Monthly Archives: April 2013
Happen to Have $250k for a “Rare” 1775 Medal?
Having a sense of humor is a good thing for those of you who have served (or are serving) in uniform. You understand the necessity…no…the requirement of possessing the invaluable ability to laugh at humorous situations but also actions, activities, operations or events that are FUBAR (you can look that term up if you don’t already know the definition). With regards to militaria collecting, sarcasm, eye-rolling, head-shaking and bursting forth with gut-shaking laughter helps to keep things in proper perspective, especially when one stumbles upon situations like the following.
I know that many, if not most of the people reading this have little or no background covering the history of the United States military medals and decorations. In order to provide some sort of baseline which will then help you to either laugh, roll your eyes or shake your head in disbelief with some measure of authority, I will provide brief history lesson. I won’t go into great detail with the intricacies and extremely specific minutiae so (for those you who are OMSA members) give me a little latitude as I provide a “Reader’s Digest” version.
Prior to the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent military action taken by the rebellious colonists of North America, awards and decorations were a tradition of European militaries predominantly awarded to the senior military leaders and heads of state to commemorate victorious aspects of their illustrious careers. For the first five years of the Revolution, no decoration existed for men who served in the Continental Army or Navy as, it would seem that winning independence from the tyrannical British rule would be enough (aside from being paid for service) to risk life and limb.
It wasn’t until 1780 that Congress enacted the very first decoration, the Fidelity Medal, which was awarded to three specific militiamen (John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams) who captured British intelligence officer, Major John Andre’ (who was assisting Benedict Arnold in his treasonous act). Aside from a few Congressional actions taken to award medals to General George Washington (1776), General Horatio Gates (1777) and General Henry Lee (1779), the first medal awarded to soldiers was initiated by the issuance of a field order by General Washington on August 7, 1782 establishing the Badge of Military Merit. There is some debate as to the number of recipients of the Badge of Military Merit (the predecessor of the Purple Heart medal), but there were very few soldiers to have it bestowed upon them (as few as three).
Another military decoration wouldn’t be awarded for 65 years when the Certificate of Merit (officially recognized with a medal in 1905) was enacted by Congress during the Mexican-American war, in 1847 and re-established during the Indian Wars in the second-half of the nineteenth century.
The most notable American military decoration, the Medal of Honor, was established during the Civil War with the first official presentation taking place on March 25, 1863 decorating six Union Army soldiers with the medal. From the Civil War on through World War II, the process of enacting, creating, managing and awarding military decorations was a process that required developing and maturing as awards manuals and official procedures and precedents were established. For military novices, online resources are quite plentiful and very useful for learning how to determine the identity of a specific decoration and it’s potential collector demand and subsequent value. Now that I have presented all of this information, it is my hope that you see the humor in the remainder of this article.
In 1961, the Navy Department established a medal to recognize individual, meritorious achievements that were not commensurate with the criteria of the Navy Commendation medal. In 1981, the Army (and Air Force) followed suit with their own achievement medals.
The design of the Army Achievement medal obverse is somewhat generic as it depicts the official U.S. Army seal along with the year the Continental Army was established (1775). The reverse of pendant simply states, “For Military Achievement.”
In a recent online auction listing, a seller listed a military decoration and titled it “1775 medal” and listed it as an Original Period militaria Item from the Revolutionary War (1775-83). The photo of the medal showed it as a set (ribbon device, lapel pin, miniature and full sized medals) in the current-issue plastic presentation case. One could suppose that the seller simply mis-categorized the listing and perhaps, mistyped the auction title. These sorts of mistakes are quite common occurrences. However, this story doesn’t end with a simple mistake.
Reviewing the 1775 medal auction description and price, it should become readily apparent that the seller is either out of his or her element, seeking to deceive a potential buyer or having some fun with an online auction listing. The seller states in the text, “1775 military achievement award complete set asking 200,000 worth 350.000 (sic).” Fortunately for potential buyers, the seller provided an option to buy it now for $250k, splitting the difference between the starting bid and the (stated) value.
Not one to make accusations as to the seller’s intentions, I choose to instead, laugh and enjoy the antics routinely experienced in the world of online auctions. For the record, if a collector is seeking to purchase an Army Achievement medal set, look to pay in the neighborhood of $20-40.
