Category Archives: 19th Century Army

Here’s an Idea…Visit a Memorial or Monument for Memorial Day This Year!

One of the most shocking areas to visit in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is the memorial to those who were missing in action or were lost in naval battles and were either buried at sea or went down with their ships or aircraft. “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God. | * indicates Medal of Honor award.”

Historically, when I wrote an article regarding Memorial Day, I would publish it during that weekend or as close to the actual day as possible. I chose to take a slightly different approach with today’s post as I am hopeful that I can perhaps influence one or more readers to depart from the weekend getaway plans for camping, fishing, boating, hiking, etc. altering them to include an activity that would cause them to remember and reflect upon their own freedom and that for some American families, this particular holiday is but a painful reminder of the cost of freedom.

An airman poses next to a wrecked American Sherman tank on the shore of Saipan in 1944. This tank remains in place, nearly 75 years later.

When the guns fall silent and the now grizzled and weary combat veterans return home from war, time begins to erode the harsh realities the combatants lived and breathed on the field of battle. As the memories become distorted and faded, faces of those lost in combat are difficult to recall. Though, for many the scars never heal. The battle remains as vivid and crisp throughout the decades. But for the citizens who remained on the home-front, all is easily forgotten.

On the now-silent battlefields of the world wars, reminders can still be found even as the surrounding environment engulfs and enshrouds them. On land and in the surrounding waters of some South Pacific islands, visitors can still locate relics of war. Artillery shells and plane crash sites dot the landscape in places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu. Carcasses and hulks of tanks and AMTRACs (amphibious armored tracked vehicles or LVTs) remain partially or entirely submerged in the reefs of Saipan and Tarawa. But these are far from permanent or honoring remembrances.

The Guadalcanal American Memorial was dedicated in 1992 as a tribute to American and Allied troops who lost their lives in the Guadalcanal Campaign. (Image courtesy of Solomons Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust)

Throughout the many years and decades following the American Civil War, veterans were drawn, compelled by lingering painful memories, returning to the battlefields to retrace their bloody footprints and to reunite with others from their units who were following their own compulsions. By the early 1900s, full-blown reunions were happening in places like Gettysburg as once youthful, sworn enemies came together as aged friends. These old veterans, motivated by their efforts decades earlier, began raising funds with the idea to erect monuments and memorials to commemorate their units’ deeds and to remember those lost during the conflict. Today, there are countless monuments located at the various battlefield sites as well as spread throughout the nation, particularly within the participating states.

The final resting place for the majority of the men who were killed at the Little Big Horn battlefield site is marked with this granite obelisk which contains the names of the men who are interred beneath it.

As the United States has sent men (and women) off to war throughout the last century, the tradition of erecting memorials and monuments has continued both on foreign soil (with local consent and cooperation) and domestically. With the assistance of the military, the American Battle Monuments Commission, state and local governments,  and various veteran service organizations, monuments have been erected in all fifty states as well as within several U.S. territories. 

I make a point of locating local monuments to remind myself that the statistics that are easily found on the internet are more than that to the people of their hometowns. Names etched in stone or cast in bronze are reminders of the very personal cost of war. Sons (and now daughters) who will never return home to their families and loved ones – their names are displayed that we will never forget.

Some local monuments have national significance as they are symbols of the rally-cries – “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember the Arizona!” – that took us to war. In San Antonio, the Alamo mission is faithfully preserved. At Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial sits astride the sunken ship, recalling the Day of Infamy. In my hometown, a small, nearly forgotten memorial stands as a reminder of war that most of my generation have no knowledge of.

“Remember the Maine!”
In a local park, there stands a small pedestal holding a ten-inch naval gun shell that was removed from the sunken armored cruiser, USS Maine (ACR-1).  The sinking of the ship was an impetus that vaulted the United States into a war with Spain, two months later (though the cataclysmic explosion that that destroyed the Maine remains a mystery that some experts believe could have been merely a crew-caused mishap or accident).

At my city’s War Memorial Park (interestingly, the Maine monument is not located here), a large bell hangs with the name of a navy ship and the date of which the ship was commissioned, cast into its face. Very few details are known about this ship, only that it was a protected cruiser and that it was lost when it became entrapped on a reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico, breaking apart in a heavy storm. The ship, named for this city, was commissioned in 1903 and served in World War I, ran aground lodging herself on a reef as it approached the port in 1924. Some suspect that the navigation aids marking the channel had been moved by Mexican revolutionaries. The commanding officer of the ship, Captain Herbert G. Sparrow, gave his life, refusing to leave the ship, hopeful that the USS Tacoma could be saved. Along with the captain, four radiomen lost their lives while the rest of the crew had been evacuated under the orders of the captain.

Some collectors I know, spend lifetimes attempting to bring home the uniforms, medals and other militaria items as they assemble displays to honor their hometown heroes, utilizing the names etched on their local monuments.

