Tuesday, August 02, 2016

A Civil War mini-mystery: 18th N.Y. Cavalry private's ID disc

Rare find: Dug ID disc for 18th New York Cavalry Private Patrick Burke. 
It's the size of a penny. (Photo: Donald L. Clem)
Well-worn front of  bronze McClellan ID disc for 
Private Patrick Burke.
(Photo: Donald L. Clem)
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My friend Richard Clem's relic hunting stories have been featured many times on my blog. Here's another intriguing one from Clem, who has hunted for Civil War relics with his brother for decades in Washington County (Md.) and beyond. 

By Richard E. Clem

When it comes to collecting relics and doing research on the Civil War, many unanswered questions surface. The following article leaves a question that may never be answered, but perhaps some reader might shed light on this unsolved mystery.

The Clem brothers started "eyeballing" for Civil War relics on the Antietam battlefield in the late 1960s. Picking up four or five of the little “gray messengers of death” (bullets) would be considered a good day. Back then, the National Park Service owned very little of this hallowed ground -- the majority of the battlefield remained in private ownership. With the invention of metal detectors, you can imagine the sudden increase in the Clem collection. And, yes, as posted on John Banks’ wonderful Civil War Blog, at one time our combined collection contained around 30,000 bullets as well as many belt buckles, eagle breast plates, cartridge box plates and much more. (1)

After 20 years of swinging a metal detector in Washington County, Md., I had been blessed to have dug up three Union soldiers' ID (identification) tags. All had been lost or discarded during the Union army's pursuit of the Confederates after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. The stories behind these rare ID discs, or “dog tags,” can also be found on John's blog here, here and here. Now it was my brother Don’s overdue turn to discover one of these cherished artifacts, which most relic hunters would consider the “ultimate find.”  (2)

With local Civil War sites becoming less productive and harder to find, the Clem brothers decided to travel south into Jefferson County, W. Va. and Clarke County, Va. The fields, woods and apple orchards between Charles Town and Berryville proved to be very “fruitful” -- mostly Federal cavalry relics from General Phil Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  (3)

The author’s Civil War relic hunting journal, kept weekly since 1982, lists the following: "May 1, 1987, searched small woods just south of Summit Point (Jefferson County), dug 26 Sharps bullets, Don dug 63 Sharps + McClellan tag inscribed: 'Patrick Burke, Co. F., 18th N.Y. Cav.y, Albany City, N.Y.'" The standard .54 caliber Sharps bullet had a small paper or linen cartridge that held the black powder. However, three of Don’s Sharps had cartridges made of animal skins. These rare projectiles were called “skin bullets” simply because instead of paper, the shell or cartridge holding the powder was made mostly of sheep membrane or intestines. There were many campsites around Summit Point, and after more than a century, the wooded, rocky area that yielded these Union artifacts appeared to have been untouched from the days of the Civil War.  (4)

Dug Sharps bullets from camp where Burke’s ID disc was discovered. The three in the center
 still have original "skin” cartridges. (Photo: Donald L. Clem)
Below: Sharps carbine carried by Union cavalry. (Photo: C. Sharps Arms, Inc.)

I can still hear my brother’s excitement that unseasonably warm afternoon as we climbed into the pickup: “At first I thought it was just another Indian head penny until I noticed the hole and what looked like McClellan!” There are two sizes of the McClellan bronze ID disc. Don's find, the small variety, is the size of a penny while the larger version is about the size of a quarter. These little gems were not army-issue -- standard U.S. Army “dog tags” would not come until years later. Burke would have purchased his ID tag before or right after leaving New York. The front of the new discovery was well-worn, but comparing it with a non-dug duplicate and using a little imagination, one can read “Maj. Gen. G. B. McClellan, Peninsular Campaign.” The “G” and “B” in McClellan’s name stand for "George Brinton." Fortunately, the reverse side that includes Burke's name is very legible. (5)

After Don's discovery, questions automatically arose: Who was Patrick Burke? Did he survive the war? Was he married and did he have children? And where was he buried? The first step to trace the career of this Union cavalryman from New York was to send to the National Archives in Washington for copies of his military and pension files.  (6)

