Category Archives: 19th Century Army
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.