Civil War Talk Radio: October 24, 2008

by Brett Schulte on October 24, 2008 · 2 comments

Air Date: 102408
Subject: Identification Discs for Soldiers in the Civil War
Books: Identification Discs Of Union Soldiers In The Civil War: A Complete Classification Guide and Illustrated History
Guest: Joseph W. Stahl

Summary: Joseph Stahl, author of Identification Discs Of Union Soldiers In The Civil War: A Complete Classification Guide and Illustrated History, discusses soldier identification discs, the forerunner of the “dog tag”, in this episode of Civil War Talk Radio.

Brett’s Summary: Gerry opened the show by discussing his upcoming schedule and the unfortunate situation at the Wilderness, where a large new Wal-Mart Supercenter is more than likely going to go up.  Go to the Civil War Preservation Trust web site for more information about how you can help.

Guest Joe Stahl went over how he became interested in identification discs.  He talked about how he gradually became less interested in what generals were doing and at the same time focused more on privates.  He wanted to collect something which could be traced back to individuals, and he settled on identification discs.

Unlike modern day dog tags, these discs were privately made.  The United States government had nothing to do with the items.  Stahl went into a history of private mints which sprang up in the 1850s due to a shortage of coins nationwide.  These companies would play a major role in the manufacture of identification discs during the Civil War.  Sutlers who sold these discs during the war probably had stamping kits to stamp in soldier names and whatever else the soldier desired on the discs.

Gerry admitted to skepticism about the book when it was first presented to him as a possible Civil War Talk Radio focus.  However, he warmed to the idea after realizing each disc represents a larger story of a soldier who fought in the Civil War.  Joe went into the details of what discs he collects (mainly soldiers who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg), and how he finds the back story of soldiers who owned a given disc.  The author said he typically looks in the National Archives for pension records and service records.  These records tend to be treasure troves of information about a given soldier.  Joe went into a lengthy discussion of what you can find when looking over the records, which I found fascinating.

Gerry asked if there were any Confederate identification discs, and Mr. Stahl responded in the negative.  The industry which made these discs was focused in the northeast, and the materials used were too scarce in the Confederacy to be able to afford this luxury.

Talk turned to “Civil War shows” and what they are.  They are exhibits where dealers have tables full of Civil War memorabilia which can be purchased by those who attend the shows.  In addition, people come to learn about the items which are on display.  Mr. Stahl pointed out that people can attend one of these shows, not spend a dime, and learn quite a bit about Civil War era relics.  He pointed out that identification discs are usually very rare at these shows, unless a specific collector like he is might be present at a show.  Book dealers also frequently attend these shows.

The third portion of the show started with discussion of death in the Civil War era and “the proper way to die”.  Gerry noted that the Civil War made dying this type of death difficult in thousands of cases.  Identification discs helped soldiers feel more secure that their families might find them should they die.  Joe commented that soldiers often had two discs made, keeping one and sending the other home.  He found that many discs are extremely worn due to constant carrying by a soldier/veteran over many years.

Identification discs were primarily made of brass and “white metal” or pewter, which often deteriorated rapidly if they happened to make it into the ground in the very acidic northern Virginia area.  These discs seemed to be a predominantly eastern phenomenon associated with the Army of the Potomac.  Very few discs, according to Mr. Stahl, were made for western Union soldiers.  Gerry asked, somewhat facetiously, if someone could dig up discs on a National Battlefield, knowing full well that this is very much against the law.  He was just making a point to warn off those who might try such a thing after listening to this show.

The authentication of these discs came up late in the show.  Mr. Stahl commented on the differences in fonts from the 1860s versus modern day fonts.  He also pointed out that experienced collectors can tell the difference in textures between real discs and forgeries/reproductions.  Gerry asked about a black market for discs, and Joe said that there is only a small amount of this going on, though it does happen.  Interestingly, 19th Century luggage tags can sometimes be mistaken for these identification discs.

The author estimated a good disc from a fighting regiment might bring in $750-$1500.  He was nearing 90 discs in his personal collection as of the air date.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC.

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