One of the most exciting aspects of militaria collecting for me is when I can locate an item that can be connected to one of my family members’ military service. To date, I have predominantly made those connections with my ancestors who served in the United States Armed Forces. However, when I started searching for relevant militaria pieces (that would be relevant to my Canadian or British veteran ancestors), I discovered that if I had deep enough pockets, there would have been an opportunity to obtain something that could be associated with my 4th great-grandfather who served with the legendary 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch.
With the research that I’ve conducted during the last several years, I’ve been focusing on those of my ancestors with military service. I’ve been following each branch of the tree, tracing back through each generation, some of which first reached the colonial shores in the late 1600s from Western Europe. Without boring you with the details, I have been successful in locating ancestors who served and fought in almost every war since the establishment of the colonies, including the French and Indian War.
As a veteran of the US Navy, my interest has been centered on those of my ancestors who wore the uniform of the United States. What I didn’t count on was finding veterans who fought for what my American ancestors would have called “the enemy.” One ancestor in particular was a member of one of the elite British units (which is still in existence) and fought against the forces of the US during the War of 1812. I discovered that still another of my American ancestors was taken prisoner by the British and actually met the enemy ancestor (I know, this sounds confusing).
During one of my subsequent militaria searches, I discovered an online auction house that had a listing for foreign military headgear that were some of the most beautifully pristine pieces I have ever seen. Not being educated in foreign militaria, I was caught up in the aesthetic aspects of each piece while I was almost completely ignorant as to authenticity, time period of use, or even the military history of the piece. But one lot in particular caught my attention.
Prominently displayed as part of the group was an Officer’s Feather Bonnet and Glengarry Cap that was from 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch, the unit which dates back to the early 18th century. Both headpieces featured ornate badges with the unit number prominently emblazoned at the center of the design. The condition of the hats were so spectacular that they appeared to be recent manufacture, however the quality of the items spoke to their age.
As I read the auction description, disappointment soon set in as I learned that the cap dated to 1885 and the bonnet was from the turn of the 20th century, probably from 1900. Any disappointment that I may have felt in learning of the relative recency of the pieces was assuaged by the reality that the lot probably sold for a price that is unrealistic for my budget (I didn’t bother following it through the auction close). It is okay to dream every once in a while, isn’t it?
Before I can start investing in anything from the 18th and 19th centuries, I need to spend a lot of time and resources solidifying my research on my ancestors.
I also need to start playing the lottery.
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
“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).