Category Archives: Civil War
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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Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day, I had been inspired by my family military service research project, which had me neck-deep in the American Civil War, which caused me to drag out a few DVDs for the sheer joy of watching history portrayed on the screen. Since the Fourth of July was coming up, I wanted to be sure to view director Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, on or near the anniversary of the battle, which took place on July 1-3, 1863.
I had watched these films (including Gods and Generals and Glory) countless times in the past, but this weekend, I employed more scrutiny while looking at the uniforms and other details. Paying particular attention to the fabrics of the uniforms, I was observing the variations for the different functions (such as artillerymen, cavalrymen, and infantry) while noting how the field commanders could observe from vantage points where these regiments were positioned, making any needed adjustments to counter the opponents’ movements or alignments. For those commanders, visual observations from afar were imperative and the uniforms (and regimental colors/flags) were mandatory to facilitate good decision making.
The tactics employed for the majority of the Civil War were largely carryovers from previous conflicts and had not kept pace with the advancement of the weaponry. Armies were still arranged in battle lines facing off with the enemy at very close range (the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederacy), before the commands were given to open fire with the rifles and side arms. The projectile technology and barrel rifling present in the almost all of the infantry firearms meant that a significantly higher percentage of the bullets would strike the targets. In prior conflicts where smooth-bore muskets and round-ball projectiles were the norm, hitting the target was met with far less success.
The uniforms of the Civil War had also seen some advancement as they departed from the highly stylized affairs of the Revolution to a more functional design. In the years following the war, uniform designs saw some minor alterations through the Indian Wars and into the Spanish American War. By World War I, concealment and camouflaging the troops started to become a consideration of military leadership. Gone were the colorful fabrics, exchanged for olive drab (OD) green. By World War II, camo patterns began to emerge in combat uniforms for the army and marines, though they wouldn’t be fully available for all combat uniforms until the late 1970s.
For collectors, these pattern camouflage combat uniforms are some of the most highly sought items due to their scarcity and aesthetics. The units who wore the camo in WWII through the Viet Nam War tended to be more elite or highly specialized as their function dictated even better concealment than was afforded with the OD uniforms worn by regular troops.
Fast-forward to the present-day armed forces, where camouflage is now commonplace among all branches. The Navy, in 2007-2008, was the last to employ camo, a combination of varying shades of blue, for their utility uniforms citing the concealment benefits (of shipboard dirt and grime) the pattern affords sailors. All of the services have adopted the digital or pixellated camo that is either a direct-use or derivative of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) first employed (by the U.S.) with the Marine Corps when it debuted in 2002. Since then, collectors have been scouring the thrift and surplus shops, seeking to gather every digital camo uniform style along with like-patterned field gear and equipment.
After a very limited testing cycle and what appeared to be a rush to get their own digital camo pattern, the U.S. Army rolled out their ACU or Army Combat Uniform with troops that were deploying to Iraq in 2005. With nearly $5 billion (yes, that is a “B”) in outfitting their troops with uniforms, the army brass announced this week that they are abandoning the ACU for a different pattern citing poor concealment performance and ineffectiveness across all combat environments. With the news of the change, the army has decided upon the replacement pattern, known as MultiCam, which has already been in use exclusively in the Afghanistan theater.
For collectors of MultiCam, this could be both a boon (making the items abundantly available) and a detractor (the limited pattern was more difficult to obtain which tended to drive the prices up with the significant demand). For those who pursue ACU, it could take decades for prices to start climbing which means that stockpiling these uniforms could be a waste of time and resources. Only time will tell.
Since the Civil War, the U.S. Army uniform has one very consistent aspect that soldiers and collectors alike can hang their hat upon…change.
(Note: This is the first part in a series of posts. For the following articles, see the list below)
For me, collecting militaria has been an adventure of discovery as I learn about who my ancestors were and what they did to contribute to the freedoms we enjoy in the United States today. As I’ve stated in earlier posts, my research began with the receipt of a handful of militaria pieces and documents for two of my relatives who served in the armed forces.
Rather than simply store the items in a drawer or closet, I wanted to assemble and display them in such a manner as to succinctly describe their service. Seeking to be as complete as possible, I sent for the service records for both relatives so that I could fill in the gaps if there were any missing decorations from what I already possessed. Upon receipt of the records from the National Archives, I noted that there were, in fact, several awards that had never been issued to either veteran (many service members were discharged at the war’s end war, prior to the decorations being created and subsequently awarded) and promptly obtained the missing pieces.
In preparation for assembling the displays, I was motivated to learn all that I could about others in my family who served. As I worked on my family tree, I began to discover that there were veterans at each successive prior generation who served. From Vietnam to the Korean War, World War II to the Great War, from the Civil War, the war of 1812 and finally, the American Revolution, I had ancestors who were participants. At the prompting of my kids’ inquiries as to who these people were and what they did, I embarked on a mission to assemble tangible representations of some of the notable veterans in the family lineage – including uniform items, awards and decorations.
Limited by financial resources and storage space, I needed to choose the people from our past that would garner my collecting attention. This decision has caused me to abstain from purchasing some of the items that I found very interesting but couldn’t justify acquiring (after all, I am not creating a museum in my home).
One of my recent discoveries is that veteran in my lineage served in a storied regiment during the American Civil War. This unit, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was the only mounted regiment to be equipped with the lance as their primary weapon, prompting the nickname of Rush’s Lancers (Lt. Colonel Richard Rush was the unit’s first commanding officer). While my ancestor wasn’t a distinguished veteran or officer (he was a corporal), he did serve throughout most of the war, participating in many of the bloodiest battles.
I have been pondering how I could create a tasteful, yet small assembly of items that would provide an authentic and visually appealing display. What sort of items are available (and that I could afford) that would fit into a smaller shadow box and tell a story of my great, great, great grandfather’s service?
Taking into account that my relative was a member of the Union Army, I could pursue pieces of the Union uniform such as buttons or other devices. I would need to focus on cavalry as their buttons are different from those of the infantry. If I was fortunate enough to locate one at a reasonable price, I could obtain the kepi hat device. Including excavated items such as ammunition rounds for weapons carried by cavalry (such as .52- or .56-caliber carbine or .36- or .44-caliber revolver rounds) that were found on one of the unit’s battlefields would be a terrific accent to the display. Ideally, I’d like to get my hands on the blade from a lance, but with the lofty price (one was sold at auction in 2005 for $1,440.00) they command, I will have to abstain. If I can locate a period-correct Civil War medal, it would be icing on the cake.
No matter the direction that I ultimately decide to take, I know that I will be spending the next several months scouring the online dealers and auction sites to acquire the pieces. In the meantime, I await my great, great great grandfather’s service records so that I can (hopefully) nail down his service and create an accurate display.
- Part 2 – Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
- Part 4: – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service