This is my favorite genealogy research:
Retrieving The Pension File
I have been to Washington DC many times for pension records. It's very easy to do although it sounds like a lot of work. Here are my tips for what they're worth.
1. If you can go and would need to stay over because of travel distance try finding a hotel deal on travelzoo.com There are always good deals for DC. http://www.travelzoo.com/
2. You can drive in and park, but there really is no street parking post 911. You can park at Union Station and then use the Metro or park outside the city off 295 at one of the Metro stations and use the Metro system - it's wonderful. Just make sure that you check their website for all of their current information. Of course there are many parking lots available, but less in the archives area. http://www.wmata.com/
3. Make sure to read the information on the National Archives website as it relates to genealogy research. They are very strict as to what you can take into the research room. http://www.archives.gov/dc-metro/washington/
4. Plan on spending, at the minimum, a few hours to research because after you request a record it will take an hour to pull. You can leave and come back. No records are pulled on Saturdays.
5. When you arrive at the archives you will go through metal detectors, you will sign in and be given a researchers badge.
6. There are lockers for your things. The lockers cost a quarter, but the quarter is returned after you remove your things.
7. You will need a researcher's card. This is a photo ID card that gives you access to the research room. This takes a little extra time to get, but not a big deal. It is good for 1 year.
8. There is access to ancestry.com and Fold3 within the facility. Also many other resources are available while there (check their website for a complete listing.)
9. There are always helpful staff available to answer questions.
10. Once you have your ID you can put in your request for files. I think there is a limit of 4 per pull (check their website) The pulls are approximately once an hour except around lunch time.
11. You will want to make copies. There is a cashier who can take care of loading a swipe card that you will use for the machine. I think copies are about 15-25 cents each. Some of the files are large, so be prepared. Also take note as to the hours the cashier is available. You don't want to get caught without copy money.
12. When it's time to view your record you go to the research room, be sure you know what you can and can't take in. They have scrap paper and pencils for you to use.
13. Once in the research room you will go to the desk and ask for your file. You will receive one at a time. This is where the real fun begins.
14. Go through the file carefully. If it’s an invalid file there will most likely be information from a doctor regarding the injury of the pensioner. There will be family information regarding children's names and birth dates, marriage information, etc. If it's a widow's pension you will find the same information, but there are usually court documents in which the widow had to get witnesses to prove that she and the soldier were married and that she has not remarried since his death. Widows would have relatives, neighbors, and friends testify. There can also be letters from the soldier included, but I have only seen these in a mother's pension file. You just never know what you'll find. I have found original death certificates and marriage certificates as well.
15. If possible have someone else make copies for you so you can go through the file and get the copies done quickly so you don't hold up a machine. My husband always makes my copies. On that note - be sure to double check what you've copied since this trip may not happen again.
16. Collect your things and have them checked before leaving the research room.
17. You can head back down stairs and enjoy the day.
18. Enjoy DC it's an amazing city and there are many things to do for free. The archives are only a block off the National Mall and a few blocks from the White House. It's fairly centrally located to all the major attractions. If you have good walking shoes don't worry about using the Metro.
As a side note - there is a cafe in the National Archives building where you can relax and grab a bite to eat or a caffeine fix.
Also bring a good city map. It's an easy city to get around. I would also recommend the DAR library for genealogy research while in the city. They have a great amount of family history books in their library.
I hope this is helpful. It is very worth seeing and touching these file for yourself. Yes, you can have someone else do this for you, but the archives employees do not know what you know and may not copy every piece of paper necessary to your research. If at all possible, go to DC yourself.