This memorial Day, along with paying respects to those lives who were lost in service to our nation, I encourage you to locate the monuments and memorials in your local areas and pay a visit to at least one:

As you will note, the above list has nothing from the Korean or Vietnam wars as there are only a handful that exist throughout our country. As the planning for the Iraq and Afghanistan War memorial is planning and development (it was approved by Congress a few years ago), it seems that our nation is truly forgetting about those from the most recent conflicts and becoming increasingly indifferent towards service men and women and our veterans. Apathy and complacency becomes animosity and sadly our nation is already in the early stages of that transition.

Viewing the original mooring quay that the USS Arizona was tied to (when she was attacked) from within the memorial.

Collecting, preserving, researching and documenting military artifacts is another vehicle by which a small segment of the population honors those who served. This passion can serve to maintain the face of the veteran in conjunction with the sacrifice and service. Monuments and memorials provide communities with a focal point with which to assemble and remember the many generations of our fellow citizens who never returned home to their families. Memorial Day serving as a vehicle with which to re-center our citizens’ understanding of service and self-sacrifice and the very real cost of freedom.

I emphatically encourage Americans (natural born, naturalized and would-be citizens) to embrace this nation’s history. One of the best ways with which to learn about the sacrifices that were made throughout our nation’s founding and preservation is to visit the monuments and memorials dedicated to those who gave their last full measure of devotion that we all would live and cherish our freedom.

The USS Arizona Memorial is lighted at dusk with the USS Vincennes (CG-49) moored across the South Channel at Hotel Pier.

The original source of the cliche’ that is often repeated on Memorial and Veteran’s Day, “Freedom is not free,” seems to be author-less. However, it is my belief that the origins of that thought stem from yet another oft-recycled excerpt from a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson (on November 13, 1787 to William S. Smith):

“..what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Granted, Jefferson was referring to rebellion and revolution, however the sentiment applies to the restoration of freedom in foreign lands and the preservation of it for our own. The blood of patriots has been spilled since our nation was founded recommencing with the War of 1812 on through to present day. Standing on the hallowed battlefield grounds within our shores, once can gain a sense for the horrors of war an the sacrifices made by our great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.  This heritage belongs to all Americans, despite their nation of origin. Along with their freedom, they also inherit the history and legacy that is represented by the memorials and monuments found within our nation’s cemeteries, battlefields and public spaces, located domestically and abroad: American Battlefields and Monuments Commission: Cemeteries and Memorials.

Other related Veteran’s Collection articles:

Memorials and monuments references and resources:

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

General Collectors – Senior Military Officers Acting as Relic Hunters

In researching some of my ancestors’ service in the Union Army, my great, great, great grandfather in particular, I discovered an unrelated story about three artifacts that were “purchased” from their owner having considerable significance in American history.

As the Civil War was in its final hours, General Lee sent his aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall to secure an appropriate location in which to formalize the surrender and capitulation of the Confederate Army and to bring about the end of more than four years of horrific civil war. The site that was selected was the farmhouse which belonged to Wilmer McLean who had relocated to Appomattox Court House, Virginia to get away from the war that had begun, quite literally in his backyard at Bull Run four years prior.

General Robert E. Lee, left, surrendering his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, in the McLean House parlor at Appomattox Court House, in this 1867 painting by Richmond artist Louis Guillaume Photo: AP Photo/courtesy of Appomattox Courthouse National Park

As General Lee and his aide, Marshall waited in the parlor of the McLean house, the victorious yet humble, General Ulysses Grant arrived with his entourage of subordinates which included Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan and his aide, Captain Michael Sheridan. After the exchange of honors and pleasantries, the formalities commenced over the course of three and a half hours, culminating in the exchange of written agreements to the terms of surrender. As the two commanding generals left the house and were departing upon their mounts, the collector activities commenced back inside the parlor.

The two commanders sat across from each other; Lee in a tall caned armchair and Grant in a swivel chair with a padded leather back next to a small oval side table. They made some small talk before Lee asked on what terms Grant would “receive the surrender of my army.” (National Museum of American History)

Understanding the significance of the monumentally historical moment that had just taken place, the burgeoning militaria collectors such as General Edward Ord, the Sheridan brothers (the general and captain), (brevet) Brigadier General Henry Capehart and others began removing the tables and the implements set upon them (candlesticks, ink wells, etc.) unceremoniously providing reimbursements to Wilmer McLean (who had no desire to sell off his furnishings). The cane-bottom chairs were broken apart into bits and pieces with the end results being divvied up among the crowds of relic hunters, leaving McLean’s parlor an empty space.

Collecting war prizes from the vanquished is a long-standing practice that continues to this day and perhaps without the efforts of these eager “collectors,” the artifacts could have been lost to time. Instead, after changing hands numerous times, the table and chair used by General Grant and the chair used by General Lee made their way to the Smithsonian where collectors, historians and history buffs alike can share in what many refer to as the rebirth of the United States of America.

See also:

Showing Off Your Collection is Not Without Risk

For the most part, militaria collectors enjoy anonymity and prefer to keep their collections private, sharing them with a scant few trustworthy people. Those whose collections include ultra-rare pieces tend to avoid the public exposure for good reason.

