Is there truly such a thing as being too greedy? Can someone be overcome with coveting? I am certain that the pursuit of objects (of my desire) is a pathway that I should try to avoid (or, at the very least, make a concerted effort to avoid), but in some cases, the end result is a boot print in your own derriere after passing on the opportunity to acquire a beautiful piece of militaria.
A few years ago, a relative of mine who was a militaria collector (specifically, Civil War) passed away after a lengthy illness. At the time of his passing, his collection included Spanish-American War rifles, post Civil War belt buckles, and an assortment of edged weapons spanning more than 100 years and representing multiple branches of service.
Knowing that I have a passion for military history and military collectibles, though I am by no means an expert, my family asked for my assistance in identifying certain items and assessing values for the estate. Notebook, pen and Blackberry (with a built-in, crummy low-resolution digital camera) in hand, I made my way over to my relative’s home to begin my work.
Prior to my arrival, all of the militaria pieces had been gathered (piled) into one of the rooms and I was immediately overwhelmed by what was there. Separating the items I could easily identify from those that needed research, I began to document and inventory everything. I knew that because of the assistance I was rendering, I’d have the first opportunity to purchase anything that interested me, should the beneficiary choose to sell.
Diving into the edged weapons, I quickly jotted down the details – M1904 Hospital Corps bolo, M1910 Bolo Machete,M1913 Patton Sabre, WWII USMC Pharmacist’s Mate Bolo, many types of bayonets… the list went on. The two pieces that really caught my attention were very old. One, an M1832 Foot Artillery sword and a Model 1860 Cavalry Trooper’s sword. Both were in pristine condition.
I went home and did my research, comparing the photos I snapped against those of the various online and printed references. Adding up the blades and the corresponding values, I set aside the funds in order to pay for the ones I wanted and submitted the work to the estate. I intentionally left off the two oldest blades as I my budget couldn’t accommodate those high-dollar (for me) purchases.
A few months later, the blades that I was seeking to acquire were delivered to me as a gift. The other pieces that I turned away were sold – for pennies on the dollar – to the estate sales company that was contracted to liquidate the personal property. I was heartbroken. The two blades that I really wanted for my collection were sold at such a low price, I could have easily paid for them even if I was required to buy the blades that I had been given.
Because I chose to collect within my means, someone else benefited and made a killing on these two blades. I will think twice before I make this decision again.
(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
(Note: This is third installment of a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)
- Part 1 – Shadow Boxing – Determining What to Source
- Part 2 – Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win
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.
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.
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.
- Part 4: – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
This weekend, we Americans are being inundated with myriad auditory treats, such as the sound of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill, the roar of the ski boats tearing across the lake, the rapid-clicking of fishing reels spinning, or the din of children playing in the backyard. All of this points to the commencement of summer and the excitement-filled season of outdoor activities, vacations and fun. The bonus is that we get to extend this weekend by a day and play a little harder as that’s what this weekend is all about!
With the opening volleys of artillery (the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter) in the early morning hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, a war of the bloodiest nature commenced within the confines of what was known as the United States of America, but which was anything but united. The division of the states had been years in the making as the founding fathers could hardly agree on the slavery issue when trying to establish a single Constitution that would bind the individual states together as one unified nation. The division led to an all-out conflict—a war that would pit brother against brother and father against son—that wouldn’t cease until almost exactly four years later (at Appomattox on April 10, 1865) and three-quarters of a million Americans were dead (the number was recently revised, up from 618,000, by demographic historians).
In the days, weeks, months and years that followed, the sting of the Civil War would linger as families suffered the loss of generations of men. The Southern States where battles took place had cities that were obliterated. The agricultural Industry was devastated. The business operation surrounding the king crop of the south, cotton, heavily dependent upon slave labor, had to be completely revamped. Many plantations never returned to operation. The Northern industries that had grown extremely profitable and dependent upon the war, churning out uniforms, accouterments, artillery pieces and ammunition, no longer had a customer.
Although the South was undergoing reconstruction and the nation was moving to put the war in the past, and some Americans who lost everything were seeking to start afresh in the West. Like the servicemen and women of the current conflicts, Union and Confederate veterans alike were dealing with the same lingering effects of the combat trauma they had endured. While life for them was moving on, they were drawn to their comrades-in-arms seeking the friendship they shared while in uniform. In 1866, Union veterans began reuniting, forming a long-standing veterans organization (which would last until 1956 when the last veteran died) that would be known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Similarly, Confederate troops would reunite, but wouldn’t formally organize until 1889 with the United Confederate Veterans.
