Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Discovery in Revolutionary War Records

Before living in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, I knew practically nothing about the military. The difference between the Navy and the Marines seemed to me as mysterious as the difference between the Redskins and the Cowboys, the Red Sox and the Yankees, Barcelona and Real Madrid. I just didn't get it.

But as I've gotten to know service members - mostly in the Navy - I've grown to understand some of the lingo, the way of life, the complexities of their transient lives as they've moved in and out of the area. And as I've been able to unlock some of the mystery of the military, I've also grown to appreciate some of the complexities of military records.

In this post, we're going to look specifically at Revolutionary War records. Where do you find them? What records contain evidence of service to the United States during the War of Independence? And as we investigate these records, we will be looking at examples from Powhatan County, Virginia as they relate to John Stratton.

Setting the stage: what are we looking for?

When it comes to looking for a patriot ancestor, or working to prove that an ancestor was a patriot, it would serve us well to set the stage. What is the time period, exactly? What do we consider as service to the United States? How old would have our ancestors been at the time?

The Daughters of the American Revolution has a clear list of accepted Revolutionary War service, as does the Sons of the American Revolution. Both organizations define the time period as between 19 Apr 1775 (the Battle of Lexington) and 26 Nov 1783 (the withdrawal of the British from New York). A patriot is defined as someone who offered military, civil, or patriotic service to the cause of American Independence. Be sure to check both sites in the links above for the whole list of service possibilities.

In our modern era, we think of adulthood as beginning at either 18 or 21, depending on the topic. In the 18th century, the time of the Revolution, a free white male was a tithable (taxable as a member of the labor force) at the age of 16. This was also the age of enlistment into the military.

So we're looking for an ancestor who was 16 between 1775-1783 who offered either military, civil, or patriotic service in support of American Independence. You may want to search some of the available resources on Ancestry, for example Revolutionary War Records: Virginia, by Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh and Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution by John H. Gwathmey. Now let's look at some of the possible ways our ancestors offered military service.

Military Service: Militia

The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia passed an act on 5 May 1777 to regulate and organize the colony's militia. In this act, the General Assembly set out the structure of Virginia's militia and the age of service. All free males between 16 and 50 (with a long list of exceptions like those in public office, those producing firearms, and the clergy) were included as part of the militia, with free mulattoes serving as drummers, fifers, or pioneers.

The commanding officer of each county formed companies of 32-68 men. The companies were formed into battalions of 500-1000 men. Each company was commanded by a captain, two lieutenants, and an ensign. Each battalion was commanded by a colonel, lieutenant colonel, and a major. Once a month, except in January and February, there would be a private muster of every company. And in April and October each year there would be a general muster of the whole county.

Militiamen would be expected by 11 AM on their muster day, or they would pay a fine based on their rank (captain - 40 shillings, lieutenant or ensign 20 shillings, every non-commissioned officer or soldier 5 shillings). When they arrived at the designated location, they would have to bring the weapons according to their rank. Poor militiamen would be provided arms to be used and given back to the county. Officers carried swords while privates carried either a rifle and tomahawk, or good firelock and bayonet with all the necessary ammunition.

If you have free male ancestors that were between 16 and 50 during the revolution, they would have either served in the militia or served in a capacity that exempted their militia service. (Or they were Loyalists and likely fled the country.) For researching militiamen in Virginia, consult Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War by J. T. McAllister. You can find the full text online and you can also find it through Ancestry as a searchable collection. The records of county militias were the responsibility of the county. That means militia records are at the county level; you will find lists of officers listed in county court minute books, deed and order books.

Military Service: Continental Army

While the militia was mandatory yet irregular service, the Continental Army formed a professional regular army for the new nation. On 4 Nov 1775, the Continental Congress called for an army of 20,372 men, with regiments of 728 men, divided into eight companies. On 16 Sep 1776, a reorganization of the Army called for 88 battalions or regiments, 15 of which were from Virginia. The benefit of Continental Army service is that these records were kept by the National Archives. We just need to develop an understanding of what records are in which record set.

The case of John Stratton

Oh John...John...John. Why did your Mama have to name you John? John Stratton of Powhatan County is my 4th great grandfather. When it comes to a case of men with the same name, or proving that various records are for one man with a common name, it can get tricky. Or, if one isn't careful, it can seem all too easy!

