Category Archives: Other Militaria
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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Because I am known within my family and circle of friends as the military-history person, I am on the receiving end of artifacts from those who know about my interests. From the moment that I was gifted with my maternal grandfather’s WWII navy uniforms and decorations (which can be seen in this post) and my grand uncle’s Third Reich war souvenirs, my appreciation for military history was ignited.
Over the years, I have either received or been approached to determine my interest in becoming the steward of historical family military items which have included, uniforms, medals and decorations, weapons (along with artillery rounds and small arms ammunition), flags, documents and other historical pieces. Some of the most special items that I have inherited have been photography (albums and individual photos). With the last box of items that were part of two family estates (my paternal grandparents and a step-relative), I received a nearly two-foot long, vintage panoramic photograph (known as a yardlong photo due to their length: these images can be nearly thee feet in length) of a U.S. Navy crew, professionally positioned and posed pier-side in front of their destroyer.
For the first half of the 20th Century, a common practice within the military was to capture, in photographs, an entire company, regiment, even battalion of soldiers. The same holds true with the compliment of naval vessels with divisions, departments or even the full crew (obviously, size of the ship and on-duty personnel dictate who is present in a photo). The photographs were taken with cameras that allow the lens to be pivoted or panned from side to side in order to span the entire width of the subject, exposing a very large piece of film. As with the negative, the resulting images were elongated and fairly detailed (most often, these were contact prints, the same size as the negative). However the extremities of the photographs were slightly distorted or lacking in crisp lines due to the chromatic aberration that is almost unavoidable. For the most part, the elongated images are quite detailed and almost without exception, faces are recognizable when the military units were captured within these yardlong photographs. There are still photographers creating panoramic images using vintage cameras and film.
The photograph that I received was in an old frame, backed with corrugated cardboard and pressed against the glass pane. As I inspected the image, I noticed the ship in the background behind the crew that was posed in their dress white uniforms. Noting the blue flaps and cuffs on the enlisted jumpers, I knew that the photo was taken in the 1930s. My eyes were drawn to the two life-rings that were held by sailors on each end of the image, displaying the name of the ship; USS Smith and the hull number, 378. From researching my paternal grandmother’s siblings, I discovered that both of her brothers had served in the U.S. Navy and were both plankowners of the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Smith (DD-378). Dating the image will take a little bit of work (there are no indications of when it was taken – not in the photographer’s marks on either corner nor written on the back). However, I do know when the ship was commissioned, when my uncles reported aboard and departed the ship. Discernible in the image on my uncles’ uniforms are some indications of rank. I can tell that the older brother (who enlisted in 1932) is a petty officer (he reported aboard as a Seaman 1/c) and the younger brother was still a seaman (I can’t see the cuffs of his uniform to determine the number of white piping stripes present) as noted by the blue cord on his right shoulder. I should be able to narrow down the period once I can go through the massive service records to locate dates of rank. However, my initial assessment is that the photo might have been captured near the time of commissioning or, perhaps to commemorate a change of commanding officers.
Being an archivist for my ship and the recipient of some fantastic artifacts, I have been contacted by folks seeking to provide me with images to preserve within my photo archive. A few years ago, a gentleman emailed requesting to send to me a copy of a yardlong photograph that his father, a WWII navy veteran, owned from his time in service. The image was of the second cruiser (USS Vincennes) that was named for the city in Southwestern Indiana. The Cleveland-class light cruiser, hull number 64, had been laid down as the USS Flint but was changed during construction following the loss of the heavy cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island on August 8-9, 1942. The light cruiser was completed and commissioned on January 21, 1944 and served gallantly through WWII and was decommissioned in September of 1946. The man who contacted me had the ship’s photo scanned at a high resolution and sent the image file to me (on a thumb-drive along with a full-size print).
I am not a collector of yardlong photography but when the images are contextual to the areas that I do collect, I am happy to be able to acquire them. Receiving the image of the Smith and finding my grandmother’s brothers in the photograph motivated me to promptly hang it with my other family military history. In scanning the image for this article, I am reminded that I need to have it properly framed with archival materials to allow it to be preserved for generations to come.
