Category Archives: Revolutionary War
A Piece of Naval History or Just Macabre?
“The future naval officers, who live within these walls, will find in the career of the man whose life we this day celebrate, not merely a subject for admiration and respect, but an object lesson to be taken into their innermost hearts. . . . Every officer . . . should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.” President Roosevelt uttered these words (on April 24, 1906) within the confines of the United States Naval Academy at the re-interment of the of remains of the man who is known today as the father of the US Navy, Captain John Paul Jones.
Framing an artifact with historical context helps me (and hopefully readers of The Veteran’s Collection) to better understand the importance of an object or artifact. Rather than dive straight into an item, I find that setting the stage helps to provide perspective, so please bear with me.
As a militaria collector whose primary interest lies in US Navy artifacts, the idea of possessing anything from the Continental Navy is an aspiration that is almost too lofty to consider. The sheer scarcity of objects precludes ordinary collectors like me from pretense of forays into the Revolutionary-era collecting. Seeking out musket balls and powder horns from the Continental Army is one thing, but the minuscule number of patriot participants in the naval service (in comparison to that of the ground soldiers) equates to an incredibly limited volume of available artifacts for collectors.
Considering my financial position and the reality that just about any piece (that I would contemplate as being worthy of my interest) from the Revolutionary War is well out of my reach helps to keep me focused on artifacts that are both within my area of focus and budget constraints. However, on occasion, I do find myself wandering about through dealers’ internet sites and online auction listings from the 1775-1783 time-frame. Very seldom do I find anything that captures my attention which is something that happened not too long ago.
In school, we learned about the famous exploits of Captain Jones (born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, he added the surname Jones after emigrating to the Virginia Colony in the 1770s) with the notable sea battles between his ships and those of the Royal Navy. His legendary response to the surrender inquiry (“Has your ship struck?”) by the enemy commander of the HMS Serapis (Captain Richard Pearson), “I have not yet begun to fight!” will forever be cited in U.S. Naval lore. But most American school children are not educated on what became of Jones following his war service and his ultimate untimely demise.
Following the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris that brought about peace between Great Britain and the newly established United States, the need for maintaining a navy was lost on (most) congressional members. By 1785, the Continental Navy was disbanded and the last ship (Alliance) was sold off. Jones found himself in Europe (assigned to collect prize money on behalf of Continental Navy privateer sailors) without a command. After a short stint serving Empress Catherine II of Russia as an admiral in the Russian navy (along with some controversial legal troubles), John Paul Jones retired to Paris at the ripe old age of 45 in 1790. Two years later, the great Revolutionary War captain was found dead in his Paris apartment having succumbed to interstitial nephritis.
Jones was buried in the French royal family’s cemetery (Saint Louis Cemetery) with considerable expense to M. Pierre François Simonneau, who was incensed that the American government wouldn’t render the honors due such a national hero at his passing. Simonneau said that if America “would not pay the expense of a public burial for a man who had rendered such signal services to France and America” he would pay (the large sum of 462 Francs) himself.
With the collapse of the Louis XVI’s monarchy soon after Jones’ death and burial, the cemetery was sold and after a few years was largely forgotten. Decades passed and John Paul Jones’ grave was lost to decay and years of neglect.
In 1897, General Horace Porter was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to France by President McKinley. Soon after his arrival in Paris, Porter took personal interest in the pursuit of Jones grave while gathering official and private documents (much of it was conflicting) pertaining to his death and burial.
“After having studied the manner and place of his burial and contemplated the circumstances connected with the strange neglect of his grave, one could not help feeling pained beyond expression and overcome by a sense of profound mortification. Here was presented the spectacle of a hero whose fame once covered two continents and whose name is still an inspiration to a world-famed navy, lying for more than a century in a forgotten grave like an obscure outcast, relegated to oblivion in a squalid corner of a distant foreign city, buried in ground once consecrated, but since desecrated by having been used at times as a garden, with the moldering bodies of the dead fertilizing its market vegetables, by having been covered later by a common dump pile, where dogs and horses had been buried, and the soil was still soaked with polluted waters from undrained laundries; and as a culmination of degradation, by having been occupied by a contractor for removing night-soil.”
After years of research, Porter was confident that he had narrowed down the approximate grave site location. In 1905, excavation work commenced as archaeologists began digging beneath a building that had been constructed over the cemetery. Upon unearthing a third coffin (they knew that Jones had been buried in a costly lead casket), the men opened it and found a well-preserved body that matched all the details of the man they sought. Porter wrote, “For the purpose of submitting the body to a thorough scientific examination by competent experts for the purpose of complete identification, it was taken quietly at night, on April 8, to the Paris School of Medicine (École de Médecine) and placed in the hands of the well-known professors of anthropology, Doctor Capitan and Doctor G. Papillault and their associates, who had been highly recommended as the most accomplished scientists and most experienced experts that could be selected for a service of this kind. I of course knew these eminent professors by reputation, but I had never met them.”
