Discover the stories of your ancestors who preserved American independence in the War of 1812.
America’s “second war of independence”—the War of 1812—was fought by sons and grandsons of the men who battled the British only three decades earlier. The simmering strife between the United States and her former mother country had flared up as England began forcibly impressing American sailors into British naval service. British soldiers in the Northwest Territories (now Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin) provoked Indian attacks against American frontier settlers. Britain also continued to interfere in trade between the United States and France. Learn more about these factors in books such as 1812: The War That Forged a Nation
by Walter R. Borneman (Harper) and the PBS documentary “The War of 1812” (view it on the show’s website)
The war, now marking its bicentennial, stretched from June 18, 1812, to Feb. 18, 1815. Its Battle of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It resulted in a wealth of service, pension, bounty land and other records about the soldiers, sailors and marines who prevailed against Britain. Our guide will help you use these documents to discern the stories of the men who hoisted the sails, loaded the cannons and fired the muskets 200 years ago.
Serving up records
Unsure whether you have a War of 1812 ancestor? First, determine if your male ancestor would’ve been of a likely age to serve. Most War of 1812 enlistees were born between 1785 and 1795, but muster rolls and payrolls do record older soldiers and sailors born in the 1760s and young men barely teenagers. Then search for your ancestor in the indexes mentioned here.
You may be fortunate enough to have a family archive with letters, diaries or military ephemera from your War of 1812 ancestor. If you’re left with only a name and oral history, remember the old game of telephone you played as a child. Imagine what information can be altered over 200 years and five or six generations: The ancestor who was actually a lonely seaman on a vessel that saw no action, might turn into the hero of the USS Constitution in 2012. Of course you don’t want to tarnish this family story your late grandfather passed along, but you do want to learn the truth to share with your own grandchildren.
Use these records to learn the story of your War of 1812 soldier (keep reading for additional details on researching sailors, marines and officers):
- Service records: Start your search for your War of 1812 Army volunteer’s compiled military service record (sometimes called a CMSR) with the Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers who served during the War of 1812. This index, compiled from muster rolls, pay orders and vouchers, and other military documents, contains service members’ names, ranks and unit. Keep in mind that War of 1812 volunteers were generally mustered into service for short stints of less than a year, so many men served more than one enlistment. You may find multiple CMSRs for one person in different units. There’s no cross-referencing system to help you find records for one man’s multiple enlistments (your ancestor may have served in more than one unit).
Subscription site Ancestry.com has a searchable version of this index, and it’s on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm M602 and Family History Library (FHL) microfilm. The FHL has copies of most of the NARA microfilms mentioned in this article, and you can borrow it for a fee by visiting a FamilySearch Center near you.
The National Archives also has separate microfilm covering the states of Mississippi (M678), Louisiana (M229), North Carolina (M250) and South Carolina (M652); and the FHL has copies of these, too.
Once you’ve found your ancestor in the index, you’ll be able to order copies of his compiled military service record (CMSRs) from NARA online or by mail using form NATF 85 and 86. Instructions are here.
The CMSR is a jacket with one or more cards containing basic information about the soldier’s military career. Many cards were compiled from muster rolls recording the soldier’s presence or absence during a certain period of time. You also may learn the soldier’s date of enlistment and discharge, amount of bounty paid him, wounds received during battle or hospitalization for injury or illness. You might learn a place of birth (likely just a country if foreign-born) and find personal papers such as enlistment papers, documents relating to capture as a prisoner of war or statements regarding any personal property on him when he died. Note, however, that a CMSR rarely indicates battles in which a soldier fought.
If your ancestor wasn’t a volunteer, but had already enlisted in the Regular Army when the war began, you’ll need to look for him in the publication Register of Enlistments in the US Army, 1798-1914. You’ll find this on Ancestry.com and on NARA Microfilm M233. These enlistment registers are chronologically arranged, and then alphabetical by the first letter of the person’s last name.
- State records: Some state archives maintain their own collections of records on War of 1812 volunteers from that state. For example, the New York State Archives in Albany has payroll cards for soldiers of the War of 1812 in Collection B0810. It also has claims for awards—veterans’ claims for reimbursement for personal property used in war service—in Collection A0020. Check the state archives where your ancestor lived to find applicable resources. You might find similar records or indexes for your ancestor’s state or territory by searching under that place in the Ancestry.com catalog (accessible under the Search menu). Also check the free FamilySearch.org (on the home page, scroll down to the country listing and click United States, then choose a state).
- Regimental histories: Few compiled regimental histories exist for War of 1812 volunteer and Regular Army units (unlike for the Civil War a half-century later). One way you can “build” a regimental history for your ancestor’s company is to look at muster records and service records for the unit. You may find specific details of where and when the unit was located during the war in the records of your ancestor’s fellow soldiers and officers. Combined with historical information about the war, these details may assist you in determining where your own ancestor was stationed, or the battles and skirmishes he took part in during the War of 1812. You also could contact the US Army Military History Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. Staff might be able to send you copies of pages from unit histories. Submit your research request online.
- Pension records: Because legislation to grant pensions to War of 1812 veterans and their survivors wasn’t passed until 1871, your ancestor may have died before filing for pension benefis. Widows obtained most pensions. In addition, one condition of receiving a War of 1812 pension was that the applicant hadn’t supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Pension Act of 1871 required the veteran to have served a minimum of 60 days. Widows who applied must have married the veteran before 1815. The Pension Act of 1878 broadened the eligibility pool, reducing the minimum service length to 14 days.