Take for example, this M881 card abstract for John Stratton, a Light Dragoon from Virginia with the Continental Troops. If you notice, it's undated and contains no identifying information as to where this John Stratton lived or served. It does contain a curious number listed under remarks: 12.591. [If you know what this points us to, please let me know!]

The image immediately before this abstract card in the collection is the jacket envelope that lists and holds the cards for this soldier. 

This jacket envelope contains a tad more information; we learn that John Stratton served in the First Regiment Light Dragoons, Continental Troops. The card number listed is simply the number stamped on the back of the abstract card (the previous image) that this envelope holds.

The funny thing is that this is all the evidence anyone ever has that a John Stratton served in the First Regiment Light Dragoons of the Continental Troops. Yet Harriet Russell Stratton in A Book of Strattons makes the assertion on page 223 that this record is for my John Stratton who lived in Powhatan County. As we saw in "Nurturing a Critical Eye," there were two John Strattons living in neighboring counties at the same time. There was also a John Stratton in Northampton County that served in his county militia. Additionally, numerous people have joined both SAR and DAR with John Stratton as their patriot through this service record, but also through citing a record that he served the Powhatan County Militia.

So did my John Stratton serve as a Light Dragoon or was he in the Powhatan Militia? Or both? How many John Strattons were there in Virginia?

Digging Deeper

After making a solid timeline for John Stratton and all the Strattons in Powhatan County during and right after the Revolution, I was sure that there was only one John Stratton of age at the time. So my next line of action was to find the record that my John Stratton of Powhatan County served in the militia.

There in Powhatan County Deed Book 1, on page 179 we read that "At a court held for Powhatan County at Scottsville the twentieth day of June one thousand seven hundred and eighty one...John Stratton [was appointed] Ensign to the company formerly commanded by Robert Hughes who is now a prisoner of war." This was pretty great news for me, because I had evidence that my John Stratton of Powhatan County served not only in the militia but as an officer. Though there isn't a pension file for him, I have found several of John Stratton's neighbor's pensions. The pension of his captain, Wade Mosby, is also available online. By reading these available pensions, I have been able to understand where John Stratton may also have served during his time with the militia.

But was he in the Light Dragoons? John Stratton fathered nine children, and many of his descendants have joined the DAR and SAR through their descent from him. His DAR patriot number is A111137, and his SAR patriot number is P-299349. Both organizations list his name as John Handley Stratton with his service being to the First Regiment Light Dragoons, Continental Troops. One SAR application approved in 1969 combines the two and reads that John Handley Stratton was an "Ensign, First Regiment Light Dragoons, Continental Army." I would have to clean up this mess.

A trip to the DAR Library

Where did all these applicants get the middle name Handley? And how does everyone from a published book to SAR and DAR connect my John Stratton of Powhatan who served as an ensign with the county militia to a John Stratton in the Light Dragoons? To try to answer these questions, I took a trip to the DAR Library in Washington, D.C.

The first DAR member to use John Stratton of Powhatan County as their patriot ancestor was accepted in 1909 with National Number 71195. She lists his full name as John Handley Stratton. But she also provides his parents names as James Henry Stratton and Annie Handley, and his paternal grandparents as Joseph Dickinson Stratton and Mary Anne Huster.

If you're just following names, your eyes would have turned into beating hearts of joy. All done. Finito! But we're not just following names, and we already know that John's father was William, the son of Edward Stratton III. So we know that DAR member 71195 is wrong about John's parents and grandparents. And see anything curious about the mother's surname? Handley. I can't say where she got this information but it seems she has assumed John's middle name from the surname she had for his mother.

So far, we've looked at Compiled Service Records, Deed Books and Order Books, DAR and SAR applications. Next, let's look at a more systematic approach for how we can find more about this John Stratton who served as a Light Dragoon. 

Searching National Archives records

I'm not going to lie, I really struggle making sense of National Archives records. They seem a never-ending list of numbered and un-numbered records, some indexed some not, some online some not, some free and some behind multiple paywalls. So what's a passionate researcher to do? Figure it out!

First, read some articles on Revolutionary War records available at the Family Search Wiki. Know what is available on subscriptions you are already paying for. For example, here's a full list of Revolutionary War collections on Ancestry. This is helpful, because many other records are only available at a library, for a fee on Fold3, or only at the National Archives. 

