Sunday, October 30, 2016

Badges of excellence: Tiny 'artwork' carved by Union soldiers

Unknown soldier wearing a four-pointed star 19th Corps badge. See dug example below.
(Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
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During a visit to Antietam in September, my friend Richard Clem showed John Rogers and me rare Civil War artwork. This art wasn't painted on canvas; this handiwork of Civil War soldiers was carved in lead, undoubtedly from melted bullets.  A retired woodworker from Hagerstown, Md., Clem and his brother have hunted for Civil War relics in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia for more than 40 years. Here's Richard's story of that rare Civil War artwork that he and his brother discovered in old Union campsites in Virginia and West Virginia: 

Richard Clem
Richard E. Clem

Movie and television specials on the Civil War give a false impression that it was all about blood and guts. Those who have studied the War Between the States or any war soon realize the greatest percentage of a soldier’s time consisted of drilling, marching and mostly enduring countless hours and days battling boredom -- especially while in winter quarters.

The boys far from home passed time reading or writing letters, cleaning and repairing equipment and playing poker and other forms of gambling. Participating in baseball games and snowball battles (when the “white stuff” was available) were other favorite pastimes.

After more than 40 years metal detecting for Civil War relics in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, my brother Don and I discovered another unusual way soldiers “killed time” in the lonely hours: carving bullets and creating other small objects from lead. The endeavor here is to share with the reader examples of unique lead corps badges we have dug that were hand-carved more than 150 years ago by these unknown campfire craftsmen.

In July 1864, following a failed invasion into Maryland and threatening Washington, General Jubal A. Early escorted his Confederate forces back to the Shenandoah Valley. Visibly shaken, the Lincoln administration called up Federal units from the Gulf region to support General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. Orders for “Little Phil” were to deprive the Confederacy of food supplies and, if the opportunity surfaced, defeat if not destroy Early’s army.

In March 1986, with hope of finding Civil War relics left from Sheridan’s Valley Campaign, Don and I crossed the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, W. Va., and drove south. Referring to my dug relics journal, I had recorded: “May 14, 1988 – Hunted Dorsey’s orchard near Berryville, dug 12 bullets + 19th Corps badge – carved lead. Don dug 21 bullets + cannon shell (Hotchkiss) from fire pit. Very warm.” (Keeping a record of items found with a metal detector, including the date and other info, is a must for any serious Civil War relic hunter.)

From top:  badge with traces of red paint designating
  First Division; beginning of carving for a badge;
and an incomplete badge, fan-leaved design.
Richard Clem found the last two badges. Don, his 

brother and fellow relic hunter, found the first badge.
(Photos: Richard Clem)
Civil War corps badges were first introduced to the Federal armies in the early 1860s. Worn on uniform lapels or caps, these small medals were to distinguish troops from different corps and divisions. Made mostly from brass, they were essential, especially after a battle, to pull together soldiers of the same outfit.

Each corps had a designated symbol or shape of badge. For an example, the 1st Corps was a plain circle, 2nd Corps was a clover leaf, 3rd Corps was a diamond, etc. However, the 19th Corps was the only one of Union army corps to claim two different corps badges. This unit “unofficially” adopted a “four-pointed star” badge at its headquarters, Department of the Gulf, New Orleans, Feb. 18, 1863. The second badge described as a “fan-leaved cross with an octagonal center” was “officially” adopted on Nov. 17, 1864. It is not reported why the second emblem was designed. Perhaps the four-pointed star was unpopular with the troops and it became necessary to produce the fan-leaved cross.

The hand-carved badge I dug in the apple orchard along the Charlestown-Berryville Pike was the fan-leaved cross variety. If a soldier lost or damaged his army-issued corps badge, with some degree of craftsmanship he could carve or cast one from bullet lead. But how do you produce one of these intricate medals (lead) in the field? It is the author’s opinion that first to manufacture the fan-leaved style of badge several bullets were melted over the campfire and poured into the shape of a circle about the size of a quarter. Next, the lead circle was cut with a pocket knife into a square. The “slots” were then cut out from the four corners, leaving the octagonal center.

