After publishing more than 100 articles (this is my 106th, to be precise), it is odd that I would make a U-turn and head back to a topic that I should have posted when I commenced this militaria-writing venture. There are many times when I find myself in conversations with people when I am explaining my unusual interest of gathering artifacts that were used in the armed forces in some capacity. I have touched on various aspects of my own rationale behind my interests in several posts, however nothing as fundamental or foundational to what lies at the root of my interest. Though I have been actively collecting artifacts since 2008-9, my interest in militaria began many years earlier.
What is Militaria? Merriam-Webster defines it as “military objects (as firearms and uniforms) of historical value or interest.” The definition of the word is fairly ambiguous and vague when one considers what could fall into the category of military objects.
The categories of military objects can be quite expansive ranging from matchbook covers and photographs to uniforms and weapons. There is something for anyone interested in almost any aspect of military history. As with most collectibles, militaria objects can cross over into multiple categories which can bring larger audiences and have significant influence on pricing. For example, in the area of military patches, militaria collectors can find themselves competing with Disney collectors for Walt Disney-designed aviation squadron patches from World War II. Vintage photograph collectors may be competing with the militaria collector for the same WWI yard long images.
Crossover collectability is good for the hobby as it provides opportunity to focus on specific interests that may be out of the mainstream for either facet. While many militaria hobbyists gather M-1 helmets, insignia, or edged weapons, very few seek out matchbooks.
My own interest in militaria was fostered during my quest to uncover the details surrounding the military service of my ancestors and family members. I also inherited a number of personal effects (militaria) from a few of those veterans which drove me to document their service. As with collecting, one item led to another and soon I found myself piecing together shadow boxes honoring their service and assembling their uniforms for display purposes.
Where do your interests lie? Nineteenth century, Napoleonic wars? Eighteenth century British naval officer uniforms? Medals and decorations of the former Soviet Union? Or perhaps your interests lie in the current conflicts of the United States (Iraq and Afghanistan). One can specialize in assembling the various uniforms for WWII women’s services such as W.A.C., W.A.V.E.S. or W.A.S.P.– but be prepared to pay premiums for these hard-to-find items. Whatever your interest, you should find a collecting niche that aligns with your interest.
Unless you inherited a museum full of artifacts, narrowing your collecting is advisable with the considerable financial outlay you will be facing as you expand or fill in the gaps in your collection. Instead of broad categories such as anything World War II-related, one can be very specific and pursue items from the U.S. Army 4th infantry division. Uniforms, insignia, notable personalities, valor medal recipients or any number of special interests would make the hunt exciting and possibly keep costs manageable.
My collection consists of uniform items, medals, ribbons, documents and photos. All of which has context or tie-in to my family history. In addition to the displays and groups I have assembled, I also have acquired some items that have piqued my interests (or distracted me). While I haven’t purchased any of them, I did manage to obtain a nice group of Third Reich militaria that was “liberated” by one of my relatives, a U.S. Army officer. But in keeping with my focus, I haven’t pursued any additional items to add to that theme.
Follow your heart and your interest!
(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
(Note: This is a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)
Yesterday’s mail delivery netted for me my initial foray into American Civil War artifact collecting. I like to counsel would-be militaria collectors to focus on their collecting – choose a specific area of interest and pursue that area. While I have been trying to live and collect by this guidance, to the casual observer it would appear that, with this purchase, I have altered my stance.
My collecting focus has been centered upon one thing: creating displays or groups that provide a visual reference of specific veterans in my family and honor their service. That direction has predominantly led me to twentieth century militaria collecting as the items would pertain to those individuals’ service. Another contributing factor has been the affordability and abundance of World War II militaria. It has been a bit more challenging to assemble artifacts from the Great War.
The package that was delivered to my door yesterday was small and weighed very little and yet this item would be one of the central pieces in my small display dedicated to the service of my great, great, great grandfather. In researching him and discovering certain details of his service, I decided that I wanted to assemble some significant artifacts for a shadow box that would provide subtle.
Understanding that my 3x great grandfather served in a cavalry unit, I began to research the engagements they participated in. While I am still waiting for my ancestor’s service records, I made some safe assumptions as to which specific campaigns and battles that he participated in, following his regiment and company’s history. Armed with those details, I began to search for anything that could be closely connected to him. Having researched the weaponry, I determined that he would have carried a Sharps Carbine by the time his regiment participated in the battle at Malvern Hill and used that information to search for specific artifacts.
My search led me to several choices of “dug” artifacts, many of which were in my budget. I honed in on one specific bullet round, a .52 caliber “New Model” Sharps Carbine round that had, more than likely, been dropped on the battlefield. The round is beautifully labeled with details about where it was found and what it is and it came from the collection of a known Civil War expert. Feeling safe about the item, the seller’s history and the aesthetic qualities, I went ahead with my purchase.
