How Did “Finding Your Roots” Find the Military Ancestry of John McCain, Julianne Moore and Patricia Arquette?

By Allison Dolan

This week’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” focused on military service in the ancestry of Sen. John McCain and actors Julianne Moore and Patricia Arquette. (And it just so happens that our military records webinar is next week—I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.)

  • McCain followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals in the Navy. Researchers discovered that McCain’s Confederate second-great-grandfather William Alexander McCane served under the brutal Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, deserted, was captured by the Union, and was imprisoned in the notorious Irving Block Prison in Memphis. Gates pointed out the similarities to McCain’s own horrific experience as a POW in Vietnam.
  • Moore (whose real name is Julie Anne Smith), grew up in what she described as a “peripatetic” military family. Her ancestor Peter M. Smith fought in the Mexican War, and was among the troops who successfully stormed  Chapultepec Castle Sept. 13, 1847.
  • Arquette was surprised to learn she had a Civil War ancestor, one of the “Hundred Days Men” who enlisted for short periods to serve as guards and laborers, freeing up more-experienced soldiers for combat duty. Her sixth- and seventh-great-grandfathers, respectively, served in the American Revolution and the French and Indian War.

The episode didn’t go deeply into the historical records that provided the information, but we did get a glimpse of a Civil War muster roll for Pvt. McCane.

The basic record type for learning about your ancestor’s military service from the Revolutionary War up through the Philippine Insurrection is the Compiled Military Service Record, or CMSR. According to professional genealogist Shelley K. Bishop, author of a service records guide in the upcoming May/June 2016 Family Tree Magazine, the War Department created CMSRs for enlisted men to facilitate processing later military pension applications.

A CMSR consists of a jacket with cards that summarize information from muster rolls, hospital rolls, prison records, payment vouchers and more.

Depending on the war, you might find indexes to CMSRs and/or digitized CMSRs on genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and Fold3. CMSRs that aren’t imaged online might be available on microfilm, or you might need to order copies from the National Archives.

From there, you can look for military pension applications, regimental histories, state adjutant general records, battlefield maps and other records.

Shelley’s article will help you find CMSRs, and even before that issue comes out, learn how to research several types of military records in our Feb. 25 webinar How to Find Ancestor Military Records (see more details about it and register in Family Tree Shop).

You can watch the full military heritage episode of “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” on the PBS website.