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Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service

Like investing in the stock market, collecting is a long-term venture in which only those with considerable patience and persistence combined with a sense of timing in concert with knowledge, will succeed. Before one commits financial resources to a particular stock, the investor will have performed some manner of due diligence, researching the aspects of the company’s business plan, leadership, as well as short and long-term projections.

When attempting to assemble a display, group or particular theme of militaria, a collector must research the era, unit and veteran(s) before initiating research of the proper item(s) that would be suitable for the collection. One must also be familiar with what to avoid. In the area of Civil War militaria where “insignificant” pieces such as authentic uniform buttons can reach prices near (and sometimes in excess of) $100, collectors need to be aware of the fakes and reproductions.

The second Regimental flag of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry - the unit in which my 3x great grandfather served (source: Pennsylvania capital Preservation Committee).

The second Regimental flag of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry – the unit in which my 3x great grandfather served (source: Pennsylvania capital Preservation Committee).

Recently, I posted about a commemorative display (to honor an ancestor) that I had begun to assemble. I was kicking off that project with the acquisition of a .52 caliber Sharps Carbine bullet that was discovered at the battlefield of Malvern Hill in Henrico County, Virginia. During my (previous) genealogical research, I discovered that my great, great, great grandfather had served in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War. Seeking to honor one of my direct ancestors, I decided to create a shadow box to perpetuate the memory his sacrifice and service during one of the most terrible wars in our nation’s history.

Early on in my research, I discovered that my ancestor, Corporal Jarius Heilig, had been discharged prior to the end of what should have been a three-year enlistment – the same as the balance of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. In addition, I located pension documents  (from the late 19th century) that showed my 3x great grandfather had been disabled due to something that had happened to him during the war. Armed with this information, I began to question how he had been disabled. Had he been wounded by an enemy round? Did he sustain shrapnel wounds from an exploding artillery shell? Eager to clearly document his military service as well as fuel my shadow box collecting efforts, I submitted a request to the National Archives to obtain Heilig’s Civil War service records.

Three weeks after submitting my request, a package was delivered to my mailbox and my excitement began to escalate. I ran into the house while tearing into the padded envelope. I rushed to my computer to insert the CD (I had the choice or paper copies or the disc) into my computer. Hoping that the documents (contained on the disc) would solve the mystery and provide me with specific details, I began to read through the scanned documents, most of which were muster sheets showing locations and dates.

Thirteen pages in all, the single, most important document was the discharge certificate which described the reason for his early release from duty (February, 1863). There it was, written in beautiful penmanship, the reality of war for my ancestor, a cavalry soldier. It seems that he sustained a disabling knee injury as the result of being kicked by a horse. Unable to perform his duties, he was released to return to his family. Unfortunately for Heilig, it seems that he suffered from the injury for the rest of his life.

The scan of my 3x great grandfather's Civil War discharge document showing his service and his wound.

The scan of my 3x great grandfather’s Civil War discharge document showing his service and his wound.

Needless to say the discovery had been a letdown of sorts. I called my mother to relay my discovery and my disappointment to her. Surprisingly, my mother noted that there was also an absence of detail – information about the circumstances of the horse-kick incident. Had he fallen from his horse (on a cavalry charge in battle) and sustained the wound as a result of being dismounted in the fray?

Unfortunately, we will never know.


Ancestral Flag: A “Guidon” my Family History

lance - US Army Heritage Education Center

Housed at the US Army Heritage Education Center (located in Carlisle, PA), this image shows one of the actual lances carried by 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry troops.

Years ago, I embarked on a project to document most (if not all) the members of my family’s ancestry who served in the United States armed forces. Researching genealogy can be quite a daunting task when pursuing such a specific theme within confines of a family history. The difficulty in that task is compounded when the there is little or no documentation available to begin with.

I began my research with the names that I knew on my list – my father, grandfather (only one served), uncles, grand uncles and so on. Merely working backwards two generations, I accounted for six veterans (five with combat experience). The third generation up is where I began to experience challenges (some parts of the family emigrated from Canada or the United Kingdom which adds another complexity layer to the research effort), but was able to persevere, discovering several more U.S. service members.

It was at the fourth generation (removed from me) that I discovered one veteran in particular that had really captured my attention. My 3-times great-grandfather was a veteran of the American Civil War (ACW). I took several notes of his vital information and continued searching. I found that two of his grandfathers and at least one great-grandfather were veterans of the Revolutionary War. With this information, I established a stopping point and began to focus on ferreting out as much data as I could find. I decided to hone in on the Civil War veteran and began exhausting all of the online resources.

After receiving two packets of information following a National Archives request (and several weeks of waiting) I began to piece together what my ancestor did during his time in service. Like thousands of young men across the Union, my great, great, great-grandfather, Jarius Heilig, volunteered (September, 1861) to serve alongside his (Reading, PA) neighbors and relatives, enlisting into the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (70th Pennsylvania Volunteers) – a unit formed by Colonel Richard Henry Rush (son of Richard Rush who was President Madison’s Attorney General and grandson of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence), classmate and friend of General George McClellan.

