I do not know if any of our readers know historians or history buffs. Perhaps you fit into these categories yourselves. If so, I hope this post resonates with you.
With all the television attention given to hoarders lately, it is sometimes difficult to justify a purchase that may seem, to some, a bit strange. If you live alone, the situation becomes easier, but if you live with a spouse or family . . . well . . . there is usually some explaining to do.
The easiest purchases to justify are books–even hundreds of them. After all, amazon.com has plenty of books about the Civil War for just a penny! 1¢, and $3.99 shipping. There is also amazon Prime, which means that, even though you pay more than 1¢ for the book in the first place, it gets delivered to your door (did you just read that?? YOUR DOOR!!!!!) within two days. That is faster than waiting for the weekend to go shopping.
When someone mentions a book, or you read about one in the Monitor or Civil War Times, you can just order it–right then and there! If someone publishes a paper in The Journal of the Civil War Era or Civil War History, you can just put their name into the amazon search box and get your hands on whatever else they have written–did I mention the two-day deal? The feeling is incredibly satisfying; it is Happy Birthday in your mailbox every day. Huzzah!
But then there are the other things–you know those things: a minié ball from Shiloh, a belt buckle from Petersburg, a lock of General Pickett’s hair, a strand of Traveler’s tail, a campaign ribbon for General McClellan . . . and all the other opportunities that show up unexpectedly in our travels. I am not personally tempted by the things just listed, but just let it tie into Elmer Ellsworth in any way, because then I just hate to have to say “no,” and usually do not.
You know what I am talking about. Hopefully no readers have lost great amounts of money or a good relationship in the eternal relic hunt, but sometimes I have gotten close. Like last Thursday, when the big box came. It came from some place back East, and it looked pretty professional, but it was big–as in BIG big.–three feet by two feet by one foot big. Big.
The big box was sitting on the porch when I got home from work. It took a bit to wrangle it into the house, as there is a screen door as well as a regular door, but I was successful. It was so exciting! I couldn’t believe it had arrived! There are not enough exclamation points (which one is not to use in military writing) to convey my sense of thrill.
You see, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth raised a group of New York fire fighters in the spring of 1861, and brought them to Washington City to fight the war that Ellsworth’s friend and mentor Abe Lincoln felt was imminent. Ellsworth’s 11th New York Fire Zouaves cut quite a swath through the capital city. They had a terrible reputation for excessive alcohol consumption and sexual harassment, usually in that order. Their poor Colonel practically wore out his boots chasing down the truth, and then either disciplining his soldiers or writing an explanation for the newspapers. The Fire Zouaves were sarcastically referred to as “Ellsworth’s Lambs.”
Inevitably, because it was Elmer Ellsworth after all, the famous Willard Hotel caught fire. Who better to rush to a fire than the New York Fire Zouaves? No one! According to the memoirs of New York Fire Zouave Arthur O’Neil Alcock, Ellsworth himself “grabbed the trumpet and gave out the orders!” The important words here are the trumpet. Because I bought one!
I had no idea what Alcock was writing about when I first read the quote, but I dug around and found that in the nineteenth century–before computers–fire departments used speaking trumpets to convey orders. Fires are, after all, loud and disorderly affairs. For a firefighter to hear an order was difficult at best, and to create that best, brass speaking trumpets about one and a half feet long were found on every working “masheen.” Fire captains yelled their orders into the small end of the trumpet, and they boomed out the large end.
Who would want one of these? Me. Besides, Elmer Ellsworth had one, so . . . when I saw one listed on eBay for a reasonable price (in my opinion!) I bid and I won. Yay Me! So, when it arrived, I was ecstatic. Sitting just behind me, here in my home office filled with books I got for 1¢, is a lovely brass fire trumpet, complete with a red and gold silk cord. It is a wonder to behold, and it works. I tried it out on History Cat, and she was properly annoyed.
Nevertheless, I had to ask myself just why I had been moved to purchase such a useless absurdity. I am not a firefighter, I have no problem raising my voice to make myself heard–I teach school, after all. But I had to have that brass trumpet. I had to have it because it makes me feel closer to Elmer Ellsworth, a man I never met, will never meet, and who is a hugely important part of my life. I feel more connected to him now, just as I did when I bought the envelopes, the poster reproduction, the manual of arms, and actually touched a copy of the bill Ellsworth proposed to the Illinois State Legislature before he went to Washington with Mr. Lincoln. I cried when that happened.
I suspect that most of us do the same sort of thing. We read about this war, about its history before and after, and we think about the men and women who lived then. We look for connections; who were they? Why did they do the things they did? What made them who they were, and how different are they from who we are? We gather items together to help us make sense of the lives we study. If we eat the foods they ate, wear the clothes they wore, listen to the music they heard . . . it goes on and on.
Does it work? I think so, at least for me. Some call them souvenirs, some say relics, others have less positive words, but the business of selling old things and reproductions of old things goes on. Civil War relic hunters are not a new phenomenon. The men who were with Colonel Elmer Ellsworth when he was shot on the staircase at the Marshall House in Alexandria dipped their handkerchiefs into his blood as it pooled beside and under him. Within weeks the hotel itself had been hacked at so badly by those who wanted a sliver of wood from the place where a famous martyr died (Ellsworth or James Jackson, depending on your politics) that it had to be closed. Those slivers still show up from time to time on eBay, and are even mentioned by historian Adam Goodheart in his book 1861. He owns a couple, I believe.
The brass trumpet is glorious right now, but soon it will need to be dusted, and something else will take its place in my imagination. I will read about, or hear about some other artifact that is Ellsworthian in nature, and I will have to have it, if possible. The quest is endless for all of us, because ultimately none of the things we do, buy, or read will transport us back to wherever we wish to be.
Personally, however, I plan to keep on buying trying.