While the country was still engaged in the war, the spouses and mothers of troops, along with their local communities, honored those killed in the war—the scant few that were returned home for burial—by decorating their graves. Freed slaves (known as Freedmen) from Charleston, South Carolina, knew of a tragedy that took place at a prisoner of war (POW) camp where there were more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in captivity and had been buried in unmarked graves. The Freedmen, knowing about the graves, organized and gathered at the burial site to beautify the grounds in recognition of the sacrifices made by the soldiers on their behalf. On May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 Freedmen, Union veterans, school children and missionaries and black ministers, gathered to honor the dead at the site on what would come to be recognized as the first Memorial Day.
“This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” – historian David W. Blight
The largest gathering of Civil War veterans took place in 1913 at the Gettysburg battlefield, marking the 50th anniversary of this monumental battle. Soldiers from all of the participating units converged on the various sites to recount their actions, conduct reenactments, and to simply reconnect with their comrades. Heavily documented by photographers and newsmen alike, the gathering gave twentieth century Americans a glimpse into the past and the personal aspects of the battles and the lifelong impact they had on these men. By the 1930s, the aged veterans numbers had dwindled considerably yet they still continued to reunite. In one of these last gatherings, Confederate veterans recreated their battle cry, the Rebel Yell, for in this short film (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute).
The Militaria Collecting Connection
While collecting Civil War militaria can be quite an expensive venture, items related to these veterans organizations and reunions are a great alternative. One item that is particularly interesting, the GAR membership medal, was authorized for veterans to wear on military uniforms by Congressional action. The medals or badges were used to indicate membership within the organization or to commemorate one of its annual reunions or gatherings.
Over the years following the 1913 reunion, veterans and their families increasingly honored those killed during the war around the same time each year. As early as 1882, the day to honor the Civil War dead (traditionally, May 30) was also known as Memorial Day. After gaining popularity in the years following World War II, Memorial Day became official as congress passed a law in 1967, recognizing Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The following year, on June 28, the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend.
This Memorial Day, rather than committing the day to squeezing in one last waterskiing pass on the lake or grilling up a slab of ribs, head out to a cemetery (preferably a National Cemetery if you are in close enough proximity) and decorate a veteran’s grave with a flag and spend time in reflection of the price paid by all service members who laid down their lives for this nation. Note the stark contrast to the violence experienced on the field of battle as you take in the stillness and quiet peace of the surroundings, observing the gentleness of the billowing flags.
Historians, museum curators, historians and collectors all have differing, yet valid answers to the question of historical artifact ownership. Aside from the debate as to where an artifact belongs, there can be difficulties for collectors surrounding rightful ownership that can have more nefarious roots and beginnings.
While watching an episode of the popular PBS television program History Detectives, a woman desired to learn more about a boxed set of named (inscribed) mid-19th century Derringer pistols (season 10, “Civil War Derringers, KKK Records & Motown’s Bottom Line”) that her father purchased in the 1970s. The woman had previously had the Derringer set appraised on another PBS show, Antiques Roadshow (Pittsburgh #1607) for $30,000 but she had no idea who the original owner was or any details surrounding the history of the pistols. Included with the pistol was a document detailing the post Civil War pardon of a Confederate soldier – the name matched the one inscribed on the pistols.
The “detective,” Wes Cowan embarked on a quest to learn about the original owner (John C. Thompson) and if he was, in fact, a Civil War veteran and to learn his history if at all possible. The trail that Cowan followed ultimately led to the great, great-granddaughter of John C. Thompson who told the story of her ancestor and how the pistols were stolen from the ancestral home in the 1970s. To whom do these pistols belong?
My entrance into militaria collecting began more as a matter of happenstance rather than an active pursuit. Having a passion for local area history and genealogy began for me at an early age. As a child, I would often imagine myself digging up arrowheads or other historical artifacts while digging in the backyard or the adjacent vacant lot. Sparked by my grandfather’s stories of the “Indian Uprising” in present-day Pierce County (the father of his childhood friend told him stories of their family evacuating to the safety of Fort Steilacoom), I would picture myself finding my own piece of history.
