Researching a Spanish American War Veteran

By Patrick McSherry

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Basic Information Needed ||| Pension Records ||| Locating a Gravesite ||| Volunteer Unit Sources ||| Navy Rosters ||| Military Field Reports ||| 1930 Census

The most common requests that we receive at the Spanish American War Centennial Website are requests to aid in finding information about readersí relatives who served in the war. This is not as easy a task as it may seem, and, unfortunately, we cannot help everyone with their requests. The Spanish American War American military consisted of close to 325,000 men and we have no comprehensive list.

The information below should help readers in their search to locate basic information about their relatives. In most cases, if we are emailed with a question about how to find info. on those who served in the war, we will simply have to refer you to this page.

You can also visit our on-line rosters, links to other rosters, State Archives, and other useful links, and an explanation of military abbreviations.

The Basic Information Needed to Find out about a Spanish American War Relative's Service:

The first step in researching your relative is to obtain as much information as you can. Can you find what seems to be a listing of his military unit? Even if the combination of numbers and letters doesnít make sense to you, it will to someone else, and they will need this information to help you. Can you determine which branch of service the person served with (navy, marines, or army)?  Was the person in the regular army (a member of the Federal standing army), a state volunteer (a member of state military unit which joined for the extent of the crisis), or a U.S. volunteer (a member of national volunteer regiment)? Lastly, where did the person serve (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines, or  in the U.S.)? Look for clues in letters, documents, the back of old photos, and through discussions with older family members. Armed with these answers, we, or some other historian or archivist you may contact, may be able to help you or direct you as to where you can find more information.

Finding Additional Information on Your Own:

We have one of the largest collections of rosters and muster rolls on-line, and our listings are always growing (if you have any to contribute to us, click here!). However, we do not have listings for every regiment...far from it!  If your relative is listed in one of the regiments, that gets you  step ahead in learning more about him and his time in the service. If he is not listed, or if you just want to learn more, you will have to do some research yourself.  Some suggestions for doing your research are listed below.

1.  Pension records

The majority of those who served in the war applied for benefits at some time. Records of these requests can provide a wealth of information, and obtaining these records should be most researchers' first step when trying to find information on individuals who served in the war. Pension records frequently contain a synopsis of the personís military service, applications listing spouses, children, dates of birth, death, marriage, addresses, etc. Also, often these records include affidavits from people who knew the pensioner  which describe him, his health, and tidbits about his life. Sometimes these affidavits are written by people who served with the veteran in the field, and sometimes by neighbors.

Pension records come from one of two sources, depending on the indivdual's date of death. If the soldier died before 1928, his pension records would reside with the National Archives. If the soldier died after that date, his records would reside with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If the soldier or sailor died before 1928, his pension records can be obtained by visiting the National Archives in Washington (where you can look them up yourself), or by submitting an application. The processing of a records request application can be somewhat slow, and obviously the researcher does not know all of the idiosyncrasies which you would immediately recognize (looking at the records, you may suddenly remember that Uncle Peteís real name was really Buford. Sure that was his name...but he never used it officially...except, unfortunately, when he filled out that pension request form! The archivist would have no way of knowing this sort of information).

When filling out request forms for the National Archives, fill in the required data, but donít guess unless you have no other choice. If you guess incorrectly, the archivist may be forced to come to a wrong conclusion. The archivist has to search for a record with the data you included in the request form. For instance, if you guess at the middle initial and are wrong, the archivist may decide that the record you are requesting does not exist since all of the data doesnít match the Archivesí records. In this case, the response from the National Archives may be that there is no record matching the data you have provided. If you are unsure of a basic fact, such as the spelling of a name, submit an application under each of the optional spellings. The Archives will only notify you of a "hit" in their records if all of the items match, therefore, you should only get a positive response on the one matching record.

Once the Archives locate the file, the Archives will offer to copy the file. They will charge $75 for the first one hundred pages, and then $0.65 for each additional page if you want the entire file copied. Alternatively, they will provude a "Pension Document Packet" for $25. This packet contains the most important forms, but not information such as the correspondence or the interesting first-person affidavits from people who knew the veteran (which are some of the most interesting documents, since they can actually tell you about the veteran's life and that of his family from the view of eyewitnesses). The eight forms included in the packet are:

Declaration of Pension
Declaration of Widow's Pension
Adjutant General Statements of Service
Questionaires completed by the Applicant
Pension Dropped Cards
Marriage Certificates
Death Certificates
Discharge Certificate

For pension additional info. on pension records through the National Archives, please see their website. The pension records request forms (form NATF Form 85) can be ordered online obtained by clicking here

As far as where the records are physically located, pension  records for the Army, Navy amd Marines will be at the National Archives. members of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (which grew into the Coast Guard) are located at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Moissouri. If your veteran continued to serve in the military following the war making it a career, then the above  may not apply (i.e., Army records for enlisted men discharged after 1912 are in St. Louis).

If the veteran died after 1928, then his records would be held by the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA). If you inadvertently sent the request for these records to the National Archives, they will respond stating the vet's pension record file number and will refer you to the VA. They should be able to provide you the file number you need regardless.

