Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Military Records and the Search for One's Ancestors

If you have searched for a male ancestor who lived in the early to mid-1900s and did not find the information you needed, World War I and World War II Draft Registration records may hold invaluable data about your family member. These draft registration records are the result of requirements imposed by the Selective Service Act of 1917, passed during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. The act provided for a “liability for military service of all male citizens” and authorized a selective draft of males between 21 and 31 years of age. Later, the age requirement was changed to include individuals between 18 and 45 years of age. Local draft boards were composed of leading civilians in each community, and these individuals administered the requirements of the Selective Service Act. The new draft law was challenged, however, by individuals who asserted that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude, but the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the act in the Selective Draft Law Cases on January 7, 1918. The Court’s decision said the Constitution gave Congress the power to declare war and to raise and support its armies. Interestingly, The Selective Service Act contained a unique provision that a draftee could no longer pay to have someone serve for him, something that had occurred during the Civil War.

Since many thousands of males were required to provide personal information on the required draft registration forms, a number of personal details about a family member can be gleaned from a review of the form. Although most registration forms were completed by a member of the draft board or other representative, each form contains the actual signature or mark (X) of the registrant.  Something as simple as viewing a family member’s handwritten signature or mark may have special meaning to a family researcher who never had an opportunity to meet the individual or to see a picture of the person.
Basic identifying information required on the form included the name of the registrant, his mailing address, and the name of his next of kin. For a researcher who has little or no family data available, the name of the family member’s next of kin may be just the bit of information needed to reveal yet another generation of family members’ identities.  Other details found on a draft registration form include a registrant’s physical characteristics - whether he was tall, medium, or short, his physical build (large, medium, or small), and the color of his hair and eyes. The answer to another question asked provides the name and address of a man's employer.  If the registrant was disabled or suffered a physical deformity, a brief description of his impairment is included, too.

Although copies of World War I and World War II Draft Registration records are available directly from the U.S. Military Archives, one of the easiest ways to view the records is by accessing the website.  Images of the documents can be viewed there and saved onto the researcher's computer or kept for later viewing in Ancestry's handy online "shoebox" function. Also, draft registration information, as well as some images, can be found at the free website maintained by the LDS Church at Also, military records documenting service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War, are available from the National Archives and from library resources in most large cities. Old military pension applications for soldiers and for their widows also are available through the National Archives, although the researcher should remember that pensions based on service in early wars were not paid until Congress passed laws to do so after the Civil War. More often than not, a simple Google search that includes the serviceman’s name, the branch of service in which he served (if known) and the war in which he saw service, is enough to begin a research journey that may produce a wealth of unknown family history.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Descriptive Register of Men in Attala County - Post Civil War

Several years ago, while going through some microfilmed records at the LDS Family History Center, I located a copy of a transcription of the "Descriptive Register" of men living in Attala County during the period 1864-65. I was lucky enough to find James M. Porter, my paternal great-great-grandfather, on that list. The list contained each man's name, age, height, color of his hair, eyes, his skin color, birthplace, and his occupation in the county. Skin colors appearing on the list included "fair," "sallow," "tan," "red," and "dark."

According to the "Descriptive Register, " James M. Porter's height was 6 feet, and he was shown to have black hair and hazel eyes. He was born in Mississippi, his occupation was "farmer," and his skin color was shown as "dark." My first thought was this physical description of James M. Porter might very well have been that of one of my great-uncles, my brothers, or even one of my sons.

Interesting little document! But who prepared this list? What was its purpose? How did it become a "historical" document? Common sense told me the list was prepared during the time period directly following the end of the Civil War. Did the register have anything to do with the end of the war? Or was someone attempting to record racial differences in that particular place and at that particular time?

I began searching for online information about "descriptive registers" and immediately found the document contained on the microfilm at the LDS Family History Center included on a number of widely-used (and very helpful, I might add) Attala County, Mississippi genealogy websites.

What I did not find was information that explained the purpose of the list or its intended use. I found it fascinating, to say the least, that someone in 1864 and 1865 was interested in developing a list that included a person's "skin color." It was not until the U.S. Census of 1870 was taken that an individual's "race" was included on a federal census record. The available categories on the census were "Black", "White", "Mulatto", "Indian" or "Chinese" and the designation on the 1870 U. S. Census may have been decided by the census taker based on physical characteristics rather than having been provided by the individual or a relative. I was both puzzled and intrigued by this "descriptive register", so I kept on searching for an explanation.

But I have never found a valid reason to explain the list. The best explanation to date, is actually second-hand information. By that, I mean that other people have offered explanations to me or I have read explanations of others about what they think was the purpose of the "descriptive register."

I have read for myself that amnesty agreement terms, signed by both sides at the end of the Civil War, included a requirement that each military unit that fought for the South prepare a list of its members. These lists or "descriptive registers" would provide the Federal government with records of those who fought for the South and against the Federal Union. This requirement sounds like a "military" record to me. The "descriptive register" I viewed on microfilm, and which I copied for my own records, contains nothing about military unit name or number or the rank or length of service of the men included on the list.

The Attala County "descriptive register" appears to be a list of civilians. In fact, the list contains no military affiliation or reference to the military at all. I cannot imagine this list would be a comprehensive list of men from Attala County who served in the Civil War. I have researched my family's history in other counties in the State of Mississippi and in several other southern states, but I have never encountered a list similar to the "descriptive register" containing these names of Attala County men in 1864-65.

Will I ever find the answers to my questions about the "descriptive register?" At this point, I don't know.