The Traveling Genealogist

Orphaned Military Records

A recent research experience at the National Archives weeks later is still blowing my mind. When Adjutant General Ainsworth was placed in charge of pensions in 1886, the approval rate for soldiers requesting disability pensions had a massive backlog, and approval of benefits took years. The task of verifying the service of the soldier was difficult, with no indexes, and included searching regimental and company records, and hospital records, which was creating a huge political liability for Congress. General Ainsworth undertook a massive project to compile the service history of soldiers during the 18th and 19th centuries resulting in the CMSR (compiled military service record), the genealogists go-to record for our ancestors service. Examples of the contents of the CMSR jacket are shown below.

CMSR Jacket CMSR Card Personal Papers Envelope POW Information

The jacket holding the CMSR contains cards detailing each soldier’s whereabouts, hospitalizations, and a physical description extracted from the record books of the regiment and company books. The information on each card may vary but could include information relating to pay, lost gear, furloughs, book marks identifying correspondence in the AGO correspondence files, etc. Inside the CMSR jacket, a personal papers envelope is frequently found containing enlistment papers, sometimes a copy of the discharge certificate, any prisoner of war information, and many other types of papers and correspondence.

While the ambitious project never reached completion, it significantly speeded the verification of service, thus approval for Civil war and Mexican-War pensions. Some wars are much more complete than others. For example, the carded medical records for the Mexican-American and Civil wars never made it into the CMSR jacket, and are stored in a separate record collection. The Philippine Insurrection and the Spanish-American war records were created shortly after events happened, as real-time as existed at the end of the 19th century, and the carded medical records are part of the CMSR! When the CMSR project was tabled, the government gathered up the records that hadn’t been filed in the CMSR jackets and put them into boxes! That is a scary statement: they boxed up the unfiled records and stored them separately from the CMSRs.

Examples of the Unfiled Records boxes are shown in the pictures below. As you can easily see, while this is a small percentage of the overall records, these are a significant number of boxes. The unfiled boxes shown below are part of the 31 boxes of unfiled records for the Wisconsin Volunteers!

Personal Envelopes Proof Files Company Cards Regimental Cards

These records are broken down into groups:

  1. Various unfiled papers
  2. Unfiled cards

The good news is that for Union states where CMSR records have been digitized (, some of these unfiled cards and papers, including personal papers envelopes, have also been digitized. Which ones? It depends on the state. The unfiled papers/cards are located after the records of the regiments. A screenshot of the cards for Vermont is shown below.

Fold3 screenshot for Vermont CMSR
Fold3 screen for Vermont CMSRs for Civil War soldiers

In an ideal world, if all of these records were digitized, it would be a no-brainer to check the Miscellaneous Cards and Miscellaneous Personal Papers for records for your soldier that didn’t make it into his CMSR jacket. This would be in addition to requesting a check of the Carded Medical Records (stored in a separate series) for soldiers who served in the Mexican-American and the Civil War. None of those records made it to the CMSR jacket.  What if the records for your soldiers state haven’t been digitized? If you notice a gap in the dates on cards in the CMSR jacket, no personal papers envelope, or are missing enlistment papers from the personal papers envelope, consider ordering a search of these unfiled records.