A genealogy website on Monday posted burial records online for more than half a million military personnel for the first time as part of a government bid to digitally preserve the aging paper documents.
The burial and headstone applications records, which include entries for General George Custer and President Abraham Lincoln, were previously available only on paper at the national archives in Washington, D.C.
They were posted on Ancestry.com through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Archives and Records Administration, said Todd Godfrey, the Utah-based company's senior director for U.S. content.
"Every one of these records, except for the small portion the VA had already imaged, were all only available on paper and all in Washington D.C.," he said. "So you would have had to go to that special National Archives building, know (the record) is there and ask for it. Then they'd spend the morning digging around for it and then bring it to you."
The U.S. Army began tracking burials at national cemeteries and military posts in the 1860s. In 1973, data for 82 national cemeteries was turned over to the veterans department, where the records are overseen by the National Cemeteries Administration.
On its own, the NCA scanned more than 9,400 pages of entries before turning the work over to Ancestry in 2011.
Godfrey said Ancestry staff spent nearly 3,000 hours scanning and prepping the military records, at no cost to taxpayers, to be accessed by the public.
The military records are available through the paid subscription service, but "we also provided online access to the VA and their cemeteries for free at their locations so that they can search the records and serve their patrons," he said.
"We have opened the doors to thousands of histories through the information contained in these burial ledgers," said VA Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs Steve Munro.
Godfrey said amateur genealogists should delight in the records, some of which include handwritten notes that go well beyond a soldier's name, rank and serial number.
The entry for Lincoln, for example, includes a hand-drawn black border and details that the Civil War-era president was "pistol shot by John Wilkes Booth, the ball entering 2 inches below and behind the left ear and lodged in the brain."
Lincoln's entry is honorary, because he was buried in Springfield, Illinois and not in Arlington National Cemetery.
Godfrey said that while digging around in the archive a few weeks ago he came across an entry for his own fourth great-grandfather.
Henry Wells Jackson was a 36-year-old California postal worker at the time of the Civil War. Cheated out of a paycheck, an angry Jackson headed to Washington to collect but was captured by the Confederate army and held in jail, Godfrey said.
"That made him mad, so (after release) he joined the Union army and three months later he was killed in battle." he said.
The discovery adds a wonderful new piece to Godfrey's family history, he said, but does leave him with one burning question: "I do wonder if he ever got his paycheck."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Todd Eastham)