Souvenirs and Relics
Souvenirs and Relics
When any major event, like a war, involves large numbers of soldiers, they are bound to lose or throw away various items. Whether in the heat of battle or on the march, items related to Civil War soldiers were left on battlefields and roads, waiting for someone else to take them or for an archaeologist to find them years later.
Many people may be aware of the growing trade in Civil War era items in countless stores and on the auction circuit as well as online, but fewer are aware of the practice of scouring the battlefield shortly afterward for relics, or the ways in which items were lost or left behind by soldiers. It is through these practices that many items relating to daily life of soldiers and battle began their journey from the soldiers' hands to museum collections, private family holdings, stores, and the auction circuit.
The first leg of the journey is the soldier receiving his equipment, usually in camp. Leander Stillwell (1843–1934), a Union soldier who served as a lawyer, judge, and member of the Kansas legislature after the war, described receiving his clothing when he enlisted:
The clothing outfit consisted of a pair of light-blue pantaloons, similar colored overcoat with a cape to it, dark blue jacket, heavy shoes and woolen socks, an ugly, abominable cocky little cap patterned after the then French army style, gray woolen shirt, and other ordinary under-clothing. Was also given a knapsack, but I think I didn't get a haversack and canteen until later. (Stillwell 1920, p. 15)
As the soldiers ventured into the field, they often lost equipment on the march or purposely discarded it prior to a battle. Edmund Stedman (1833–1908), a poet and essayist who was one of the first seven members elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, remarked that "Coats and knapsacks were thrown to either side, that nothing might impede their work…" in his account of the Battle of Bull Run (Stedman 1861, p. 26). Other soldiers described similar incidents. For instance, Robert Newell, a Massachusetts soldier, wrote to his brother that, "Before we reached the battlefield, there was not a knapsack left, the men threw away everything to lighten themselves and I finally followed their example…" (Newell 1864). The purposeful abandonment of items to lighten a soldier's load before battle and the possible loss of items while in the field presented an opportunity for other persons to obtain a souvenir of the war.
In addition, soldiers often sent home letters to loved ones to serve as souvenirs. A Confederate soldier named John Street sent his wife a letter that he had written before the Battle of Shiloh and asked her "to keep it as a sacred relic" (Street 1862). These letters and many others have ended up in manuscript collections in various libraries and archives across the nation.
While many items from soldiers reside in museum collections, many have also been sold through various antique stores and other shops around the country. They have also appeared in auctions, both traditional and online. The sale of such relics presents issues of preser-ation and ethics, as while most people would cherish such items, the prospect for making money from a dead soldier's property presents an ethical dilemma. Such materials belong in museums for everyone's benefit, or in the possession of the descendants of the soldier who owned the item.
Overall, the issue of souvenirs and relics is one of mystery. It is true that soldiers lost or dropped equipment over the course of their service, which presented opportunities for persons to obtain souvenirs of the war. What is less certain, however, is whether people scoured the battlefield soon after the event looking for items or stole from the dead. Rules at some historic sites that prohibit the use of metal detectors as well as recent incidents involving persons being arrested for digging up artifacts on battlefield sites suggest that the hunt for souvenirs and relics is alive today. An effort must be made to safeguard these treasures of our past for archaeologists and other qualified individuals to find and study so that everyone will benefit.
Newell, Robert R. Letter to his brother Will, March 9, 1864. Available online at http://www.soldierstudies.org/.
Stillwell, Leander. The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861–1865, 2nd ed. Erie, KS: Franklin Hudson Publishing Co., 1920.
Street, John. Letter to his wife, April 12, 1862. Available online at http://www.soldierstudies.org/.