Wearing ‘dog tags’ to avoid an unkown burial
The summer 2012 issue of the Delaware Historical Society’s “Making History” newsletter announced the acquisition of a Civil War-era “silver shield-shaped identification badge” attached to a silver chain and stickpin. The shield is inscribed “J. Hanna, 3rd Del. Vols., Co. I.” Sgt. Jacob Hanna of St. Georges apparently purchased this identification badge from a commercial source sometime after joining the Union army.
The newsletter offered some background on Jacob Hanna. He mustered into service with the 3rd Delaware on March 8, 1862, at age 31, for three years. Hanna, however, was one of the many soldiers who deserted the army while in service. A year later, he was arrested. He was eventually returned to duty as an ambulance driver and served until April 1865.
The article mentioned that their latest Civil War identification disk acquisition joins another one in their collection. It is also a silver-shield shaped tag that belonged to a veteran of the conflict, by the name of John Foulk Robinson. The engraving reads “John F. Robinson, Co. F, 2nd Del. Vol., 305 Market St., Wilmington, Del.”
During the Civil War, neither the Union nor Confederate armies issued official identification tags. This practice would not begin until early in the 20th century. Therefore, soldiers took it upon themselves to pin a piece of paper on their uniforms with their name and unit designation, or fashion their own identification tag.
Others purchased what are now referred to as “dog tags” from a company that offered them for sale, or from a sutler (i.e., vendor) that accompanied the army. Some of these were machine-stamped disks made from brass or lead, or sometimes from gold or silver.
An article on the Armed Forces History Museum Web site states that, in 1862, the U.S. Army turned down a proposal that would have provided a uniform disk for officers and enlisted men. As a result, manufacturers capitalized on the desire for identification tags by advertising in periodicals. One of the leading publications of that period, Harper’s Weekly, advertised “Soldier’s Pins” that could be mail-ordered.
A collector of Civil War artifacts by the name of John Gross expanded on this rejection in Issue 42 of Gettysburg magazine, dated January 2010. Gross reported that the Federal War Department flatly denied without comment a proposal that a citizen from New York named John Kennedy submitted relatively early in the war to approve the production of identification badges or medals for distribution to military personnel.
It would take the hidebound War Department 40 more years before they issued General Order No. 204 in 1906, for the issuance of identification tags.
What motivated the men to acquire some form of ID was a dire fear of being killed on the battlefield and ending up in a grave marked “unknown.” There was good reason for trepidation on the part of soldiers, since only 58 percent of soldiers who became casualties were identified during the Civil War.
After the fierce battle at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863, more than 1,600 of the Union soldiers killed were unidentified. At the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, many of these men are buried in sections separate from those who were identified, and their grave stones are marked “unknown.” A stroll through this area of the cemetery is a somber experience and generates a sense of isolation — exactly what soldiers going into battle desperately wanted to avoid.
Usually Civil War identification tags or disks had a design on one side and soldier’s name and unit on the other. Some designs were patriotic in nature, including images of President Abraham Lincoln and the seal of the United States, with an eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch. There were instances of soldiers using old coins with their names stamped on them for identification. A small hole in these name tags allowed for use of a chain, cord or string to wear around the neck.
Capt. Richard W. Wooley confirmed the purpose of Civil War “dog tags” in the December 1988 issue of Quartermaster Profession Bulletin. He wrote, “The Civil War provided the first recorded incident of American soldiers making an effort to ensure that their identities would be known should they die on the battlefield.”
As with other Civil War artifacts, these identification tags and disks have become collector’s items and can be quite valuable. A sample of those listed for sale online shows the cost of one such disk can be several hundred dollars. Today, while these items are sought by collectors, they also serve as the basis for research about the individual who took the initiative to have these tags made.
Every one of the personal ID tags that have survived the Civil War is a reminder of ordinary people who, some 150 years ago, were motivated by a cause in which they believed to leave their loved ones and go off to war. These tags were witnesses of the service of those who fought, and very often died, for their country.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at email@example.com.