Category Archives: Ribbons
I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.
I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?
In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.
In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.
For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.
Note: This the third installment of a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War:
- Part 1 – Shadow Boxing – Determining What to Source
- Part 2 – Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
Researching a person’s history who has been deceased for 107 years is difficult at best. Delving into the military service of a person who is an American Civil War veteran, while challenging, is a few percentage points easier, provided you understand the discoverable information. Where things become a test of one’s patience is the task of using the discoveries to create and encapsulate that person’s service with an artifact display – a shadow box to provide an aesthetic visual representation.
I’ve assembled three shadow boxes (and contributed to a fourth) that detail the service of my veteran relatives, incorporating pieces that were handed down to me and augmenting them with replacement items that were once lost to time. One of the boxes I created included my own medals, ribbons and assorted pieces from my decade of naval service. All three of the collections I created currently hang on display in my home office to tell a story for my family and guests about the years of service proudly given to our nation.
Through my continuous research into my family’s heritage and genealogy, I’ve uncovered details regarding ancestors who wore our nation’s uniform dating all the way back to the War for Independence. In the last few months, I zeroed in on the Civil War, identifying several family members who volunteered to gird themselves in the blue, heavy wool of the Union army. As noted in earlier posts (Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win and Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service), several details began to emerge when I focused on my great, great, great grandfather’s service in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in the 70th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.
Pressing into the details in the last few weeks, I learned that though my GGG grandfather was discharged in February of 1863 due to a disability he received during his service with the cavalry regiment, he again volunteered for a stint in the defense of his home state during General Robert E. Lee’s summer invasion of Pennsylvania. My ancestor responded to President Lincoln and Governor Andrew Curtin’s emergency call for temporary service (90 days) as a home guard force, serving with a light artillery company with the Department of the Susquehanna. It appeared that he was compelled to continue to fight though he’d already seen the ill effects of war at places such as Malvern Hill and Sharpsburg.
In the years following the war, veterans were drawn to the quiet battlefields and to their surviving comrades as the impact of the fighting and the bonds forged in combat were too strong. Soon, the former soldiers formalized their “reunions” with the founding of an organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). This organization would last for 90 years from its inception in 1866, advocating and lobbying for the veterans and their needs until the last veteran finally passed away in 1956. My GGG grandfather was a proud member of the GAR and would ultimately benefit from their efforts, being cared for during the last two years of his life in the soldier’s home in Dayton, Ohio.
One discovery I made was that in 1905, my 3x-grandfather made a trek from the soldier’s home to his hometown in Pennsylvania to, according to his obituary, say his goodbyes to his family as he didn’t feel that he’d survive the coming winter. Being a native of Reading, Pennsylvania and a member of the GAR, I deduced (based upon the details in the obit) that he, more than likely, used the trip to say goodbye to the men he had served with. The GAR happened to be holding a national encampment reunion in Reading and he would undoubtedly have made use of the trip for both purposes.
Taking into account the new details, I decided that I would add to the growing list of display items for my shadow box project by incorporating one of the encampment medals from that 1905 Reading gathering. Searching the internet, I managed to locate one in an online auction, submitting the winning bid earlier this week.
In addition to the two authentic small arms projectiles (a .52 cal Sharps carbine and a .44 cal Colt revolver round) that were found in the battlefields where my ancestor fought, and the 1905 Reading national encampment medal, I have acquired a GAR membership medal to round out the vintage artifacts that will be included in the shadow box. Heeding the advice of a fellow collector, I decided to pursue precise reproductions pieces – a crossed sabres hat device, the regiment and company number and letter devices and yellow cavalry stripes of a corporal – to round out the display.
After the final pieces arrive, I will assemble the display and promptly hang it near the others as I continue to honor those in my family who served.
Additional posts about Jarius Heilig
(Note: This is a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)
Yesterday’s mail delivery netted for me my initial foray into American Civil War artifact collecting. I like to counsel would-be militaria collectors to focus on their collecting – choose a specific area of interest and pursue that area. While I have been trying to live and collect by this guidance, to the casual observer it would appear that, with this purchase, I have altered my stance.
