War (1815 - 1860) can be difficult. T316, Old War Index to Pension Files, 1815 - 1926, and T317, Index to Mexican War Pension Files, 1887 - 1926, are alphabetical indexes that may contain pension information for a navy serviceman during this period. While the two indexes overlap for the Mexican War period, only T316 covers the period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. It also covers the period from the end of the Mexican War to the beginning of the Civil War. As with pensions for other periods, the pensions for navy servicemen from 1841 to 1860 contain the most genealogical information of all the naval records available at the National Archives.
Here is an example of how one might search for records relating to the naval service of Reuben James, a veteran with thirty-three years of service in the U.S. Navy. A researcher gave National Archives staff the names of the vessels on which Reuben James served, among which were the Constitution and the Constellation. The first step was to try to find a muster roll entry for Reuben James on any of the listed ships. Unfortunately, there were no entries for Reuben James on any of the vessels mentioned. Reuben James was also not listed on any of the payrolls.
The next step was to search for records of pensions. The first index to search was M313, Index to War of 1812 Pension Application Files. On roll 50 there was an entry for Reuben or Rubin James and the notation for Navy Invalid File #804. Since there was an entry in M313, it was therefore unnecessary to use the other index, T316. Further, there was no mention of a bounty land warrant, so there was also no need to check M848.
The pension application itself yielded some interesting information. First, we discovered that Reuben James lost a leg in the service. Second, there are several documents that mention that Reuben James saved the life of Stephen Decatur. Last, Reuben James spent his last years in a navy hospital. He also petitioned to have his pension increased because "he was unfit for labour," and he could not live on the meager monies that he was receiving. Unfortunately, he died shortly after the federal government increased his nominal pension allowance. This search pattern is typical of a search for navy enlisted personnel who served before the Civil War.
Our example of a search for information on an officer concerns one George Adams, who was supposed to have served sometime between 1820 and 1840. Since it was probably that there were a few officers by that name who served during that period, it was necessary to check Hamersly's General Register. Fortunately, there were only three George Adams, and only one of them served during the correct time frame, in this case 1818 - 1855. The Hamersly General Register revealed that our George Adams became a midshipman in January of 1818, then he became a lieutenant on March 3, 1827. His next promotion was on April 6, 1849, when he became a commander. On September 13, 1855, he was retired to the Reserve List. Shortly thereafter, on April 19, 1856, he died.
The next step was to look at microfilm publication M330. M330 would have general information on George Adams's career and what ships he served aboard. In Adams's case, we found two references. Roll 5, entry 583, of M330 revealed that he served on board the ships Concord and Fairfield on the Mediterranean station for much of the 1830s. Adams later returned to Norfolk naval yard in 1840. On roll 6, entry 318, it became clear why George Adams returned to Norfolk. Lieutenant Adams was on board the ship Brandywine at the Norfolk naval base for trial. He was found guilty of the charges levied against him and suspended for two years. Since M330 indicated that George Adams continued in the service despite his suspension, it was reasonable to look for a pension record.
Fortunately George Adams's indiscretions did not keep his widow, Adelaide Adams, from drawing a pension based on her husband's service. On roll 1 of T316, we found a reference to a pension application dated June 4, 1858. Apparently, George Adams was Adelaide's only means of support, and his death left her "impoverished." Her pension application provided proof of her husband's service in the form of letters from George Adams's commanding officers, and her marriage certificate and accompanying letters proved that she was married to George Adams and that she had not remarried. Her pension was granted.
The research strategies illustrated here for Reuben James's and George Adams's navy records are typical for searching for an enlisted man or officer in the National Archives' pre - Civil War navy records. First, determine the veteran's rank and dates of service. Once you know the rank and dates of service, you can then look through the various indexes and appropriate microfilm publications to determine the ship(s) on which the veteran served. Next, determine if there were any events in the veteran's service that would suggest another avenue of search such as court-martial records. Last, look for a pension record even if you are not sure that the veteran received a pension. A successful pension search usually gives a wealth of genealogical information on a veteran that is not available in other types of records.
Researchers who are unable to visit the National Archives to research navy records in person may request copies of records through the mail. This request is made on a National Archives Trust Fund (NATF) Form 80 [see NATF note]. To obtain this form, write to the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC 20408. Please allow four to six weeks for the request to be processed.
Using all of the available navy resources not only improves the chances of finding information relating to a veteran of the pre - Civil War period but also increases the likelihood of finding information about the veteran that will in turn lead to other non-navy sources for genealogical research.
NATF Note: NATF Form 80 was discontinued in November 2000. Use NATF 85 for military pension and bounty land warrant applications, and NATF 86 for military service records for Army veterans discharged before 1912.
Lee D. Bacon was on the staff of the User Services Division of the National Archives. He received his B.A. in European history at the University of Maryland.
The author would like to thank all of the archivists and staff of the following National Archives units: NNUA, NNUC, NNRM, and NNSP. He wishes to give special thanks to Becky Livingston, Susan Romeo, Laura Sekela, and Constance Potter.
1. Lewis R. Hamersly, General Register of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, 1792 - 1892 (1900), and Edward W. Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900 (1901, reprinted 1969).
2. National Genealogical Society, Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives (1976).