One of the most exciting aspects of militaria collecting for me is when I can locate an item that can be connected to one of my family members’ military service. To date, I have predominantly made those connections with my ancestors who served in the United States Armed Forces. However, when I started searching for relevant militaria pieces (that would be relevant to my Canadian or British veteran ancestors), I discovered that if I had deep enough pockets, there would have been an opportunity to obtain something that could be associated with my 4th great-grandfather who served with the legendary 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch.
With the research that I’ve conducted during the last several years, I’ve been focusing on those of my ancestors with military service. I’ve been following each branch of the tree, tracing back through each generation, some of which first reached the colonial shores in the late 1600s from Western Europe. Without boring you with the details, I have been successful in locating ancestors who served and fought in almost every war since the establishment of the colonies, including the French and Indian War.
As a veteran of the US Navy, my interest has been centered on those of my ancestors who wore the uniform of the United States. What I didn’t count on was finding veterans who fought for what my American ancestors would have called “the enemy.” One ancestor in particular was a member of one of the elite British units (which is still in existence) and fought against the forces of the US during the War of 1812. I discovered that still another of my American ancestors was taken prisoner by the British and actually met the enemy ancestor (I know, this sounds confusing).
During one of my subsequent militaria searches, I discovered an online auction house that had a listing for foreign military headgear that were some of the most beautifully pristine pieces I have ever seen. Not being educated in foreign militaria, I was caught up in the aesthetic aspects of each piece while I was almost completely ignorant as to authenticity, time period of use, or even the military history of the piece. But one lot in particular caught my attention.
Prominently displayed as part of the group was an Officer’s Feather Bonnet and Glengarry Cap that was from 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch, the unit which dates back to the early 18th century. Both headpieces featured ornate badges with the unit number prominently emblazoned at the center of the design. The condition of the hats were so spectacular that they appeared to be recent manufacture, however the quality of the items spoke to their age.
As I read the auction description, disappointment soon set in as I learned that the cap dated to 1885 and the bonnet was from the turn of the 20th century, probably from 1900. Any disappointment that I may have felt in learning of the relative recency of the pieces was assuaged by the reality that the lot probably sold for a price that is unrealistic for my budget (I didn’t bother following it through the auction close). It is okay to dream every once in a while, isn’t it?
Before I can start investing in anything from the 18th and 19th centuries, I need to spend a lot of time and resources solidifying my research on my ancestors.
I also need to start playing the lottery.
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
Anyone reading through my growing list of posts will note that militaria is a broad category when it comes to collecting. With my collecting, I tend to be somewhat focused with the items I seek: pieces that fit into the displays or groups that represent the service of my family members or items associated with some specific U.S. Navy ships. In the last several years, I also began to focus on baseball-related militaria and started an entirely separate blog to share my discoveries and findings. Many collectors focus on specific item categories such as medals and ribbons, uniforms, hats, bladed weapons and firearms, or even vehicles.
Some collectors arrive at militaria collecting due to category-crossover. This occurs when a category of collecting specific items includes pieces manufactured over a production run include examples that were used in active military service.
While I have absolutely zero interest in collecting flatware, dinnerware or tea cups, my militaria collection does include a few of these items. My collection of these items consists almost entirely of World War II-era pieces, all of which were inherited or gifted to me.
One of these areas of crossover is tea and coffee cup collecting. For the most part, military pieces are easily researched to locate their date of manufacture like their commercial or civilian counterparts. One piece that I received as a gift was a demitasse cup and saucer set with the flapping flag of a vice admiral (three white stars on a blue field). The matching saucer continued the decorative theme with an encircling ring of blue stars.
To attempt to date the cup and saucer, I simply flipped the items over to determine if there were any makers’ marks or identifying codes. In this case, the manufacturer’s logo, wordmark and a code are all present. A simple Internet search yielded the information that showed the piece to have been manufactured between July and December of 1950 (via RestaurantCollectors.com). These pieces can make nice additions to collections regardless of their focus and most are relatively inexpensive.
My maternal grandfather was a ship’s cook during World War II so I suppose that I could use these pieces to assemble a well-rounded display along with his uniforms, decorations, photographs and ephemera.
Since I received my last piece of Navy china in 2011-12, I haven’t added any additional items from this area. It appears that while I appreciate this area of collecting, it just doesn’t have much appeal to me.