The Enigmatic pursuit of the Third Reich Encryption Machine
History is continuously subjected to revision as stories are told and retold. Researchers and historical experts are seemingly discovering previously hidden facts or secrets that shed new light on events. With the new revelations, previous facts surrounding historical events are skewed or changed causing a re-shaping of timelines and ultimately public perception. Hollywood however, seems bent on taking a different tack with regards to revising history in order to reshape producers’, directors’ and actors’ bank accounts.
In April of 2000, Universal Pictures released a highly successful historical-fiction movie depicting the U.S. Navy’s successful capture of a Kriegsmarine u-boat during World War II. The premise of the film was centered on seizing the keystone encryption device (often referred to as Germany’s “secret weapon”), the Enigma encode/decoding machine along with the codes. While director Jonathan Mostow (who also co-wrote the screenplay) navigates around the historical truths by conveniently mentioning that the story is a compilation of actual events rather than being based on a true story. While this may have worked for American audiences, Great Britain’s Prime Minister (at the time of the film’s release), Tony Blair agreed with discussion (about the film) in Parliament that the story was an affront to the British sailors who gave their lives in the actual retrieval of the Enigma device during the war.
Rather than embarking on a mission to demonstrate the challenges created by Hollywood’s propensity of altering reality (albeit for entertainment purposes), I want to focus more on the capture of the machine and codes and what that meant for achieving an Allied victory over the Axis powers during World War II.
Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII on December 8, 1941, Europe had already been gripped with conflict for twenty-five months. Though it was a highly protected secret, the Allies were fully aware of the existence of the Enigma machine and had already seen successful code-breaking efforts (by the Polish Cipher Bureau in July of 1939) until continued German technological advances rendered those efforts obsolete. It wasn’t until May 9th, 1941 that the Allies achieved their most substantial breakthrough with the British capture of U-110 along with codes and other intelligence materials.
One of the events that is allegedly covered (by the U-571 film) is the United States’ capture of the U-505 in 1944 (three years after U-110) which was towed to Bermuda. Following the war, the U-boat was towed to Portsmouth Navy Yard, New Hampshire where she sat until being transported to Chicago to be displayed as a museum ship. The U-505 is now preserved inside the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Also on display are two Enigma code machines.
In addition to the two machines in the Chicago MOSI, there are a handful in museum collections around the globe. Due to the scarcity of the devices, their notoriety and the impact of their capture had on the outcome of the war, Enigmas command incredible premiums when they surface on the market. As recent as 2011, a Christies’ listing yielded a sale with the winning bid in excess of $200,000.
Most recently, the winning bid for an online auction listing (for a three-disk Enigma) seemed to reflect a more modest price as it sold for “only” $35,103. One has to wonder why, in only two years, would there be such a considerable price disparity (obviously factoring model, variant, condition, etc.) between the two transactions. Perhaps the current state of the economy is at play? Maybe the collector or museum with deep pockets was eliminated from the market with their purchase in 2011? Perhaps the $200k selling price was an anomaly and this recent auction reflects a more realistic value?
Either way, the Enigma will remain…well…just that…an enigma with regards to my own collection and the possibility of ever possessing one.
USS Vincennes Under the Microscope
Those who know me on a personal basis understand my affinity for a specific U.S. naval warship. Technically speaking, that interest lies with four combatant vessels, all of which were named to honor the site of a Revolutionary War battle (more accurately, a campaign) that ended the British assaults on the remote Western colonial front. That location in present-day Southwestern Indiana would later become the seat of the Northwest Territorial government in the town of Vincennes.
My connection to this ship’s name extends all the way back to the place of my birth which was also the location of the commencement of an extensive 1840 charting survey of Puget Sound (in Washington State). Locations and geographical features surrounding my home were named by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (commander of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842) and members of his team when the sloop of war, USS Vincennes (along with other ships of the expedition) was in the Sound. I can even cite some Baconesque connections with great, great, great-grandfather who served in the Ringgold Light Infantry (after he was discharged from his cavalry regiment following a disabling injury). The Ringgold name was inherited from Samuel Ringgold, Expedition-member Cadwalader’s older brother (yes, I realize that this is very convoluted).
