Category Archives: Spoils of 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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Archaeologists could agree that in some form or fashion, militaria collecting has been around seemingly since men have gone to war. Though the concept may not have been seen as collecting, at a base level, man has maintained combat-related artifacts to remind him of battles won or brothers-in-arms that were lost. Not only has man sought to remember his warring past, he has long maintained the spoils of war by removing specific items of his vanquished opponent’s body as it laid on the field of battle.
When some of the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were opened and the contents were inspected and cataloged, among the gilded, religious and life-story items were weapons of war. Free from the worries and troubles of earth, anthropologists and Egyptologists surmised that the military pieces were objects that heralded the deceased king’s victories. Within the tomb of the most widely known pharaoh, King Tutankhamen (or “Tut”), among several depictions of him in combat, was his beautifully ornate chariot that would, more than likely, have been used in battle as documented throughout his burial treasure.
With the advancement of technology came the modern version of the chariot during World War I, the airplane. The warrior who battled from the seat of these modern machines, though differently equipped, had much in common with the brave Egyptian warriors of ancient times as they bravely piloted their flying machines into the center of the fray. In the quiet of the battle’s aftermath, these warriors would, if possible, descend from their winged chariots to survey their opponent’s wreckage, tearing or cutting strategic pieces of the fabric that contained specific identifying marks that helped to tell their story to both their squadron mates and to their leaders, providing quantifiable evidence of their success.
In many cases, these aerial opponents would extend honors that were reserved for their own fallen heroes, to their vanquished enemies. When Manfred von Richthofen, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Army Air Service) was killed when his Fokker Dr1 was downed, members of the Royal Air Force took custody of his remains. To a casual observer viewing his funeral service, it would have appeared that a renowned British war hero was being laid to rest by the varying honors being rendered to this fallen adversary. However, the preservation of his aircraft was overlooked as souvenir hunters quickly rendered the nearly undamaged plane a shamble as they haphazardly dismantled it.
Bestowing honor upon fallen adversaries was practice by the Allies’ opponents, the Germans. Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former president and colonel (from the Spanish-American War’s Rough Riders), was an aviator in the 95th Aero Squadron, flying pursuit aircraft such as the French-made Nieuport 28. After he was shot down during an engagement, his flight of twelve was jumped by seven German fighter planes. Roosevelt received two fatal bullet wounds to his head and his aircraft rolled over and spiraled to the ground. His subsequent funeral service was witnessed by a fellow American soldier, Captain James E. Gee (110th Infantry) who had earlier been taken prisoner:
“In a hollow square about the open grave were assembled approximately one thousand German soldiers, standing stiffly in regular lines. They were dressed in field gray uniforms, wore steel helmets, and carried rifles. Near the grave was a smashed plane, and beside it was a small group of officers, one of whom was speaking to the men. I did not pass close enough to hear what he was saying; we were prisoners and did have the privilege of lingering, even for such an occasion as this. At the time, I did not know who was being buried, but the guards informed me later. The funeral certainly was elaborate. I was told afterward by Germans that they paid Lieutenant Roosevelt such honor not only because he was a gallant aviator, who died fighting bravely against odds, but because he was the son of Colonel Roosevelt whom they esteemed as one of the greatest Americans.”
Collecting aviation artifacts from WWI is becoming increasingly difficult as nearly a century has elapsed since the armistice was signed. The soft materials that made up the uniforms and accouterments are under continuous attack from the ravages of time and every manner of decay brought on by insects and ultraviolet exposure. Museums in the last few decades have done amazing work at acquiring the best examples of surviving armament and other hardware to provide their audiences with incredible displays and depictions of the Great War. When the rarest pieces arrive in the marketplace, the heavy competition ensues driving the prices skyward.
In an older episode of the History Channel’s Pawn Stars (the “Stick to Your Guns” episode), a woman enters the shop with a rolled-up section of old fabric emblazoned with a hand-painted representation of an American flag. She tells the story of her American serviceman relative darting over to a recently wrecked plane to cut out the flag, saving it from the ensuing fire resulting from the crash.
In providing the requested provenance, she presents a pair of World War I dog tags. One of the tags shows the information for her ancestor while the other contains the personal identification of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. The Pawn Stars segment could easily lead viewers to draw the conclusion that the flag was removed from Roosevelt’s wreckage but that would be a considerable leap based upon the story of the retrieval and the burning aircraft. It would have been difficult for American to do so, considering that Roosevelt crashed behind enemy lines.
Ultimately, the Pawn Stars folks purchased the flag (the price was well into four figures) despite the lack of connection to Roosevelt. In my opinion, they probably overpaid for the piece but considering that it was destined for Gold & Silver Pawn Shop owner Rick Harrison’s personal collection, it wasn’t too much of a reach.