My collecting focus has been centered upon one thing: creating displays or groups that provide a visual reference of specific veterans in my family and honor their service. That direction has predominantly led me to twentieth century militaria collecting as the items would pertain to those individuals’ service. Another contributing factor has been the affordability and abundance of World War II militaria. It has been a bit more challenging to assemble artifacts from the Great War.
The package that was delivered to my door yesterday was small and weighed very little and yet this item would be one of the central pieces in my small display dedicated to the service of my great, great, great grandfather. In researching him and discovering certain details of his service, I decided that I wanted to assemble some significant artifacts for a shadow box that would provide subtle.
Understanding that my 3x great grandfather served in a cavalry unit, I began to research the engagements they participated in. While I am still waiting for my ancestor’s service records, I made some safe assumptions as to which specific campaigns and battles that he participated in, following his regiment and company’s history. Armed with those details, I began to search for anything that could be closely connected to him. Having researched the weaponry, I determined that he would have carried a Sharps Carbine by the time his regiment participated in the battle at Malvern Hill and used that information to search for specific artifacts.
My search led me to several choices of “dug” artifacts, many of which were in my budget. I honed in on one specific bullet round, a .52 caliber “New Model” Sharps Carbine round that had, more than likely, been dropped on the battlefield. The round is beautifully labeled with details about where it was found and what it is and it came from the collection of a known Civil War expert. Feeling safe about the item, the seller’s history and the aesthetic qualities, I went ahead with my purchase.
For the remaining items, I will continue to be patient and educate myself before I pull the trigger (pun intended).
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
- Part 4: – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
This weekend, we Americans are being inundated with myriad auditory treats, such as the sound of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill, the roar of the ski boats tearing across the lake, the rapid-clicking of fishing reels spinning, or the din of children playing in the backyard. All of this points to the commencement of summer and the excitement-filled season of outdoor activities, vacations and fun. The bonus is that we get to extend this weekend by a day and play a little harder as that’s what this weekend is all about!
With the opening volleys of artillery (the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter) in the early morning hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, a war of the bloodiest nature commenced within the confines of what was known as the United States of America, but which was anything but united. The division of the states had been years in the making as the founding fathers could hardly agree on the slavery issue when trying to establish a single Constitution that would bind the individual states together as one unified nation. The division led to an all-out conflict—a war that would pit brother against brother and father against son—that wouldn’t cease until almost exactly four years later (at Appomattox on April 10, 1865) and three-quarters of a million Americans were dead (the number was recently revised, up from 618,000, by demographic historians).
In the days, weeks, months and years that followed, the sting of the Civil War would linger as families suffered the loss of generations of men. The Southern States where battles took place had cities that were obliterated. The agricultural Industry was devastated. The business operation surrounding the king crop of the south, cotton, heavily dependent upon slave labor, had to be completely revamped. Many plantations never returned to operation. The Northern industries that had grown extremely profitable and dependent upon the war, churning out uniforms, accouterments, artillery pieces and ammunition, no longer had a customer.
Although the South was undergoing reconstruction and the nation was moving to put the war in the past, and some Americans who lost everything were seeking to start afresh in the West. Like the servicemen and women of the current conflicts, Union and Confederate veterans alike were dealing with the same lingering effects of the combat trauma they had endured. While life for them was moving on, they were drawn to their comrades-in-arms seeking the friendship they shared while in uniform. In 1866, Union veterans began reuniting, forming a long-standing veterans organization (which would last until 1956 when the last veteran died) that would be known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Similarly, Confederate troops would reunite, but wouldn’t formally organize until 1889 with the United Confederate Veterans.
While the country was still engaged in the war, the spouses and mothers of troops, along with their local communities, honored those killed in the war—the scant few that were returned home for burial—by decorating their graves. Freed slaves (known as Freedmen) from Charleston, South Carolina, knew of a tragedy that took place at a prisoner of war (POW) camp where there were more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in captivity and had been buried in unmarked graves. The Freedmen, knowing about the graves, organized and gathered at the burial site to beautify the grounds in recognition of the sacrifices made by the soldiers on their behalf. On May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 Freedmen, Union veterans, school children and missionaries and black ministers, gathered to honor the dead at the site on what would come to be recognized as the first Memorial Day.