My personal connection (to the ships named Vincennes) was solidly established when I was assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the CG-49. During the first several months (leading toward the 1985 commissioning date), like many of my shipmates, I was exposed to the history of the ship’s namesake and established personal relationships with veterans of the WWII cruisers of the same name. Collecting items from “my” ship was purely functional in that I was proud to purchase t-shirts, lighters, ball caps and other items (from the ship’s store) that bore the name or the image of the ship’s crest. Many of the items I purchased in those days proudly remain in my collection while a few did manage to fade away.
I am constantly on the lookout for artifacts that are connected to these ships (the heavy cruiser: CA-44, the light cruiser: CL-64) and occasionally, some quality pieces (beyond the plethora of typical postal covers) surface on the market. Fortunately, I have been successful in obtaining a few of these items, though the competition has been fierce. The ones that got away were quite stunning.
The infrequency of appearances of pieces from the two WWII cruisers pales in comparison to anything related to the 19th Century sloop-of-war. During the past decade of searching for anything related to the USS Vincennes, I have only seen one item connected to the three-masted warship. While searching a popular online auction site, a rather ordinary, non-military item showed up in the search results of one of my automated inquiries. The piece, a wood-cased field microscope from 1830-1840, bore an inscription that connected it to the assistant botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition, William Dunlop Brackenridge.
Admittedly, I am not in the least bit interested in a field microscope as militaria collector, but the prospect of owning such a magnificent piece that would have been a fundamentally important tool used during the United States first foray into exploration was an exhilarating thought. At its core, the goal of the (1838-1842) U.S. Ex. Ex. was to chart unknown waters, seek the existence of an Antarctic continent and discover and document unknown species of flora and fauna. Brackenridge’s field microscope would have been a heavily used item as he and his assistants would most-certainly examine the various characteristics of plant species at a microscopic level.
Authenticity and provenance is certainly a major concern when purchasing a piece like this and the listing made no mention of any materials or means to verify the claim. However, in searching for similar microscopes, there was sufficient comparative evidence to support the time-frame in which the Brackenridge instrument was made. The box and the engraving seems to be genuinely aged and appears to resemble what one would find from a 170 year old example.
In my opinion, the investment was well-worth the risk and I was poised to make my maximum bid (invariably draining my discretionary savings) knowing that the closing price would exceed what I could ultimately afford. The auction closed with the winning bid ($810.58) exceeding my funds by a few hundred dollars, though I suspect that the winner had a far higher bid in place to guarantee victory.
I am a realist yet remain hopeful that I won’t have to wait another decade before another sloop-of-war piece comes to market.
Ancestral Flag: A “Guidon” my Family History
Years ago, I embarked on a project to document most (if not all) the members of my family’s ancestry who served in the United States armed forces. Researching genealogy can be quite a daunting task when pursuing such a specific theme within confines of a family history. The difficulty in that task is compounded when the there is little or no documentation available to begin with.
I began my research with the names that I knew on my list – my father, grandfather (only one served), uncles, grand uncles and so on. Merely working backwards two generations, I accounted for six veterans (five with combat experience). The third generation up is where I began to experience challenges (some parts of the family emigrated from Canada or the United Kingdom which adds another complexity layer to the research effort), but was able to persevere, discovering several more U.S. service members.
It was at the fourth generation (removed from me) that I discovered one veteran in particular that had really captured my attention. My 3-times great-grandfather was a veteran of the American Civil War (ACW). I took several notes of his vital information and continued searching. I found that two of his grandfathers and at least one great-grandfather were veterans of the Revolutionary War. With this information, I established a stopping point and began to focus on ferreting out as much data as I could find. I decided to hone in on the Civil War veteran and began exhausting all of the online resources.
After receiving two packets of information following a National Archives request (and several weeks of waiting) I began to piece together what my ancestor did during his time in service. Like thousands of young men across the Union, my great, great, great-grandfather, Jarius Heilig, volunteered (September, 1861) to serve alongside his (Reading, PA) neighbors and relatives, enlisting into the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (70th Pennsylvania Volunteers) – a unit formed by Colonel Richard Henry Rush (son of Richard Rush who was President Madison’s Attorney General and grandson of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence), classmate and friend of General George McClellan.
One interesting fact about the 6th Penna is that their primary weapon. the lance (rather than the standard U.S. cavalry-issued carbine rifle), was suggested by McClellan, harkening to the once-feared European dragoons and cavalry units. The weapon is described as:
“The Austrian pattern was adopted. It was nine feet long, with an eleven inch, three edged blade; the staff was Norway fir, about one and a quarter inches in diameter, with ferrule and counterpoise at the heel, and a scarlet swallow-tailed pennon, the whole weighing nearly five pounds.”
