If there’s one thing I’ve realized since I’ve started genealogy, it’s that once you get to military records, you find two wonderful things:
- That there is a large contingent of people spending their lives documenting military history – collecting interesting stuff (instead of tossing it), making maps, finding photographs, displaying artifacts, preserving graves, and writing books. As genealogists, we suddenly feel like we have partners and colleagues working away on our ancestors. Hurray for that.
- That the documents you may find in the military sector can be far more revealing than just about anything else.
So our job as genealogists is to use all of this great work to give us clues about where to find records.
Finding pre-1875 military records for Rhode Island veterans
I am no expert in any of this so I will give some helpful links here and I hope they will be useful. One thing I should say is that for every war that ever affected Rhode Island, there are experts. They may sometimes be hobbyists and their information may be broadcast in unusual ways. Be on the lookout for blogs, particularly blogs written by small groups or organizations, and self-published books. You may find some good leads.
Finding your ancestor’s name may be fairly easy. Finding their story is going to take a lot of digging. Think also of archives, manuscripts, veterans groups, lineage societies, biographical works, and local historical societies.
- Interesting stories or lists for any of these wars may be found in either Rhode Island Roots or Rhode Island History.
- If federal pensions are found to exist, they can be ordered from the National Archives.
- Small State Big History is good example of a site where some fascinating historical work is being recorded.
King Philip’s War, 1675-1678. Although initially hoping to avoid military engagements with the Narragansetts, Rhode Island did eventually become embroiled in King Philip’s War. Craig Anthony has written some books about Rhode Island’s (and the Tefft family in particular) involvement in a horrific assault that occurred in southern Rhode Island called “The Great Swamp Fight.” After the war, land in East Greenwich, Rhode Island was offered to a group of veterans (see the History of East Greenwich), and nearby Voluntown, Connecticut was founded to distribute land to veterans. I usually refer to Soldiers in King Philip’s War by George M. Bodge for information about the war itself, but no doubt better modern sources are available.
French and Indian Wars, 1754-1763. A List of Rhode Island Soldiers & Sailors in the Old French & Indian War, 1755-1762 by Howard Chapin contains some information and names.
Revolutionary War 1776-1783
Rhode Island sent many soldiers to the war. Newport was occupied by the British from late 1776 to 1779, resulting in a severe disruption to the rising importance of Newport, and the eventual emergence of Providence as the center of manufacturing, education and government, although that emergence grew slowly over the next hundred years.
A partial list of resources:
- Rhode Island in the American Revolution by Eric G. Grundset – a recent bibliography of resources for the late colonial period. This is a must-see – Mr. Grundset will point to numerous record sets that will help you research your ancestor’s service.
- Benjamin Cowell’s Spirit of 76 in Rhode Island. Mr. Cowell was instrumental in helping the old soldiers obtain the pensions granted to them by Congress in the 1830’s. He personally heard their stories, and the stories of officers, friends and neighbors who served. By 1850, he had put together this book, listing some very brief service records, wishing that he could make an even more complete report. In my experience, if your ancestor is listed here, keep seeking further service records because he usually only listed a portion. James Arnold provided an index to Cowell in volume 12 of his Vital Record of Rhode Island.
- Revolutionary War Index at the Rhode Island State Archives. A slip index of notations for RW soldiers mentioned in various resources at several Rhode Island repositories. Each slip will give an abbreviated citation back to the source. Some soldiers have one or two slips, some have dozens. This is only on paper as far as I know.
- Rhode Island Historical Society has a Revolutionary War index as well; it often leads to original payrolls or reports in their manuscript collection. See also this finding aid.
- Fold3.com contains many military records, especially for federal government units. It also contains valuable pension records.
War of 1812
- Some information about sources from the Rhode Island Historical Society.
- This link opens a pdf list of soldiers from the Rhode Island State Archives.
- Fold3.com is building a set of digital pension records from the National Archives. My relative, named Ballou, was in there, but for letters farther down the alphabet, the set is not yet finished.
Mexican War 1846-1848
The most valuable pension record I have ever found for my family, a 96-page document that unlocked the secrets of my gg-grandmother’s birth, was from a Mexican War pension. I had to order it from the National Archives. Try starting on Fold3.com in the Mexican War section, to see if some record may exist. I have now found two Mexican War pensions that were very helpful.
Civil War 1861-1865
Like many Americans, I have relatives on both sides of this war thanks to my Yankee ancestor who got the bright idea to start a business in Alabama in 1852. That did not work out well, but his sons joined the Alabama militia in 1861.
There are, of course, hundreds of possible sources. People are still working on this history and still publishing. Always check for new work. Just as one example, see this essay by Robert Grandchamp and also his book Rhode Island and the Civil War: Voices from the Ocean State and Frank Grzyb’s Hidden History of Rhode Island and the Civil War.
- The Rhode Island Historical Society offers some guidance and links
- The national Soldiers and Sailors system.
- Fold3.com has many records. Ancestry.com has a surprisingly large set of records, and more and more books are finding their way into Ancestry’s records.
- The Providence Public Library holds some regimental histories and other materials. Always look for a regimental history; many were published.
- Intrepid FindAGrave.com contributor Jen Snoots has a Civil War virtual cemetery for Rhode Island built at Findagrave.com.
- The R.I. State Archives holds some original records.
- Andersonville Prison records can be searched.
- The Civil War Sesquicentennial page and a brief overview of Rhode Island’s involvement by Frank Williams.
- This was the first war with photographs (see further information here from Maureen Taylor) and artistic renderings meant for publication. Also, some casualty reports were printed in newspapers. These should be sought for the particular person being researched.
- The R.I. state census of 1865 asked about military service. It is available at Ancestry.com. See my previous 8 Weeks post on census records.
- I like this website for the East Greenwich Kentish Guards. Looking for smaller websites is worthwhile.
- The dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Providence in 1871 was a very moving day. See “Proceedings at the Dedication of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Providence” to which is appended a list of the deceased soldiers and sailors whose names are sculptured upon the monument. (Providence: A Crawford Greene, Printer to the State, 1871).
For later wars, even more information should be available through Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. The digital availability of pension records expands all the time; check online first but then order the full record from the National Archives link near the top of this post.
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