“This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” – historian David W. Blight
The largest gathering of Civil War veterans took place in 1913 at the Gettysburg battlefield, marking the 50th anniversary of this monumental battle. Soldiers from all of the participating units converged on the various sites to recount their actions, conduct reenactments, and to simply reconnect with their comrades. Heavily documented by photographers and newsmen alike, the gathering gave twentieth century Americans a glimpse into the past and the personal aspects of the battles and the lifelong impact they had on these men. By the 1930s, the aged veterans numbers had dwindled considerably yet they still continued to reunite. In one of these last gatherings, Confederate veterans recreated their battle cry, the Rebel Yell, for in this short film (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute).
The Militaria Collecting Connection
While collecting Civil War militaria can be quite an expensive venture, items related to these veterans organizations and reunions are a great alternative. One item that is particularly interesting, the GAR membership medal, was authorized for veterans to wear on military uniforms by Congressional action. The medals or badges were used to indicate membership within the organization or to commemorate one of its annual reunions or gatherings.
Over the years following the 1913 reunion, veterans and their families increasingly honored those killed during the war around the same time each year. As early as 1882, the day to honor the Civil War dead (traditionally, May 30) was also known as Memorial Day. After gaining popularity in the years following World War II, Memorial Day became official as congress passed a law in 1967, recognizing Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The following year, on June 28, the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend.
This Memorial Day, rather than committing the day to squeezing in one last waterskiing pass on the lake or grilling up a slab of ribs, head out to a cemetery (preferably a National Cemetery if you are in close enough proximity) and decorate a veteran’s grave with a flag and spend time in reflection of the price paid by all service members who laid down their lives for this nation. Note the stark contrast to the violence experienced on the field of battle as you take in the stillness and quiet peace of the surroundings, observing the gentleness of the billowing flags.
One of the most sacred military medals created for service personnel of the United States military is one that can only be “earned” by receiving a wound inflicted by an enemy in combat. Since February 22, 1932 (the 200th anniversary of General George Washington’s birth), the Purple Heart Medal (PHM) has been awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who sustained combat-related wounds (or were killed in action) on the field of battle, from World War I (retroactively by the veteran’s request) through the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beautifully sculpted in a gold tear-drop shape with Washington’s bust profile superimposed in a heart-shaped field of purple, the Purple Heart is a highly sought after item for militaria collectors. The medal was a revival of a design of an award that was presented by General Washington in 1782 that was presented to three soldiers during the Revolutionary War as a Badge of Military Merit.
Collecting the medal can be offensive to laymen who can be repulsed by the idea of a collector who treasures something that is specific to the suffering or death of a service member. For me, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the concept.
Prior to departing for my first combat deployment, my father, a Viet Nam veteran, advised me to avoid seeking a Purple Heart as if he was directing one of his young charges back in 1969. Of course, I survived my deployment physically unscathed returning home without the bust of George on my chest.
When I encounter veterans who have been awarded the medal, I have a great deal of respect for them. Not because they were wounded, but that they offered themselves up voluntarily, knowing what the personal cost could be. For those who survive their wounds, the road to recovery can last months, years or a lifetime. World War II war correspondent Keith Wheeler described in horrific detail what that road looks like in his 1945 book, We Are The Wounded, telling of his own experience after being wounded (shot) on Iwo Jima. As a civilian, Wheeler was ineligible to receive the award, but he certainly earned it as what he endured paralleled that of the combat veterans who were medically treated alongside him.
For collectors, at least the ones I know, the medal is sacred. To them, the medal is a representation of the sacrifice made by the recipient denoting significance in personal military history. Over the years as family members and descendants (of those veterans) who have lost personal connection to that history, allow the military items to be sold. Many collectors have revealed that they’ve saved items from garbage cans and dumpsters as they were callously discarded.
Most Purple Heart medals issued through the Viet Nam War are engraved with the recipient’s name affording collectors with the ability to research them and reconstruct the personal history. Several collectors create veteran dossiers for each of the PHMs in their collection displaying them alongside their collection at public Memorial and Veterans Day events, describing the price that was paid by each individual.
I have two PHMs in my collection. One of them is part of the medals that were awarded to my uncle who was wounded in World War I and again in World War II. He also served in the Korean War finishing his service in 1954. The other example is one that I acquired that is an un-engraved (and numbered on the edge) WWII-issue, complete set (including the ribbon and lapel devices) in the presentation cases.
Purple Heart Collections