From Ireland, Patrick Burke settled in Albany, N.Y., just prior to the Civil War. In the summer of 1863, the 18th New York Cavalry was organized to put down the New York City draft riots. On Aug. 12, 1863, 18-year-old Patrick Burke enlisted as a private in Company F of the 18th New York Cavalry to serve as bugler for three years. According to his military records, Burke had brown hair, brown eyes and stood 5-3. Once the riots were under control and peace restored, the 18th New York Cavalry left the state and was stationed in the defenses around Washington. In January 1864, the New York troopers received orders to report to Texas, Department of the Gulf.  (7)

In the Lone Star State, the regiment was attached to 19th Army Corps, and the Yankee boys performed commendably. The 18th New York Cavalry also saw action in Louisiana and Mississippi before it was mustered out in Victoria, Texas on May 31, 1866. By that time, the war had been over for a year.  (8)

Private Burke returned to civilian life in Albany, N.Y., where he married Mary Ellen Hughes on May 15, 1872. The couple's union produced three sons, John, Thomas, Joseph, and a daughter, Helen. After her husband died in 1879, Mary Ellen Burke applied for a widow’s military pension, and she went to be with her husband in May 1917.  (9)

But one major unanswered question remained about the life story of bugler Patrick Burke: How did his ID disc get to Jefferson County, W.Va., where it was discovered by my brother? No record exists to prove the 18th New York Cavalry was ever in the state! But we can certainly speculate how the small disc got there.

Burke’s military file reveals he was “present” with his outfit from date of enlistment in New York to being mustered out in Texas. Perhaps while the 18th New York guarded defenses around Washington, several companies (including Burke’s Company F.) performed reconnaissance or rounded up horses for the regiment in neighboring states. In the fall of 1864, units of the 19th Corps were sent from Texas to support General Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Although no records exist that indicate this, perhaps elements of the 18th New York Cavalry traveled north with the 19th Corps to northern Virginia or West Virginia. One thing is certain, however: Because of the large number of Sharps carbine bullets we dug that spring day in 1987, the McClellan tag came from a Union cavalry camp.  (10)

The Clem brothers would be grateful for anyone who could furnish material to prove how Patrick Burke’s ID tag was left behind in Jefferson County. Besides the “Spirit of All Knowledge,” the only other person who knows the truth is off duty and resting in a cemetery in Albany, N.Y.

Patrick Burke's grave in St. Agnes Cemetery in
Albany, N.Y. (newyorkgravestones.org.
Copyright, used with permission of Anita Martin
The author dedicates this article to the everlasting memory of John Banks Sr. “Big Johnny” left this earth July 22, 2016, and following General Stonewall Jackson, he has “crossed over the river and is resting in the shade of the trees.”


1.   Phillips, Stanley S, Excavated Artifacts from Battlefields and Campsites of the Civil War. 1861 – 1865, Lanham, Md., 1974.

2.   As teenagers growing up in Washington County, Md., the Clem brothers hunted rabbits over
land thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers occupied following the Battle of Gettysburg. We had no knowledge or interest at the time that we were walking on treasures from the Civil War.

3.   The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War,  Arno Press Inc., 1983.

4.    Phillips, Stanley S, Bullets Used in the Civil War – 1861 – 1865, 1977; Echoes of Glory, Arms and  Equipment of the Union, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va., 1991; Summit Point is known today for its popular motor sports track. During the Civil War, this small, obscure West Virginia town witnessed extensive cavalry action and was used also as a major remount station supplying horses and mules to the Federal army.

5.   In the course of my research, I came across one other McClellan-style, non-dug ID disc. It was the same as my brother Don’s and once belonged to a member of the 18th New York Cavalry. It would be reasonable to believe both bronze discs would have been purchased from the same source. The stamped letters are the same on both pieces.

6.   National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

7.   New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center; Burke’s military file, National
Archives, Washington, D.C.; It is believed Private Burke left New York by rail to go to Washington. The  regiment traveled from the Federal capital in January 1864 on the side-wheeler steamship Empire City, sailing down the Potomac and into the Chesapeake Bay, down the Atlantic Coast and around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico.

8.   Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956; New York State Archives.

9.   Burke’s pension file, National Archives; www.newyorkgravestones.org

10.  New York State Museum; Burke’s military file, National Archives; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah In Flames -- The Valley Campaign of 1864, Thomas A. Lewis, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va., 1987; The Spencer and Sharps carbines were a standard Union cavalry weapon. The breech-loading, short-barreled guns gave a trooper more mobility on horseback than the longer muzzle-loading rifle.

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