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An old adage says that “freedom isn’t free,” and men and women throughout history have sacrificed their time and lives in service of their country. Here are four ways to honor military ancestors.
1. Visit their gravesites.
Going to a cemetery is a kind of pilgrimage in which we walk on hallowed ground. Here, memorialize your ancestors in a physical way by visiting their final burial place and maybe leaving flowers or an American flag.
Remember to disturb the stone as little as possible, and avoiding touching it if you can. Tombstone rubbings, once considered an acceptable way of recording information, are now looked down upon. Instead, take pictures with your camera or smartphone, then add the photos to your research when you return home. Also remember to be respectful of any other visitors.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hosts a Nationwide Gravesite Locator that can help you find veterans’ resting places. You can also make use of online cemetery websites such as Find A Grave (see number 2) and BillionGraves to find where your ancestors are buried. Once you know what cemetery your ancestor is buried in, you can use the cemetery’s website or a plot map to find the stone. The cemetery’s office likely has more valuable information, and you can search for a variety of other records in a cemetery.
2. Create online memorials.
Can’t find your ancestor’s physical gravesite? Look to see if someone has created a digital memorial for him or her. This will give you, your family and other researchers a way to commemorate your ancestor’s service without having to visit a physical location. We’ve put together a list of memorial websites that can serve as a useful starting point.
Subscription site Fold3 allows users to add pages to its virtual Military Honor Wall. The memorial (similar to a profile page on Ancestry.com) contains information compiled from military records, plus additional facts, stories and images uploaded by users. Simply type in your ancestor’s name to start searching. (See the memorial for WWII veteran Frederick Niland, one of the Niland brothers whose story inspired the film Saving Private Ryan, for an example.) You can also build a memorial for your own ancestor on Fold3. Go to the Create a Memorial page, then follow the instructions.
The aforementioned Find A Grave also hosts tens of millions of memorials. Like those on Fold3, Find A Grave memorials can include a person’s vital dates, plus any stories or pictures that users want to add. But unlike Fold3, Find A Grave focuses on…well…finding graves. As a result, the site prioritizes that information, and you can browse memorials by cemetery. You can even leave virtual flowers and collaborate with other users. Searching for memorials is free, but you’ll need an account to create new memorials or edit existing ones.
3. Search for service and pension records.
By now you’ve found your ancestor’s grave and taken some time to reflect on his or her sacrifice. But do you know the details of that service? Service and pension records can provide valuable insight into when, where and how your ancestor contributed to the armed forces. Fold3 is among the most useful resources for these kinds of records, but sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org hold some records as well. If you already know your military ancestor’s name, you can also request records directly from archives. The National Archives in Washington D.C. holds most pre-WWI records, and post-WWI records are held within the Military Personnel Records collection in St. Louis. However, a fire destroyed many records at the latter repository in 1973.
Our Genealogist’s Military Records Field Manual ebook is another great place to start looking for military records. This 60-page digital download will show you how to find, interpret and use a wide variety of documents, including draft registration cards, service records and muster rolls.
4. Study military history.
Records can tell you where and when your ancestor served, but they don’t give the full story. Study the conflicts your ancestor was involved in to understand why they fought, and what role they played.
Seek out books on the conflict your ancestor fought in. Your local library likely has some good military histories (particularly about locally based regiments), or you can investigate a state archives’ holdings. Google Books has an abundance of historical texts (many of them free), and the websites for parks or battlefields often house historical information about battles that took place near them. In addition, various organizations and websites dedicate resources to specific conflicts. For example, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War host a history of the Grand Army of the Republic.