Ancestral Flag: A “Guidon” my Family History
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.