Selective Service Act became effective into law on May 18, 1917 (nearly 100 years ago) with over 24.2 million (about 23 % of the US population) men born between 1872 and 1899 required to complete the registration cards. There were 3 registrations, for men residing in the U.S. — whether native born, naturalized, or alien — between the ages of 18 and 45. The first one on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31 with 12 questions to be completed.
Second one was on June 5, 1918, registering those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917 with 10 questions to be completed. (A supplemental registration was held on August 24, 1918 for those becoming 21 years old after June 5, 1918. This was included in the second registration.) The third registration was held on September 12, 1918 for men aged 18 through 45 which had 20 questions.
These records provide the person’s full name, date and place of birth, race, citizenship, occupation, personal description, any disabilities, and signature. They contain the exact place of birth — town/village, county/province, state/nation — for registrants born between June 6, 1886 and August 28, 1897 (those aged 21-31 who registered in the 1st or 2nd drafts, about 45% of the total). This may be the only source for determining the town of origin of someone who was never naturalized, or someone who was naturalized via their father’s papers before 1906. The total U.S. population in 1917-1918 was about 100 million individuals.
Registered was done in a person’s local area. Local boards were established for each county or similar subdivision in each state, and for each 30,000 persons (approximately) in each city or county with a population over 30,000. Important to note is that not all of the men who registered for the draft actually served in the military, and not all men who served in the military registered for the draft. Those already in active duty did not register for the draft.
Eventually, there were 4.8 million American servicemen during World War One. Some 290,527 black Americans were ultimately registered for the draft during the two calls of June 2 and September 12, 1917.
As you search here are some items to watch. Some Italian immigrants wrote their last names first, resulting in some cards being filed under first names. Also, cards of Hispanics may be filed under their mother’s maiden name surname if the registrant gave both parents’ surnames. Illiterate men who were unable to spell their names and birth location, so you may need to be flexible when searching for specific names and the spelling.
Males between the birth years of 1872 and 1899 had to register, even if they were prisoners in a local jail or in a state penitentiary. It didn’t mean they would be called into the military while still in jail, but it is fascinating to see who was in jail during this time.
If your family member had his twenty-first birthday between June 5, 1917 and the summer of 1918, his registration card may also include his father’s birthplace as well as his own birthplace. If a registrant was not living in his home town, he could register elsewhere and the card would be sent to his home draft board. In some rural counties, it may have been easier to travel to the bordering county to register and request that the registration be sent on to the actual county. Because it’s possible that some registrations were never transferred, an individual’s card may appear in a neighboring county or state, sometime to watch. There were many ‘boy soldiers’, those underage, who lied about their birth date, some being 15, 16 or 17 years old. So there could be an ancestor really who in 1901 who did register and serve in the military.
Registration ended when WW I ended in November 1918 with registration offices closed and cleared by March 1919.
You can get a copy of the original registration of an ancestor:
National Archives staff search these records for you, get a “World War I Registration Card Request” form. You can request the form from firstname.lastname@example.org, or write a letter to:
National Archives – Southeast Region
1557 St. Joseph Avenue
East Point, GA 30344
The Southeast Region archives will search the cards for you, and bill you $10.00 for each card found. There is no charge for searches when a record is not located. The response time is about two weeks.
To see if there was a card completed by an ancestor using either or both of these online sites. There is quite of information to be learned. FamilySearch has 24,999,338 records (free) and Ancestry.com has over 24 million records (fee-based).
Photos: Poster for men to join the US Army, lines of men to register, and the 3rd registration form that was completed.
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