What If He Wasn’t a Volunteer? Some Sources for Regular Army Research

by: Carolyn L. Barkley

Military records provide interesting details about the life of an ancestor. Don’t stop your search too soon, however, if you failed to locate a specific ancestor in the consolidated service records for volunteer soldiers. He, like Mash’s Sherman Potter, may have been “regular army.”

Research into regular army records is not quite as simple as volunteer service. For one thing, unlike with volunteers, the United States War Department did not compile Regular Army service records. You will need to aggregate this information from a variety of places; fortunately, there are several major resources that will assist you.

The most important source for information about officers is Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army from its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903, 2 vol. (1903, reprinted, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994). This title includes a series of lists. Of particular interest is the list in part II of volume I identifying “…all commissioned officers of the Army, including officers of the volunteer staff and all brevet major or brigadier-generals of volunteers…”1 This list furnishes information about both George Armstrong Custer and his brother Thomas Ward Custer. Information about the former includes his graduation from West Point, his unit assignments, battles, and promotions, and his date of death (but does not mention his 1867 court martial trial whose transcript is available on Fold 3); the record of the latter includes information about his award of the medal of honor for capturing a battle flag at the battle of Sailor’s [Sayler’s] Creek, Virginia, during the Civil War. Other entries, such as one for Richard Cutts, of Massachusetts, are much briefer. The Cutts record indicates only that he was the superintendent general of military stores on 3 June 1813, and the fact that this office was abolished on 3 March 1817. Another informative list is found in part III of volume II that enumerates regular army members killed, wounded, or taken prisoner in action after 1789. A sample entry is that of Nelson H. Davis, 2nd Lt. in the 2nd Infantry, who was wounded at Churubusco, Mexico, on 20 August 1847. Another list indicates that Archie H. Barkley was either an acting assistant or a contract surgeon with the U.S. Army with service at some time between 17 April 1898 and 1 January 1903. Heitman should be savored as it has much to offer.  I own the print edition as I find it easier to use in that format and definitely simpler to browse through. An online version is also available at the Internet Archive site, but it is much more useful when looking for a specific piece of information. Ancestry.com provides database access to both volumes, but provides only very abbreviated entries for volume 1 information or simply page referrals for volume 2. It is not a substitute for the original.

If you are interested in searching for an enlisted man, the best source is the National Archives microfilm publication (M233), Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798-1914 (also available on Ancestry.com). If you are using the microfilm, be sure to read the DP (descriptive pamphlet) for this publication to understand what is available on each roll (rolls 1-13 cover 1798-17 May 1815; rolls 14-17, 17 May 1815-30 June 1821, etc.). These records are arranged chronologically, and then by surname and then by date of enlistment. In browsing through roll 1, I also noted that first names are not always included – a definite drawback. Hopefully, some piece of specific information in the entry will help you confirm that you have located the correct person. Sample entries include one for a Barkley, a private in the second company of 4th U.S. Infantry (Col. William King’s regiment), who was left sick at Craney Island (in the James River in Virginia) on 31 October 1818; and another which offered much more detail about a Beardlsey, a private in the artillery, standing 6’1” (and thus much taller than soldiers in other entries), with black eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion. He was a 38-year-old blacksmith, who was born in Stratford, Connecticut, and who enlisted for a period of five years on 28 January 1814. He was discharged by surgeon’s certificate on 4 September 1815.

On Roll 23 of publication M233 is a list of Mexican War enlistments between January 1847 and June 1849, but unfortunately the quality of the microfilm copy that I examined rendered the records almost unreadable. I was able, however, to read a few entries including one for Henry Meyers, aged 34, a gunsmith from Hanover, Germany, who had grey eyes, black hair, and a fair complexion, and who stood 5’ 5½” tall. He enlisted at Baltimore on 20 March 1847 and was discharged on 25 August 1848 at the expiration of his enlistment. Entries for later periods include interesting insights into the employment of enlistees, including farmers, laborers, wheelwrights, gasfitters, carpenters, storekeepers, bricklayers, mariners, students, boatmen, weavers, miners, printers, and gardeners, as well as place of origin (from most of American states, plus such foreign countries as Ireland, Canada, France, Belgium and Germany). Roll 27 (1859-1863) includes an entry for Johann Blank, a 48-year-old musician from Boblitz, Prussia, who resided in Erie, Pennsylvania, and on 5 August 1861, enlisted in Co. G of the 6th Cavalry for a period of five years. M233 also includes a list of Indian Scouts from 1866-1914 (rolls 70 and 71) and a record of prisoners (roll 80) from 1872-1901. The latter individuals were usually incarcerated for desertion and/or larceny, as in the example of Frank Mitchell, of Co. B of the 7th Cavalry, who served four years (an additional three years of sentence were remitted) in the Minnesota State Penitentiary. Some, however, had been found guilty of more serious crimes such as Charles H. Dorsey, of Co. M of the 9th Cavalry, who killed a sergeant during a mutiny in 1875 and received a life sentence on 15 July 1875. He served thirteen years in the Kansas Penitentiary, but was pardoned under S.O. 230 AGO/888 on 7 October 1888.

Other microfilm publications offer more specialized information. M744, Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833-1916 and M617 Returns from United States Military Posts, 1800-1916, for example, provides information about the records of the men involved in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The post return for the beginning of June 1876 notes that the unit is “in the field, camped at the mouth of the Big Horn River.” The post return for the beginning of July 1876 acknowledges (and names) the thirteen officers and 237 enlisted men who died at the hands of “hostile Sioux,” who were estimated to have numbered between three and four thousand. The return mentions the leadership role of George Armstrong Custer, but does not mention the actions of any of the other officers, such as Benteen and Reno, who also played major roles in the battle. Of particular interest is the list (by name) of members of the 7th Cavalry who were otherwise occupied at the time of the Little Big Horn battle (in confinement, detached service, on furlough, sick, or, in one instance, in an insane asylum). Their absence saved them from the massacre.

Finally, it is also important to look at records such as Letters Received by the Appointment, Commission, and Personal Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office. M1125 covers the period 1871 to 1894 and includes further documentation concerning the career of George Armstrong Custer including documents pertaining to his brevet rank of major general during the Civil War; a list of papers collected for a legal case dated 1 January 1863; a legislative bill to award Custer’s wife with $100 per month in lieu of the pension payment she was then receiving; and letters written by his father to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in December 1865 concerning his son’s regular army appointment and by his Custer’s wife expressing her belief that he had not disobeyed General Terry’s orders with respect to his actions at Little Big Horn.

These examples illustrate the depth of information that can be found in regular army records. If you do not find your soldier in the volunteer service records, due diligence prompts you to investigate whether he served in a regular army unit. If you can document such service in Heitman or in enlistment records, you will not be disappointed in the variety of additional information that may be available to enrich your understanding of an ancestor’s service to his country.

1 Heitman, Francis B., Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army… (1903, reprinted, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994), I:147.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.