Fighting Forebears

By The History Detectives Team
27 August 2009
Category: DIY Investigations

In this weeks episode, History Detective Eduardo Pagan, investigated a portrait painted in a German POW camp during World War Two and the American soldier who painted it. You can use the following tips to investigate combatants in many US conflicts.

When trying to find information about someone who fought in the military, you should start your search in official military records. It is important to start with a reliable source, because it gives you a good point of reference when comparing other sources.

The military records you will most likely need are at the National Archives, a point of call for Eduardo on his investigation. There are 41 different National Archive centres, based in 20 states and also the District of Columbia. However, unlike other archive institutions there is no set protocol about where certain documents are situated. This can often mean that it is hard to find exactly where you should be looking. At History Detectives we recommend consulting official published histories or scholarly reference books, which usually contain detailed information about their source documents - giving you a clue as to where certain documents are based.

You can also consult government offices and organisations for records, for example, many agencies are trustees of Civil War records. To obtain access to these records, find out which agency holds the records you need and then contact them. Most agencies will require you to submit a written request, often using special forms.

Where possible try to find two sources that can place an individual at the scene of battle. Often you cannot rely on Muster Calls or Roll Calls, as a soldier may have been absent, for example, on temporary duty, with illness or even on assignment. Newer records are generally more reliable; nevertheless, it is always better to have another source that backs up your findings.

Libraries and bookstores are another source of information, offering many books on US conflicts and combatants. When consulting books, first establish how reliable the information is. What is the motivation of the author(s) and how does their information compare with reliable sources? A responsible author will always include acknowledgements, footnotes referring to primary sources and a bibliography.

Your final port of call is the Internet, although looking for information online can be a tricky process and you should approach it with some caution. Often internet sources are extremely unreliable and there is a greater tendency to distort or manipulate facts. Due to privacy laws and issues of national security, access to modern military records is restricted. In an investigation of this kind, the Internet is best used as a resource to search archives rather than to consult unsolicited websites that may twist the facts.

Remember not to mix information from reliable sources, such as government sites, with information you find from personal web pages. Unofficial sources will require corroboration before you can hold their facts against official documents.

Have you found out any information about a combatant? What did you discover? Do you have any tips? We would like to know. Let us know in the form below.

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