As someone with a passion for history, specifically United States military history, I enjoy viewing the work of other collectors and soak up the details of each piece they are willing to share with me. It brings me absolute joy to hold an item that is tied to a notable person or a monumental event as I try to picture the setting from where the piece was used. I often wonder how many times the piece has changed hands over the course of its existence. Not wanting to pry or press the collectors, I seldom inquire as to how they came to own the piece.

Some of you may wonder why a collector might choose to keep his work out of the public eye.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this area of collecting is the very personal nature of a vast number of pieces – meaning that items such as medals or decorations might be engraved or inscribed with a veteran’s name. While this personalization benefits the collector in that they have a means to research the item when tracing its “lineage” back to the original owner, it can also be a detriment.

I have witnessed situations where a collector posted a named piece on the web only to be contacted by a person claiming to be the next of kin of the original owner, while telling a sad (and sometimes convincing) story of how the items were sold or taken without their knowledge. Or worse yet, the original owner, perhaps suffering from age-related mental issues, let the items go during a lapse in judgement, depriving the child the ability to preserve the items. Demands, sometimes accompanied by threats of legal action, are subsequently directed toward the collector in an effort to acquire the pieces. There is no rock-solid way for the collector to validate the claims.

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

In some instances, I have seen collectors happily repatriating militaria objects back to family members once the ownership claims have been substantiated. A few of those collectors, having made significant investments into acquiring the pieces, went as far as to gift the items to the family without seeking any sort of compensation.

As I turned on my computer today to check the news and catch up on emails, I noticed a developing story surrounding a prominent militaria collector whose collection I touched on a few weeks ago. It seems that a San Antonio man has filed a lawsuit against musician Phil Collins, seeking financial damages due to an alleged theft of Alamo relics from the trunk of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The suit names Collins as one of four defendants, who ultimately acquired the pieces from a San Antonio militaria dealer (also named as a defendant).

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I won’t delve into the nature or details of the suit, but there is some history of the collector making accusations toward the dealer in the past, and this could be perceived as a personal conflict between the plaintiff and the dealer, but without having much knowledge of the case, I will not speculate as to who did what to whom as that is a matter for the courts to decide. What I do find fascinating is that the plaintiff is not seeking the return of his alleged “stolen” relics.

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

The Collins case underscores yet another pitfall of making one’s collection available for public review. Aside from opening the door for questions as to the authenticity of some of his pieces, this collector has exposed himself to challenges from anyone who might choose to make an ownership claim against him.

A British Collector of the Alamo – Foreign Collectors of American Militaria

A question was recently posed by militaria collector from the UK asking how Americans feel “about important artifacts which are part of US cultural history being in the private collection of a British musician.” The question was in direct response to a March 2012 publication of a 416 page volume, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, that details musician Phil Collins’ extensive collection of historic artifacts directly related to the 1836 battle at the Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio, Texas, simply known as the Alamo.

Published in March of 2012, Phil Collins’ book documents his extensive collection of militaria related to the 1836 battle at the Alamo.

Published in March of 2012, Phil Collins’ book documents his extensive collection of militaria related to the 1836 battle at the Alamo.

Like many American kids of the post-World War II generation, I’ve always related the Alamo to Hollywood-produced entertainment such as Disney’s Davy Crockett (1954-55) and The Alamo(1960), glamorizing the historical characters such as David “Davy” Crockett (played by Fess Parker or John Wayne) and James “Jim” Bowie (Kenneth Tobey or Richard Widmark) and their legendary fight with Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. Glorified in these portrayals are the manner in which each of the two main characters fought and ultimately died alongside their comrades. American youth would be inspired to don faux coonskin caps and buckskin outfits as they act out the scenes.

Singer, songwriter and drummer Phil Collins (of rock band Genesis) was one of those kids growing up watching the onscreen portrayals of Davy Crockett. Fascinated by the Alamo and the siege and battle that took place there in February and March of 1836, Collins was drawn to collecting militaria when he discovered a Crockett autograph for sale while on tour with Genesis, “I didn’t know this stuff was out there, that you could own it,” he noted. Phil had been bitten by the militaria collecting bug and the resulting, spectacular Alamo-specific collection that he spent decades assembling is unequaled.

In March of 2012, Collins diverted from his musical creativity and ventured into writing about his militaria passion. He published his first book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey which is packed with hundreds of pages of beautiful photography and illustrations documenting the depth and breadth of his collection. Though his book is listed for $120, it can be found for less than $40.

Regarding the question that was posed at the beginning of this post, my response is that there exist monuments, buildings, graves and other large, tangible items and places to view and visit that are related to this historic, tragic event in our history. The individual artifacts such as in the collection of Mr. Collins have been in private collections and out of view of the general public all along. There are probably thousands of individual pieces remaining in private collections that are or can be connected to this event and are still unviewable by the general public.

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

I see what Phil Collins has done in publishing his book as an act of sharing treasures that have never previously been made available to the public. While the book has (for me, at least) a considerable price tag, I still see this work as a gift to fans of history. Through his efforts, we get to have something tangible that provides us with a look at a slew of items that probably wouldn’t have been assembled together without Phil’s decades of effort.

I applaud his interest in American history, militaria collecting, the Alamo collection and his work on this book.