Pension files often contain a great deal of correspondence, as the veteran had to provide evidence of his military service. A widow had to prove she’d been married to a veteran. That means your ancestor’s file might include copies of civil or religious marriage records, sworn testimony from someone present at the wedding or even a page torn out of a family Bible.
To see whether your ancestor or his widow left a pension, check the pension index called Index of War of 1812 Pension Applications, on Ancestry.com and NARA microfilm M313 (with copies at the FHL). Or see if your library has Index to War of 1812 Pension Files, 3 vols., by Virgil D. White (National Historical Publishing Co.).
The Federation of Genealogical Societies and subscription website Fold3.com
have undertaken an effort to digitize War of 1812 pension records and make them available for free. A small number of records is already available
. Otherwise, War of 1812 pensions haven’t been digitized or micorfilmed, and you’d need to order your ancestor’s file from NARA. If you can’t visit NARA in Washington, DC, you can order copies according to the same procedure as for service records.
If you can’t locate a pension for your ancestor or his widow, try another index (unfortunately, not online): NARA has a card index to pension applications of remarried widows that covers the years 1816 to 1860. The cards indicate the remarried name of each widow and the the name of her late husband who was the veteran.
- Bounty land records: Related to pension records—and sometimes filed in the same file jacket as pension records—are bounty land warrants, which the federal government granted to some War of 1812 veterans in exchange for their service. The land was primarily in Ohio, Kentucky and several other eastern and central public-land states. Veterans who received warrants are called warrantees, but most sold or gave their warrants to others. The person who redeemed the warrant for land is called a patentee.
To find out whether your ancestor received a bounty land warrant, search the Ancestry.com database War of 1812 Military Bounty-Land Warrants, 1815-1858. These records, also on NARA microfilm M848, shows the stubs retained by the federal government for warrants that were issued.
If your ancestor settled on his bounty land, search for his land patent in the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office (GLO) database. Then you can request copies of the GLO Land Entry Case file from NARA using NATF Form 84, or order them through NARA’s order online system (you’ll need the warrant number from the aforementioned Ancestry.com index or NARA microfilm M848). The case file gives you information about the warrantee, the location of the land, the date the title was transferred to the patentee and more.
Going to sea
Many significant War of 1812 battles took place at sea between US and British ships. Both the US Navy and Marines saw victories against the Royal Navy. Here are your best research bets:
- Navy: Perhaps your ancestor served aboard Old Ironsides or some other vessel? Unlike for soldiers, there’s no index to naval enlisted men for the War of 1812. Your simplest tactic is to see whether your ancestor applied for a pension and bounty land. If so, the records will give you the ship’s name and his dates of service.
Otherwise, you’ll need to manually search ships’ musters and payrolls until you found your ancestor. You’ll find these in NARA Record Group 45, the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1775-1910. The record series includes Muster Rolls and Payrolls of Vessels, 1779-1885, and Muster Rolls and Payrolls of Shore Establishments of the United States Navy, 1800-1842.
If you know the name of your ancestor’s ship, look for it in the online finding aid
. This will tell you whether the NARA records contain muster rolls or payrolls for the ship, and how the records are arranged. If your navy veteran was on land at a shore establishment during the War of 1812, use the finding aid
- Marines: First, search the database of 30,000-plus marines in Ancestry.com’s database US Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 (which comes from NARA microfilm T1118, Muster Rolls of the US Marine Corps, 1798-1892). You’ll learn the name, rank, enlistment date, muster date, and vessel or station where the Marine is located. Then you can use the records of the United States Marine Corps in NARA Record Group 127 (not microfilmed or digitized). This series contains muster rolls from 1795 to 1945, arranged chronologically by vessel or shore station.
In this same record group are Registers of Deserters, 1809-1907, giving the marine’s name and place of desertion from the Marine Corps, and where and when he was captured. For those seeking the parents of young marines, Certificates of Indenture, 1815-1856 includes forms signed by parents or guardians for boys bound into service as apprentices to Fife and Drum majors.
Unfortunately, the US Army didn’t start compiling personnel files for Regular Army officers until 1863, during the Civil War. The first place to search for your War of 1812 officer is Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Government Printing Office). This book is available through Google Books
, on Ancestry.com and on NARA microfilm M1858.
Many Army officers attended the Military Academy at West Point, so it’s worth checking Register of the Officers and Graduates of the US Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y. from March 16, 1802, to January 1, 1850 by George W. Collum (J.F. Trow). Also search the Ancestry.com collection US Military and Naval Academies, Cadet Records and Applications, 1805-1908. This was created from NARA microfilm M688, US Military Academy Cadet Application Papers, 1805-1866.
The Special Collections and Archives Division of the US Military Academy Library at West Point has historical materials including Register of Cadet Admissions (Cadets Admitted Book), 1800-1953; Register of Cadet Casualties, 1802-1953; and Register of Graduates, 1802-1962. Research for those not affiliated with the academy is by appointment only. You’ll find an application form here
For naval officers, consult the book List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900
by Edward W. Callahan (L. R. Hamersly), which is also searchable on Ancestry.com. Learn more about your officer’s service in NARA microfilm M330, Abstracts Of Service Records of Naval Officers (“Records of Officers”), 1798-1893, volumes D and E.
The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent, signed Dec. 24, 1814—weeks before hostilities ended, due to the slow communications of the times. Though the treaty largely restored the status quo, the country did gain a national anthem, military heroes (including future presidents Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison), a sense of national pride and a collection of documents describing the stories of a generation.