As rare as my find was, three years later Don dug a far more interesting lead 19th Corps badge of the 1863 four-pointed star design. So, let’s return to the relic logbook: “November 25, 1991 – Searched land just west of Charlestown (Jefferson County, W. Va.) dug 16 bullets + 2 brass bayonet scabbard tips. Don dug 34 bullets + 19th Corps badge – hand-made with number “114.”

When my brother excitingly handed me the little gem about the size of a quarter, my first question was: “What is it?” Automatically we assumed the “114” was the number of a Union Civil War regiment. After some thought, the mystery began to unravel: the hand-carved piece of lead, shaped like a four-pointed star, was the first badge design of 19th Corps.

During the War Between the States, each corps badge was “color – coded” according to divisions to make individual soldier even more identifiable; red signified 1st division, white, 2nd division, blue, 3rd division. A closer examination of Don’s find in the field revealed traces of “red paint.” This indicated the person who carved this work-of-art was a member of the 1st division. A quick search of Phisterer’s New York in the War of the Rebellion indicated the 114 stood for the 114th New York Volunteers.

It appears the soldier who made this badge carved away the background, leaving the border and number 114 “raised.” Using this method left a sunken area for the red paint to be applied. To produce this delicate object in the field took skill, patience, good eyesight and a sharp pocket knife.

Recruited in New York, the 114th regiment mustered in Sept. 3, 1862, attached to 19th Corps, and was ordered to the Department of the Gulf. In July 1864, two divisions of this corps were sent (114th New York included) to General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In July 1864, attached to the Army of the Shenandoah, the 144th New York fought with gallantry at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. In official reports, the 114th New York was “bivouacked west of Charlestown, Va. (West Virginia today) September 4, 1864.” This is probably the exact campsite where Don dug his 19th Corps badge.

Don Clem's 19th Corps badge in my hand, next to my
wedding ring. Yup, these badges are tiny works of art.
Two days after brother made his discovery, I dug in the same area what resembled a round, lead disc (see photo above) with a four-pointed star cut into its face. After some head-scratching, it became obvious this was the beginning of another corps badge. It’s very possible it was made by the same soldier of 19th Corps who crafted Don’s little masterpiece.

The 114th New York Regiment was mustered out of service on June 8, 1865, at Bladensburgh, Md. Returning to the Empire State, some of the boys who wore “The Blue” left behind in an embattled valley in Virginia their handcrafted corps badges. More than 120 years later,  two brothers from Maryland would recover their campfire handiwork for future Civil War relic hunters to read about, admire and dream about the “Good Ole Days.”


--Yoseloff, Thomas, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War – Volume IX,  A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc., New York, 1956.
-- Crouch, Howard R., Civil War Artifacts – A Guide For The Historian,  SCS Publications, Fairfax, Va.,  1995.
-- Phillips, Stanley S., Civil War Corps Badges and Other Related Awards, Badges, Medals of the Period, Lanham, Md., 1982.
-- Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1991.
-- Sylvia, Stephen W. and  O'Donnell, Michael J., The Illustrated History of American Civil War Relics,  Moss Publications, Orange, Va.,  1978.
-- Cowles, Capt. Calvin D., The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, Arno Press, Crown Publishers Inc., 1978.
-- Phisterer, Frederick, New York in the War of the Rebellion, Albany, N.Y., J. B. Lyon Co., 1912.
-- New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.

1 comment:

  1. One thing to remember about the 19th Corps is that it followed a different pattern with its Division colors on corps badges...for the 19th Corps Red = 1st Division, Blue = 2nd Division, and White = 3rd Division. This can be found in the corps special orders in the official records, and also through surviving examples of corps badges (of the 1st type from 1864, and the 2nd type from late 1864) that are known to have belonged to men of both the 1st and 2nd Divisions.