I never pursued any real archaeological adventures as my focus shifted toward sports and other adolescent activities. After completing my schooling, I was thrust back into history but this time with a military focus when I was assigned to my first ship (following boot camp and my specialty school). I was immersed into the legacy that led to the naming of my (then) soon-to-be commissioned U.S. Navy cruiser. I began to dialog with the veterans of my ship’s namesake predecessors from WWII. From that point on, my interest in military history was truly piqued.
Collecting, for me, began when I was asked to bring my interests and research skills to bear on some artifacts belonging to my uncle that had been stored for 50 years in my grandparents’ attic. The items were in a few trunks that were unopened since they were packed by my uncle and shipped from Germany in May of 1945. I knew very little about Nazi militaria but was up to the challenge to ascertain value and locate a buyer (my grandparents needed money to help cover their costs of care) for the artifacts. I spent a few months learning about the various uniforms, flags, headgear and badges. Little did I know that I was being immersed into the world of the high-dollar Third Reich collecting (yes, I sold most of the pieces).
A few years later when I received my maternal grandfather’s uniforms, records, medals, ribbons, etc., I began to understand that while these items are in my possession, they really do not belong to me. I am merely safeguarding and preserving them for posterity. This has become more evident during my search for anything relating to my ancestors who served in previous centuries. I often wonder what became of their militaria. In watching the History detectives episode, my concern for lost family history is decidedly more acute as I have yet to locate a single photo (of my lengthiest pursuit – my 3x great-grandfather who served in the Civil War).
Recreating History: Researching and Assembling an Ancestor’s Civil War Artifacts:
In actively pursuing items now in my collection, I have acquired a handful of pieces that have names inscribed or engraved of their original owners. The thought has occurred to me that the potential exists for a descendant to claim rights to anything that bears a name.
People fall on hard times or may not possess interest in the military history of their ancestry. A financial need or the desire to free up storage space can drive people to divest themselves of military “junk” without pausing to realize their own connection to that history. In some cases, the heir of militaria may pass away severing ties to the historical narrative thereby devaluing it entirely.
While one person (family member “A”) could have inherited an ancestor’s militaria and subsequently opted to sell, another relative (family member “B”) might have not have been provided the opportunity to retain the history within the family. I have seen stories of this scenario playing out where family member “B” notices a post by a collector (in an online militaria forum) about something recently acquired. “B” feels the need to reach out to the collector to restore the item back to the family, often times to the point of accusing the collector of being a party to theft.
I can identify with the plight of family member “B” in the desire to regain the lost family artifacts. However, I do respect that militaria collectors are some of the most generous and considerate people. I’ve seen them go out of their way to restore artifacts to the family – sometimes at their own expense. However, I advise that family members should exercise decorum and restraint while not expecting a collector to side with them and relinquish their treasured artifacts.
In early 2012, musician Phil Collins published a book detailing his passion for militaria connected to the Alamo and the people who fought and died there. Beginning early in his career, his passion for this infamous siege and battle between the Santa Ana-led Mexican army and a small, armed Republic of Texas unit (led by Lt. Col. William Travis). Collins beautifully displayed his collection across the many pages of his coffee table book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey. Though his publication was well-received among collectors, it did open the door for a legal challenge to the ownership of several artifacts in his possession.
Last week, I posted an article detailing one person’s pursuit of a historic handmade U.S. flag on behalf of her former-POW father. The bedsheet-turned-national-ensign had been gifted to the U.S. Navy by the owner’s family to ensure its preservation and safekeeping to share for future generations. The veteran’s family felt strongly that the flag, while steeped with familial history and significance, the flag belonged to the citizens of the United States rather than it being relegated to “molding away in someone’s attic” or seeing it “thrown away by someone who did not know the story behind it.”
One of the most significant military artifacts now in the possession of the People of the United States is the subject of our National Anthem. The Star Spangled Banner (the flag flown over Fort McHenry during the September 5-7, 1814 British bombardment) sat in the hands of the Major George Armistead’s (the fort’s commander) family for more than 110 years (with one public display in 1880) before it was donated by his grandson to the Smithsonian Institute.
Militaria collectors are merely caretakers and stewards of history. Though we possess these artifacts, ownership is truly not our principal focus. We expend countless resources (time and finances) preserving each piece and researching the associated veteran or historical events in order to preserve the swiftly eroding and priceless history.
Additional Related Articles: