American Military Memorabilia
American Military Memorabilia is comprised of collectible items from American military history.
Militaria can include items such as edged weapons, firearms, documents and ephemera, flags, uniforms and headgear, buttons and insignia like badges and patches, army camp relics, etc.
Collectors usually focus on one of these particular genres when collecting American militaria, or concentrate on a particular era of military history.
Collectors find this memorabilia at auctions, antique shows, flea markets, in military surplus stores, and through inheritance. A huge number of collectors travel to old battle grounds and army camps, and hunt around for discarded or buried items with metal detectors and excavations etc.
A popular era for American military memorabilia is the American Civil War. Collectors of Civil War memorabilia may choose to focus only on Confederate or Union memorabilia. It is common for items to have been passed down through families, from the descendents of the Civil War owners, so many items have impeccable provenance.
Notable events in American Military history
American Military History dates back to the discovery and colonisation of America by Europeans. The Colonial Wars ran between 1620 and 1774, with invading colonisers like the British regular army and navy fighting Native American tribes. Notable conflicts included the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip’s War of 1675, the Yamasee War in 1715, and Father Rale’s War in 1722.
Wars of Independence. The United States emerged as a new nation fighting the British Empire for independence between 1775 and 1783. The Continental Army with General George Washington at its head, alongside state militia forces and the French army and navy, defeated the British.
The American Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865, as the Republication Union with newly appointed president Abraham Lincoln fought to free American slaves, while several Southern states seceded from the control of the Republication government, forming the Confederacy. This ended with Union victory and the abolition of slavery. This war was extremely important, and is often referred to as the ‘first modern war’ due to the tactics and technical innovations employed.
The Indian Wars ran from 1865-1891. Native American tribes resisted the expansion of the colonists into their lands and confinement to reservations. A particularly famous battle was that of Little Big Horn in 1876, when Col. George Armstrong Custer and two hundred men were killed by a Native American force.
World War I & II There was a lot of American involvement in World War I and World War II, and items such as uniforms from this era are very collectible.
The Vietnam War, when the US involved themselves in the Republic of Vietnam’s fight against the North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front as part of their containment of Communism policy, is one of the American military’s most notorious events. Items from this episode are generally collected for commemorative purposes, although numerous badges, berets, and engraved zippo lighters from the era are widely available.
Types of American Military Memorabilia
Knives and swords have been used throughout American military history. Presentation swords are extremely valuable items of American militaria. Examples dating from the Civil War era are among the most expensive items of Civil War memorabilia.
Many types of swords were used by Union and Confederate forces. However, the Union manufacturing capabilities plus the sheer number of their soldiers render Union swords much less valuable than those used by Confederates, many of whom wielded swords used by their ancestors as far back as the revolutionary war - already collectible items themselves.
Any swords made during this time in the South, unlike the union swords, are usually unmarked and undated. Therefore it is extremely common for swords represented as Confederate weapons to in fact be fake.
America had a great part to play in the development of the firearm. The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, were particularly influential, as the primary centre for U.S. military firearms. The armoury was heavily involved in growth and influence during the Industrial Revolution, was the national centre for invention and development of the firearm in the 19th century, and later became the army’s main laboratory for development and testing of new small arms. Therefore American Military memorabilia often includes firearms manufactured here.
Documents and ephemera
Documents and ephemera are produced as the result of any military conflict, from the most modest postcard from a soldier to his sweetheart, to a signed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Military maps are of great interest, and photographs are particularly collectible.
Flags are among the most sought-after and expensive of collectibles. Flags carried at particularly noteworthy events attract lots of interest from collectors. From vast naval flags to personal flags, handmade by soldier’s families and carried into battle, these items represent an ideology of the past, everything that fight stood for and was trying to achieve. American flags can be dated by the number of stars.
Uniforms and Headgear
Uniforms are popular areas of collectibles. A complete uniform is a collecting project, as often only pieces can be found. These can include coats, berets, shoes, helmets, jackets, caps, shirts, trousers, and accoutrements. This area is suffused with replicas, so it often takes some detective work to ascertain if an item is genuine. Some people, rather than collect whole uniforms, focus on one area, for example, badges and patches, belt buckles, or buttons.
Buttons, badges and patches
Buttons, badges and patches from military uniforms are a popular area of collectibles. Military insignia is very collectible and available. There is a reference work known as the Button Bible written by Alphaeus Albert, entitled ‘Record of American Military Uniform Buttons’.
The Albert numbering system is still in use today. Buttons are graded by the level of original finish they still possess, usually silver plate or gilt, how many dents they have, and the condition of their fastener. Coat buttons are generally of more interest than cuff buttons, being larger. In terms of Civil War buttons, Confederate buttons are much more expensive than Union buttons.
Army camp relics
These are items amassed from the inevitable time the troops spend around their camps. This can include bullets carved into chess pieces, dice and dominos carved from wood or bullets or bone, clay marbles, etc.
Other collectible items
- Vietnam zippo lighters
- Artillery projectiles such as case shot, canister balls, shells, bullets etc.
- Civil War Slave Tags – only issued in the city of Charleston, South Carolina.
Guide for collectors
Be wary of replicas in this area of collectibles. These may have been produced for innocent purposes like theatre, film, or re-enactments, but the result is that, for example, there are thought to be twice as many 'Civil War' uniforms and hats in existence today than at the time of the Civil War.
- Diamond-studded sword presented to US Civil War general and future president Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, sold for $1,673,000 by Heritage Auctions in June 2007.
- Gold Mounted sword presented to American soldier and Presidential Candidate Major General Winfield Scott in 1812, sold for $1,700,000 by Heritage Auctions in June 2008.