Though injured (by a horse-kick, of all things) at the end of 1862, Heilig had seen his share of combat serving entirely with “F” company until his February 1863 discharge (due to disability), with action in the following battles and skirmishes:
Skirmish, Garlick’s Landing, Pamunkey River, VA (June 13, 1862)
Seven Days Battles, VA (June 25-July 1, 1862)
Battles, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor, Chickahominy, VA (June 27, 1862)
Battle, Glendale, Frazier’s Farm, Charles City Crossroads, New Market Crossroads, Willis Church, VA (June 30, 1862)
Battle, Malvern Hill, Crew’s Farm, VA (July 1, 1862)
Skirmishes, Falls Church, VA (Sept. 2-4, 1862)
Skirmish, South Mountain, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)
Skirmish, Jefferson, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)
Action, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, and Blackford’s Ford (Boteler’s Ford) and Williamsport, MD (Sept. 19, 1862)
Actions, Bloomfield and Upperville, VA (Nov. 2-3, 1862)
Research resources are quite abundant for this unit (which I am still pouring through) and it has been the subject of a handful of books that were the product of painstakingly thorough historical investigation.
What does this have to do with militaria collecting, you might be asking? Part of my quest in producing a historical narrative of my familial military service is to provide visual and tangible references. To illustrate history, words are only part of the equation in connecting the audience to the story. To see, smell and touch a piece of history provides an invaluable accompaniment to the narrative.
I have given considerable thought to my approach in gathering items to assemble a group of artifacts as a “re-creation” of things my great-grandfather might have kept over the years. Visual appeal, authenticity, believability and cost were all factors guiding me as I purchase various pieces for the collection. My goal with the group is to arrange it into an aesthetically pleasing display that I can then hang on my home office wall (along with the displays I have already created).
Collecting artifacts from the American Civil War is not a task that can easily be easily accomplished on a shoestring budget (such as my own). Seemingly everything is expensive from weapons (rifles, pistols and edged weapons) down to ordinary uniform buttons seen on literally millions of soldiers’ uniforms. The high prices and the popularity of the Civil War’s historical popularity (which is maintained by pop-culture with films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) can have detrimental effects on the market as unscrupulous counterfeiters work tirelessly to cash in.
Adding to my challenge is the fact that there were far fewer cavalry soldiers who served during the war. Even more challenging is that my ancestor served with a state volunteer cavalry regiment, many of which had extremely unusual uniform appointments and accouterments requiring even more research and discernment as to what my 3x-great grandfather would have been outfitted with.
These factors (combined with my own lack of experience) limited my focus to keep the pursuit as simplistic and affordable as possible while focusing on the more common ACW pieces for the display.
Since I embarked on this mission, I have acquired several pieces – a mixture of genuine and reproduction (recommended by a collector colleague) – that will display nicely together. From hat devices to corporal’s stripes (repro) to veteran’s group medals (GAR – Grand Army of the Republic – an ACW vets’ organization my ancestor was a lifelong member of). In addition, I’ve collected some small arms projectiles (from weapons Heilig would have carried) excavated from battlefields where my great-grandfather fought.
I am constantly on the lookout for pieces that would display well or that might be interesting additions to my militaria collection that could be directly tied to my ancestor’s unit. When a cavalry guidon flag (directly connected to the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry) was listed at online auction, my heart raced as I eagerly poured over the photos of the tattered and worn swallow-tailed cloth.
Lost in the detailed images of the flag, I was amazed to see the faded relic nicely preserved in a frame behind glass. Bearing marks of the unit and the major battles printed directly on the red and white stripes, this flag appeared to be a true relic of the past. The the “I” designator in the blue canton (encircled by the white stars of the states) indicated that this was the guidon from I company (my great-grandfather served in company “F”). Everything about this flag excited me…until I read the description. The flag was a recreation of the original (which is permanently preserved and displayed at the Pennsylvania state house), right down to the synthesized aging (at least the seller was being honest about the piece).
Had the price of the auction been realistic, (the starting bid was $1,000), I would have been interested in pursuing it as a realistic accompaniment to the display I am assembling.