One interesting fact about the 6th Penna is that their primary weapon. the lance (rather than the standard U.S. cavalry-issued carbine rifle), was suggested by McClellan, harkening to the once-feared European dragoons and cavalry units. The weapon is described as:

“The Austrian pattern was adopted. It was nine feet long, with an eleven inch, three edged blade; the staff was Norway fir, about one and a quarter inches in diameter, with ferrule and counterpoise at the heel, and a scarlet swallow-tailed pennon, the whole weighing nearly five pounds.”

Rush's Lancers - 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry

“I” Company of the famed Rush’s Lancers as captured by Matthew Brady.

Though injured (by a horse-kick, of all things) at the end of 1862, Heilig had seen his share of combat serving entirely with “F” company until his February 1863 discharge (due to disability), with action in the following battles and skirmishes:

  • Skirmish, Garlick’s Landing, Pamunkey River, VA (June 13, 1862)

  • Seven Days Battles, VA (June 25-July 1, 1862)

  • Battles, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor, Chickahominy, VA (June 27, 1862)

  • Battle, Glendale, Frazier’s Farm, Charles City Crossroads, New Market Crossroads, Willis Church, VA (June 30, 1862)

  • Battle, Malvern Hill, Crew’s Farm, VA (July 1, 1862)

  • Skirmishes, Falls Church, VA (Sept. 2-4, 1862)

  • Skirmish, South Mountain, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Skirmish, Jefferson, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Action, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, and Blackford’s Ford (Boteler’s Ford) and Williamsport, MD (Sept. 19, 1862)

  • Actions, Bloomfield and Upperville, VA (Nov. 2-3, 1862)

Research resources are quite abundant for this unit (which I am still pouring through) and it has been the subject of a handful of books that were the product of painstakingly thorough historical investigation.

What does this have to do with militaria collecting, you might be asking? Part of my quest in producing a historical narrative of my familial military service is to provide visual and tangible references. To illustrate history, words are only part of the equation in connecting the audience to the story. To see, smell and touch a piece of history provides an invaluable accompaniment to the narrative.

I have given considerable thought to my approach in gathering items to assemble a group of artifacts as a “re-creation” of things my great-grandfather might have kept over the years. Visual appeal, authenticity, believability and cost were all factors guiding me as I purchase various pieces for the collection. My goal with the group is to arrange it into an aesthetically pleasing display that I can then hang on my home office wall (along with the displays I have already created).

Collecting artifacts from the American Civil War is not a task that can easily be easily accomplished on a shoestring budget (such as my own). Seemingly everything is expensive from weapons (rifles, pistols and edged weapons) down to ordinary uniform buttons seen on literally millions of soldiers’ uniforms. The high prices and the popularity of the Civil War’s historical popularity (which is maintained by pop-culture with films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) can have detrimental effects on the market as unscrupulous counterfeiters work tirelessly to cash in.

Adding to my challenge is the fact that there were far fewer cavalry soldiers who served during the war. Even more challenging is that my ancestor served with a state volunteer cavalry regiment, many of which had extremely unusual uniform appointments and accouterments  requiring even more research and discernment as to what my 3x-great grandfather would have been outfitted with.

These factors (combined with my own lack of experience) limited my focus to keep the pursuit as simplistic and affordable as possible while focusing on the more common ACW pieces for the display.

Since I embarked on this mission, I have acquired several pieces – a mixture of genuine and reproduction (recommended by a collector colleague) – that will display nicely together. From hat devices to corporal’s stripes (repro) to veteran’s group medals (GAR – Grand Army of the Republic – an ACW vets’ organization my ancestor was a lifelong member of).  In addition, I’ve collected some small arms projectiles (from weapons Heilig would have carried) excavated from battlefields where my great-grandfather fought.

Guidon - 6th Penna Cavalry

Nicely framed vintage American Civil War guidon of the 6th Penna Calvary (source: eBay image).

I am constantly on the lookout for pieces that would display well or that might be interesting additions to my militaria collection that could be directly tied to my ancestor’s unit. When a cavalry guidon flag (directly connected to the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry) was listed at online auction, my heart raced as I eagerly poured over the photos of the tattered and worn swallow-tailed cloth.

6th Pennsylvania Guidon Major Battles and Engagements

As was the custom of the Civil War, the major battles and engagements in which the unit participated were printed directly onto the stripes on the fly of the flag (source: eBay image).

Lost in the detailed images of the flag, I was amazed to see the faded relic nicely preserved in a frame behind glass. Bearing marks of the unit and the major battles printed directly on the red and white stripes, this flag appeared to be a true relic of the past. The the “I” designator in the blue canton (encircled by the white stars of the states) indicated that this was the guidon from I company (my great-grandfather served in company “F”). Everything about this flag excited me…until I read the description. The flag was a recreation of the original (which is permanently preserved and displayed at the Pennsylvania state house), right down to the synthesized aging (at least the seller was being honest about the piece).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon Unit ID

Aside from the tell-tale swallow-tail design of the flag, the printed unit name indicates that this flag was from a cavalry regiment – specifically, the 6th Pennsylvania (source: eBay image).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon - I company Canton

The letter “I” in the center of the blue canton represents the associated company within the 6th Pennsylvania that used this guidon (source: eBay image).

Had the price of the auction been realistic, (the starting bid was $1,000), I would have been interested in pursuing it as a realistic accompaniment to the display I am assembling.