Fun fact: all the National Archives microfilm publications for the Revolutionary War begin with M. The first publication you want to check is Compiled Service Records, M881. These records are a compilation of other records the War Department gathered together into one place. You can browse and search these records on Ancestry here. To learn more about M881, check out this page. For more background and to better use this record set, read this article by Craig R. Scott. The M881 records are made from the original and copied records which are in two other publications, namely M246 and M853.

M246 is titled "Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775–1783" and is available on Ancestry. You can browse the collection by regiment. Included in this collection, for example, are the pay rolls of the First Regiment Light Dragoons. M853 is titled "Numbered Books Concerning Military Operations and Service, Pay, and Settlement Accounts, Supplies in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records." 

Other National Archives publications related to the Revolutionary War

- M860, General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers (58 rolls)
- M879, Index to Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel Who Served During the Revolutionary War (1 roll)
- M880, Compiled Service Records of American Naval Personnel and Members of the Departments of the Quartermaster General and the Commissary General of Military Stores Who Served During the Revolutionary War (4 rolls)
Note: M880 is listed together as one collection with M881 on Ancestry.
- M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files (2,670 rolls). Available on Ancestry
-  M847, Special Index to Numbered Records in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, 1775–1783. (39 rolls).
- M853, Numbered Books Concerning Military Operations and Service, Pay, and Settlement Accounts, Supplies in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records. (41 rolls). 
- M859, Miscellaneous Numbered Records (the Miscellaneous File) in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, 1775–1790s. (125 rolls). Available on Ancestry.

Read more about these collections

Dig deeper into less well known Revolutionary War records - Claire Prechtel-Kluskens

Thank you, General Fred C. Ainsworth! - Claire Prechtel-Kluskens

Revolutionary War pension files—an introduction - Claire Prechtel-Kluskens

Trevor K. Plante, Military Service Records at the National Archives, Reference Information Paper 109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2009), available online.

John Stratton: Light Dragoon

One of my questions was whether my John Stratton, who served the Powhatan Militia as an ensign, was also the John Stratton who served the Continental Troops as a Light Dragoon. To answer that, I was hoping to find records relating to the M881 showing more detailed biographical information on John Stratton, Light Dragoon. M881, Compiled Service records, are arranged alphabetically by regiment. The person immediately after John Stratton, in the First Regiment Light Dragoons, is Seth Stratton. Hmm! Another Stratton. Worth looking deeper. What if they were related and from the same county?

These are two of the four abstract cards listed on the jacket envelope. Like John Stratton's, the first card lists a number, 87.787, for a remark. [Don't forget to tell me if you know the secret to this number!] The second card provides more detail, showing that Seth was in the Third Troop of the First Regiment Light Dragoons. 

By searching M804 on Ancestry, I found Seth Stratton's pension file. Through scrolling through M246 for the First Regiment Light Dragoons, I found Seth Stratton in the pay rolls of the Third Troop. 

I haven't been able to connect John and Seth Stratton, except that they both served in the First Regiment Light Dragoons. I haven't found John Stratton in the pay rolls yet either, so I'm not sure if they were in the same troop. What I'm hoping to find is evidence of a residence for the John Stratton Light Dragoon. Since I know my John Stratton lived in Powhatan County during the Revolution, this will be a determining factor for separating these records or combining them for one patriot. 


There are a variety of different records available for conducting Revolutionary War research. Whether you are trying to find your patriot ancestor, prove your patriot's service, or (like I'm trying to do) disprove a record belongs to your patriot, there are records available worthy of your seeking and sleuthing. 

Revolutionary War records are available in courthouses, on microfilm, indexed in books, and online. Some are available for free on Family Search and at the National Archives, others are included in an Ancestry subscription, or with a subscription on Fold3. But records are only as good as the researcher that uses them, y'all! So educate yourself about the records available, how to use them, and how to make the most of your time in the archives. 

I may not have all the answers to my John Stratton conundrum, just yet. But I'm confident that with more research and with more experience with National Archives publications, I will solve the riddle!

This post was inspired by the week 21 prompt "Military" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

*Photo by Rick Lobs on Unsplash.*

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