Genealogy, or learning about one’s ancestors, has been growing in popularity lately with the addition of so many resources to the internet. It has never been easier to search census records, ship passenger lists, or burial records from the comfort of your own home. And with so many people staying home, now is a great time to get started learning more about your ancestors, including those who may have served in the military.
Some common questions asked about military genealogy include: When and where did my ancestor serve? What did they do in the military? Were they in any battles, and were they wounded or taken prisoner? Did they earn any medals or awards? There is a story in the family about their service—is it true? We have these materials from their service—what are they? We have a photograph of him or her in uniform—what can you tell us about it?
The best advice for aspiring military genealogists is to seek help. Military records are different from the more familiar civil records. They can be quite difficult to locate, they contain abbreviations that can be hard to figure out, jargon that might not make any sense, and sometimes terms and phrases can mean one thing in the civilian world and a very different thing in the military world. Just as a genealogist would seek help if researching records in a foreign country, so should they ask for assistance when researching military records.
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM) can help. Our Research Center contains incredible resources for learning about Wisconsin veterans, and it is staffed by professionals who do this type of research every day. We are here to help you learn about the veteran in your family tree, and if we don’t have the answer, we will point you in the direction of someone who does. You can find our online genealogy resources on our website.
The most commonly used resources are our Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I databases. These contain information about men and women who were living in Wisconsin at the time of their service. And they serve as a gateway to additional resources at the museum. Genealogists who find an ancestor in our databases can request more info with the click of a button and find out about the service records held at the museum. We advise genealogists to resist filling in all of the fields for their search and start with just a last name. If too many results pop up, try adding a first name. If you have trouble finding someone in the database, please contact our Research Center for help.
We do not have databases for veterans of conflicts from World War II to the present because Wisconsin state law still holds those records confidential. However, please contact us with questions about those veterans so that we can point you toward sources that might have the records available. We also might have information about them in some of our other collections, which include letters, diaries, photographs, and other papers from individual Wisconsin veterans; records from Wisconsin veteran organizations like the G.A.R. and American Legion; a military history library containing over 20,000 titles from the Civil War to the present, including published memoirs and letters, rare reminiscences, unit histories, and more; and over 2,000 recorded oral history interviews with Wisconsin veterans from World War I to the present. Many times, even if we do not have materials relating directly to your ancestor, we will have something from someone who served in the same unit or who performed the same duties as your ancestor, and that can provide incredible context in learning about your ancestor’s experience.
Genealogists all over the state, country, and even the world have accessed Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM) resources. That is due to WVM’s ability and willingness to assist researchers via email, phone, and postal mail. Our reference archivists can often photocopy, scan, or summarize findings to share them with genealogists who can’t visit Madison. Individual consultation, either in person or distance, with a trained and experienced professional archivist is perhaps the most valuable resource WVM offers to genealogists.
In addition to the research services at WVM, we also have oral historians who document the stories of Wisconsin veterans. If you would like to learn how they record and collect that information so you can create oral histories of your family and friends, here are video lessons for taking oral histories:
PART ONE: Theory, Ethics, and Principles
PART TWO: Pre-interview and Guide Development
PART THREE: Interviewing Techniques
And so, if you’re looking for information about an ancestor with military service, be sure to include the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in your search. You can search our online resources or share your questions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (608.267.1790).