Hidden Histories

Strange Mementos and Heirlooms of the Civil War

Wednesday, 1/21/09

Many individuals like myself, have various souvenirs or mementos, which have been found or passed down through the family, relative to the American Civil War. These may come in the form of oral traditions, letters, diaries, journals; or they are artifactual in nature, items such as saddle-bag 'rosettes,' swords, minie-balls or other heirlooms.

However, there were many Civil War soldiers, who carried with them, for many years after the conflict, unintentional 'memorials' of the service rendered to their country or cause.

A personal relation of my own, Alfred Snapp, of the 18th Kentucky Infantry (Union), "received a bullitt which lodged in his forehead and was never taken out for fear that the operation might prove fatal to him," according to a great-uncle of mine who knew him quite well.

David H. Smith, who served in Co. 'D,' of the 20th PA Cavalry, was "shot through the head from ear to ear," during the Battle of Piedmont, Virginia, and lay unconscious upon the battlefield for some three days and nights. Eventually incarcerated in the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia, he survived long enough to eventually be discharged from service in June of 1865. In 1897, while a resident of Perry County, PA, Smith was interviewed for a biographical sketch in which it was remarked that, "the ball is still in his head."

Richard Marley, another Civil War veteran residing at Darby, PA in 1912, was wounded by a Confederate sharp-shooter, a bullet "which he has carried in his leg as a memento of the occasion ever since," and which never bothered him until 50 years later, when symptoms of 'blood-poisoning' occurred and his leg turned black and began to swell. He was operated on at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia for the removal of his 'war souvenir.'

Major James J. Morrison, of the 4th Georgia Infantry, was living at Mount Sterling, Alabama in 1891, was interviewed about the "curious missile," of which he was wounded in the calf of his leg, during the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas, Virginia in 1861. Suffering excruciating pain at times from his wound for many years, doctors in August of 1891 were successful in removing what was found to be, "no bullet, but a small gold button," inscribed with the legend, "E. to R. Mizpah," in diminutive German lettering.

Though former Confederate Major Morrison prized his "memento" of thirty-one years, he remarked that he would be happy to return the artifact, "to the man who fired it if he still lives and can relate the circumstances under which he made use of it..."

A Pennsylvania paper for May 24, 1881, recalled how Colonel William J. Bolton of Norristown, PA, formerly an officer in the 51st PA Infantry, had "stood on a mound before Petersburg, Virginia," just prior to the famed explosion on July 30, 1864, observing a Black regiment making a charge, when a ball struck him "immediately under the right jaw, in precisely the same spot that he had been wounded at the 'Battle of Antietam' in September of 1862."

Col. Bolton's wound was probed by surgeons on a number of occasions, in an attempt to remove the ball, but without success. Finally, in 1881, retiring for the evening and feeling as though, "a heavy weight was pressing against his throat," was at his work the next day and "was compelled to cough, when he discovered that he had coughed into his hand the rusty bullet, covered with saliva."

Some 'mementos' of the War, which can be identified to specific indiviudals, were located long after the sectional conflict ended. One such item was a "brass tag," with the inscription, "Captain Peter W. Rodgers, Company B, 119th Pennsylvania Volunteers," an organization composed entirely of Philadelphians.

During a fierce engagement between Union & Confederate forces near Spottsylvania, Virginia, at 'Salem Church' in 1863, Captain Peter Rodgers, "was mortally wounded and, after asking for a drink of water, ordered his men to retire and not wait for him. He lay down alongside a tree to die: This was the last ever heard from him."

In 1922, a farmer, plowing over the above battlefield in Spottsylvania, Virginia, "turned up a brass tag of a Philadelphia soldier, from whom no tidings had been heard for more than 60 years." That soldier, was the above Captain Peter W. Rodgers, whose son, John J. S. Rodgers, a former 'Commissioner of Immigration' for the port of Philadelphia and who in 1922 was a 'Commissioner of Conciliation of the Federal Department of Labor,' received his father's identifying 'brass tag,' on October 29th of that year. Prior to that time, it was believed that Capt Rodgers' body had been burned, as there were no records of his ever being taken prisoner, nor any death information from either Confederate or Federal sources.

The above data represents just a few examples of many similar existing accounts, gleaned from various resources, from newspapers to biographical journals, which were published after the Civil War. Those interested in the documentation for these entries, plus others of a similar nature, should contact me and/or visit The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where such material is abundantly located.