For the remaining items, I will continue to be patient and educate myself before I pull the trigger (pun intended).
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
- Part 4: – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
One aspect of collecting militaria is the discovery that the item you’ve just purchased has a veteran’s name associated with it. Quite often, U.S. military-related pieces are marked with a soldier, airman, marine or sailor’s last name, initials and/or service number. In some cases, while not possessing a name, uniform items can have a laundry number inscribed in them. This information can provide the collector with a means of researching the veteran to determine where and when he or she served, as well as awards and decorations earned.
In one of my earlier posts, I described how collectors should buy the item as opposed to buying the story. With these named items, we have the potential to provide the actual story to accompany the item in order to explain where the particular item may have been used or worn. At the very least, the piece’s original ownership can be established.
For many collectors, the potential for owning an item that is named to a veteran who has significantly contributed to historically important military events or battles is akin to striking gold. To discover that the uniform you just purchased was worn by a Valor Award recipient (Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, etc.) is exciting and very rewarding as they are relatively rare. Proving with iron-clad documentation that the name stenciled into your uniform is THE person who you believe them to be can be a challenge.
Researching a U.S. veteran can be difficult and time consuming, and you have to be committed to the end-goal if you are seeking definitive results. There can be considerable costs associated with research as well. These factors will lead many collectors to be content with an un-researched piece remaining in their collection.
Before you can begin the research of the veteran’s name, you need to determine several basics about it.
- What period is this piece from? Look at the construction. Pay attention to the details.
- How was it made?
- For WWII and earlier uniform pieces, determine what materials it was constructed from. Does the fabric or stitching glow during a black-light test?
If you can determine the veracity of the item for the suspected time frame, you can move on to researching the veteran’s name with a measure of confidence.
There are a few decent online research resources to conduct searches for your veteran’s name. Some sites, such as the National Archives (NARA), are free to use. However, they aren’t complete and just because the veteran’s name doesn’t appear in the results, it doesn’t mean that you’ve hit a dead end. Below are a few of the resources I use.
Individual Veterans Research
- National Archives Access to Archival Databases (AAD): http://aad.archives.gov
- Ancestry: http://www.ancestry.com (paid subscription only)
- Fold3: http://www.fold3.com (paid subscription only)
Branch and Unit History
- Air Force Historical Research Agency: http://www.afhra.af.mil
- Naval Historical and Heritage Command: http://www.history.navy.mil
- US Marine Corps History Division: http://www.tecom.usmc.mil/HD/
- US Army Center of Military History: http://www.history.army.mil
- Army Historical Foundation: http://www.armyhistory.org
- Defense Military Imagery: http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil
When it comes to researching an individual veteran, Ancestry.com is invaluable as they seem to have the most comprehensive amount of available data online. In order to obtain access to that data, you will need to pay for a subscription. The military-specific results found in Ancestry will provide you with some basic information such as draft cards, muster rolls (which contain service numbers) and pension records. These details can give you solid direction to take for submitting requests via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more detailed information from the National Archives such as:
- Separation Documents
- Service Records
- Medical Records
If a veteran’s name is more unique, researching can become easier. Surnames such as Smith, Jones or Johnson can be extremely difficult to pinpoint with research. Having a service number to associate with the veteran can truly help solidify your results, although there have been instances where the service number cannot be located within NARA. This could be the result of the 1973 fire where 16-18 million records were destroyed. Slowly, the records are being restored and there is a chance that with time, your veteran’s records may be available.
Two of my uniforms (that I have selected to demo in this post) are named. The first is a set of World War II dress blues for an Aviation Radioman 3/c that are tailor made (the sailor had them made especially for himself) with his name and initials embroidered into both the jumper top and the pants. The blues feature a side zipper and a very slim cut to make the uniform more form-fitting. Also in this tailored set are secret pockets to conceal money or identification from pickpockets or con artists. This jumper also features the aircraft gunner distinguishing mark and ruptured duck discharge patches (the ribbons and aircrew insignia pin were added by me for display purposes).
First up, Aviation Radioman Third Class (aerial gunner, aircrew), P.D.S. Leahy:
A search on Ancestry produced a single record that more than likely is the veteran that owned this uniform – the name Philip D. S. Leahy is very unique. Unfortunately, there isn’t any more information which means that I will have to take this information and turn to other resources to find out more about this sailor.
The next named WWII navy uniform, a Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class dress blue jumper, is named to a C. A. Erickson.
After an exhaustive search in the navy muster rolls, I have come up empty handed. While there are several names that match or come close, none align with this uniform.
Again I will have to turn to other resources to see if I can find the name. I have less to go on than the first example.
In a future post, I will tackle the next level of researching veterans and submitting FOIA requests.