To obtain a pension record friom the VA and you have the file number, locate your local VA Regional Office (if you do not know where this is, call 1-800-827-1000 and ask), send them a letter stating that "I am requesting that you conduct a BIRLS search for the file and retrieve it for my use from the Federal Records Center where it is currently housed. Procedures for recall of the records from Federal Records Centers are found in VA Handbook 6300.1, Chapter 6, Part 5. I am kaing this request under the Freedom of Information Act." BIRLS is the acronym for "Beneficiary Identification & Records Locator Subsystem."

If you do not have the pension file number, write to your Regional VA office, stating your veteran's name, date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place lived at death, branch of service, when he served (or in what war) and any other data. Again, state that you are making the request under the Freedom of Information Act.

2. Locate your relativeís gravesite.

If the veteran died shortly after the war, and you have no other data besides where the person lived, begin by checking the neighborhod cemeteries. At the turn of the last century, the overwhelming majority of  individuals did not often travel far from home in their lifetime. They are usually buried near where they lived. Click here to learn how to read a Spanish American War gravestone.

If he has a government stone, it will list the unit in which he served. Also, if he has a government stone, he MAY have died poor, and a check of the County "indigent soldiers records" may turn up some interesting facts (cost of the funeral, etc.).

A growing database of Spanish American War veterans' grave sites is now on-line. Visit the site by clicking here. If you have a Spanish American War veteran's burial record that is not listed, please consider submitting it to the address and in the format suggested on that page.

Also, when visiting the gravesite, the veteran may or may not have a flagholder stating what conflict he served in. Do not rely on the information on these flagholders!! They migrate around cemeteries when the grass is mowed and when some well-intended person moves them. Also, if the local agency that placed the flagholder was out of the proper device, they may well have used a flagholder for a different war. It is not uncommon to find Spanish American War veterans with WWII flagholders...and even non-veterans with Spanish American War flagholders.

Lastly, once you locate a veterans grave, be sure to contact us to have their name and data added to the National Spanish American War Veterans' Gravesite Recording Project. Also, please submit any other Spanish American War veterans' graves you happen to find.

3. Volunteer unit sources.

The overwhelming majority of the army was made up of state volunteers. State volunteer organizations were usually from a particular state, and usually a source of great pride. For this reason, a variety  of sources can be used to track members. If you only know that a relative served in the war, and know where he was from, check the following sources. This method is somewhat hit and miss, but represents your best chance:

a. Check our online rosters.

b. Any local history books from the area where the veteran was from - These frequently listed the members of military units (entire rosters were included since, if someoneís name was mentioned, they were more likely to buy the book).

c. Check with the stateís archives for the state from which the veteran came for rosters of Spanish American War units. They usually have some information. Some have on-line search capability. See our list of links for some possibities.

d. Check with the state or local library for the area which the veteran was from for published ďunit historiesĒ of  Spanish American War military organizations. These publications came out after the war usually give the chronology of a state unitís service, often even if the unit never went overseas. These books almost always contain rosters since, again, these were sold to the members of the unit, and the public at large.

e. Check local newspaper accounts from the area where the soldier lived from the time of the war. Frequently, as units left the area, their complete rosters were printed in the local newspaper. Also, you will frequently find that the volunteer units had correspondents among its ranks that would keep the newspaper informed of the goings-on within the unit. Newspaper archives are now being made available online, for a small fee, at places such as Newspaper

f. Check with the local historical society in the city or county where the soldier lived at the time of the war. Local historical societies frequently have unit rosters, or even records of groups such as the local camp of the United Spanish War Veterans.

4.  Navy rosters.

Personnel rosters for individual ships can be found by contacting the National Archives and Records Administration, Textual Reference Branch, Washington, D.C. 20408. The records would be under Record Group 24, "Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel."

We do have some rosters online. You can check these on our online rosters page.

If you know what ship your relative served on, and want to learn more about life about the ship while they were aboard, the best thing to do is to find the ship's cruise book. Cruise books were put together and sold to the crew of most major naval vessels as a keepsake. It provides info. on the ship's movement, important events, photos and sometimes copies of the ship's newspaper. If you are very lucky, your relatives may be spotted within the book's pages. The best place to start looking for the books is the Navy Historical Center in Washington DC

5. Field reports.

Once you have a unit designation, you can also look for field reports of the unitís service. Check the Abridgement of the Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Clerk of the Committee on Printing , Washington: Government Printing  Office, 1899). This four volume set includes field reports for units that were involved in military actions, both navy and army. They do not contain reports for units that remained in the United States, except for possible mention in a departmental report.

6. 1930 Census

If you are simply looking to confirm the service of an individual, and they were alive in 1930, there is one additional piece of data. The 1930 census has a column labelled "Veterans" with a subcolumn in which the census taker was to indicate which war. "SA" in this column indicates that the individual served in the "Spanish American War" which, in this context, would mean the Spanish American War, Philippine American War or Chinese Relief Expedition ("Boxer Rebellion") (to read why this means one of three wars, click here)

Beyond these sources, you will have to depend on your local researching prowess!

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