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.
“To the victor go the spoils.” While this quote by (then) New York Senator William L. Marcy was said regarding politics, it has been applied with regularity in reference to the taking of war prizes by the victor at the expense of the vanquished.
The taking of war prizes has been in play since the beginning of warfare and will probably continue into the unforeseeable future. The victorious, ranging from individual soldiers to military units and on up to the entire nation, maintain these treasures as symbolic of the price that was paid on the field of battle. Individuals maintain items as mementos of personal experiences and reminders of their own sacrifices. Some are painful reminders of comrades who died next to them in the trenches or aboard ship.
In recent years, as aging American World War II veterans began to draw closer to their own mortality, thoughts of healing wounds that have remained open since returning home have begun to emerge. Many veterans like Clair Weeks began to see the personal items removed from dead enemy soldiers as having little personal value to them. Seeking to provide the dead enemy soldier’s surviving family members with the captured hinomaru yosegaki or “good luck” flag, Weeks began a quest to connect the item with relatives in Japan.
American museums have also taken steps to repatriate items. In Deltona, Florida, Deltona Veterans Memorial Museum staff are actively pursuing the return of a Japanese sailor’s possessions that were taken from his body by a U.S. Air Force pilot in Iwo Jima. These pieces include a silk, olive green ditty bag that held the sailor’s personal effects, a bamboo-and-paper folding fan, a Japanese flag and a collection of photographs.
During the War of 1812 in a naval engagement between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon, the American frigate was overpowered (with 40-7 of the Americans killed in the battle) and captured by the British sailors. Taken as a prize, the Chesapeake was repaired and commissioned as the HMS Chesapeake. Upon her 1819 retirement from the Royal Navy, she was broken up with some of her timbers used to construct the Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire, England. In 1908, the blood-stained and bullet hole riddled naval ensign was sold at auction to Viscount William Waldorf Astor who, in turn, donated it to the National Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Today, the war prize flag is on public display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
Perhaps a having good, long-standing relationship with the United Kingdom contributed to the positive gesture of the 1996 repatriation of a piece of the Chesapeake’s timber to the United States. Americans can view the wood fragment at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum today.
These stories of war prizes being returned to their nations of origin are uplifting, if not inspiring. But there is another, less “sunny” war prize repatriation story afoot that has the stirred a significant amount of public outcry and resistance from U.S. veterans and military leadership.
Most Americans know very little about the conflict in the Philippines that immediately followed the end of the Spanish-American War in which the Americans received the island nation from the defeated Spanish for the sum of $20m. A small faction of Philippine nationals rose up in resistance to what was perceived as another imperialist ruling foreign nation. Seeking their independence, an uprising led by Emilio Aguinaldo lasted for three years from 1899-1902, yet some attacks on Americans continued for years.
In a coordinated guerrilla attack upon soldiers of the U.S. 9th Infantry stationed in Balangiga (in Eastern Samar), 54 American soldiers were killed while nearly another 25 were wounded. In response to the attack, two U.S. Marine officers initiated a vicious reprisal, ordering all Filipino males 10 years of age and older bearing arms be shot. Both were subsequently courts-martialed. As part of the action against the insurgents, American soldiers captured three church bells that were used as signaling devices for coordinating the Filipino attack. The bells were shipped to the United States and have been central pieces of memorials to honor the soldiers that were brutally killed in the Filipino attack.
Today, the Bells of Balangiga are the central point of controversy, in which the descendants of the insurgents who attacked the U.S. troops are seeking their return to the Philippines to be used to honor their “freedom fighters.” Many U.S. veterans see this as destroying a monument that honored the Americans who were killed and erecting a monument that instead honors their killers.
Since 1997, talks have taken place at the highest political levels between the two nations as the return of the bells could go a long way in garnering political and national relations capital for all involved should the decision be reached to repatriate the cherished bronze castings. Today, the bells remain as placed at what is now known as Francis E. Warren Air Force Base (formerly, Fort Russell).