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 P. 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:
Over the past few weeks, I have taken a little time to focus on other priorities such as my primary job (I don’t write on a full-time basis), my family and my fitness (not necessarily in that order). In response to that focus, my attention had shifted away from militaria and the various aspects of collecting during that period of time. Now that we are in the latter half of May, I need to bring my thoughts back to my passion for military history as one of the most important holidays (in my opinion) draws near.
Turning on the news this morning, my interest in the weekend forecast is piqued as the meteorologist begins to discuss the cooler than normal temperatures, the risk of rainfall and how these conditions will impact camping, boating and backyard barbecue plans. The statement really struck me as my only considerations for this weekend surrounded spending time at the various cemeteries and placing flags on fallen veterans’ graves and those of my veteran ancestors and relatives. This activity is something my wife and I have been doing dating back to my time in uniform. Making alternative plans is never a consideration and now my children are so accustomed to this practice, they look forward to Memorial Day.
As our culture continues to morph and shift with each passing year, the gap of time expands and the meaning and origins of Memorial Day fade from the American population’s conscience. In a time where less than half of one percent of Americans are serving in uniform, there is virtually no understanding of the personal sacrifices (that are routinely paid by those on active duty). When someone falls on the battlefield, that societal understanding of the price paid just isn’t there. I increasingly wonder how it is that we arrived at this point.
Americans’ Participation in War
- 1860 US Population (North + South): 29 million | 3.2 million served (10.35% of population)
WWII era (avg. 1941-45): 136.7 million | 16.1 million served (11.8 %)
- Vietnam era (avg. 1964-74) 203 million | 9 million served (4.5%)
Current population: 314 million | 1.4 million serving (0.46%)
With fewer Americans serving in uniform, particularly during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, general population is disconnected from the costly nature of service. It is no wonder that our culture tends to be more self-focused as they spend Memorial Day without considering the sacrifices that afforded them the freedom to enjoy a three-day weekend.
Through my quest to understand the origins of this particular holiday, I have been led to be more forgiving of people who choose outdoor activities over trips to cemeteries. Considering that the present-day Memorial Day federal recognition was born from Decoration Day – a tradition started following the end of the American Civil War as surviving veterans began to deal with the battlefield losses of their comrades. Over the passing years, these veterans formed various veterans organizations (ranging from unit-specific to the enormous such as the GAR and UCV) and took the lead on preserving the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because of the efforts of these groups, battlefield and cemetery preservation and monument construction efforts were undertaken along with ceremonial gatherings for commemorative dedications.
Throughout our nation’s history, it has been the veterans who have taken the lead on honoring the war dead. Mourning the loss of a brother (or sister) who fell on the field of battle is something a surviving veteran never forgets. That moment isn’t simply a memory etched into their minds but rather akin to a remaining scar in place of a missing limb. It cannot be forgotten or, as some civilians would suggest, something to “get over.”
A few years ago, I started taking notice of various references to Decoration Day and antique items that make mention of it. One of those items that caught my attention was a postcard (from the early 20th Century) depicting an elderly Civil War veteran placing a wreath of flowers at a grave. The image, an illustration, was so moving that I was overwhelmed with emotions. The postcard evoked more recent memories of World War II veterans (at D-Day celebrations) paying respects to their fallen comrades some 70 years hence and the fresh, vivid memories painted across their faces.
Over the course of the past century, it seems that nothing has changed. Veterans still ache for their lost buddies and they are compelled to continue to honor them as long as they are physically able to do so. As a veteran, I am committed to continuing the tradition of honoring and remembering those who gave their last full measure protecting and ensuring freedom for future generations.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.