After careful examination, the physicians confirmed the identity (of the remains) as being that of the late Captain Jones. By August of 1905, the lead casket (which was placed inside a wooden casket) had arrived in the U.S. and was temporarily laid to rest at the US Naval Academy’s (USNA) Bancroft Hall during an April 24, 1906 ceremony. Jones’ body remained in this location while his final resting place was constructed beneath the USNA chapel. Upon completion of the elaborate and ornate crypt in 1913, the naval hero of the American Revolution was laid to rest at his final location.
By now you might be wondering why I am going to such great length in describing what happened with the naval hero of the American Revolution and what the possible context is regarding militaria. While perusing an online auction site, I stumbled upon a listing pertaining to Captain Jones.
“RARE FATHER OF US NAVY JOHN PAUL JONES LOCK OF HAIR DOCUMENTED BY AUTOPSY DR” – Auction listing title
As I scanned through the various images detailing the different facets included with the piece it began to sink in that the auction lot was highly bizarre and extremely unique (if not macabre). Though seller made a minute attempt to fully describe what the item within the listing, he (or she) opted instead to let the incredibly small images (low resolution, no less) makeup for the lack of details within the text.
From appearances, the lot contained a lock of the Captain’s hair that had supposedly been removed by one of the physicians who performed the 1905 post-exhumation autopsy. Accompanying the lock (which was bound with a ribbon) was the doctor’s hand-written note regarding how he obtained the piece. Along with these two pieces is another handwritten note inscribed by the man who purchased the hair (“H. H. Strigley”) from the physician in January, 1926.
While this listing certainly piqued my interest, I’d shudder at the idea of forking over $3,500 (which I don’t happen to have available) without performing the necessary due diligence in verifying the documentation trail (or maybe a DNA test of the hair would be in order?). Taken at face value, the item would be a fantastic acquisition and quite the conversation piece for naval collectors.
While there is reason to question the validity of such an item, to the right collector, this John Paul Jones group would make a great investment. Perhaps the provenance documents are traceable and can establish enough proof (a hand-writing analysis of the note purportedly drafted by Dr. Papillault)?
Drawing in Recruits: Posters and Broadsides
Tonight, as I was finishing up some research for one of my genealogy projects, I found myself clicking through a series of online auction listings of militaria that would look absolutely fantastic hanging on the walls of my “war room.” My mind began to wander with each page view, imagining the various patriotic renderings, designed to inspire the 1940s youth to rush to their local recruiter to almost single-handedly take on the powers of the Axis nations.
Recruiting posters are some of the most collected items of militaria as their imagery conjures incredible emotional responses, such as intense national sentiment, inflamed hatred of the new-found enemy or a sense of call of duty. The colorful imagery of these posters inspires considerable interest from a wide range of collectors, in some cases driving prices well into four-digit realms.
Most Americans are familiar with the iconic imagery of Uncle Sam’s “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army” that was created and used in the poster by James Montgomery Flagg, making its first appearance in 1916, prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. While this poster is arguably the most recognizable recruiting poster, it was clearly not the first. Determining the first American use of recruiting posters, one need not look any further than the Revolutionary war with the use of broadsides, one of the most common media formats of the time.
The use of broadsides, some with a smattering of artwork, continued to be utilized well into (and beyond) the Civil War with both the Army and Navy seeking volunteers to fill their ranks. With the advancement of printing technology and the ability to incorporate full color, the artwork began to improve, adding a new twist to the posters, providing considerable visual appeal. By the turn of the twentieth century, well-known artists were commissioned to provide designs that would evoke the response to the geopolitical and military needs of the day.
Adding to the appeal for many non-militaria collectors is artist cache associated with many of the recruiting poster source illustrations. The military brought in the “big guns” of the advertising industry’s graphic design, tapping into the reservoir of well-known artists; if their names weren’t known, their stylings had permeated into pop culture by way of ephemera and other print media advertising. In addition to James Flagg, some of the most significant (i.e. most sought-after and most valuable) Navy recruiting posters were designed by notable artists such as:
Sadly, with my limited budget and my unwillingness to horse-trade any of my collection, these posters are somewhat out of my reach. It goes without saying that condition and age along with desirability have direct impact on value and selling prices. Some of the most desirable posters of World War II can sell for as much as $1,500-$2,000. For the collector with deeper pockets, Civil War broadsides can be had for $4,500-$6,000 when they become available. I have yet to locate any of the recruiting ephemera from the Revolutionary War, so I wouldn’t begin to speculate the price ranges should a piece come to market.
Discouraged as I may be in my quest to secure one of these treasured prints, I may be better off seeking quality reproductions to adorn the vertical white-space of my war room. However, a few years ago I received a reproduced war-bond drive poster – the original was created to encourage Hoosiers to buy bonds to name a new cruiser to honor the (then) recently sunk USS Vincennes.
Note: All images not sourced are provided courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
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.