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Memorial Day

Militaria: reflecting on Memorial Day

Memorial Day
A hand-sewn Civil War-era 13-star flag earned $35,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Photo courtesy of Poulin Antiques & Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – While Memorial Day serves as the unofficial start of summer and is often celebrated in America with trips to the beach and family barbecues, the real reason for this holiday is to remember the fallen heroes who died in active service to their country. Parades, memorial ceremonies and American flags gracing veteran’s tombstones are some of the ways people commemorate this holiday.

Waterloo, New York, is said to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as the town was the first to close businesses on May 5, 1866, and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Townspeople decorated soldiers’ graves with flags and flowers. Two years later, Civil War hero Gen. John A. Logan instead sought to unify Union and Confederate supporters with a remembrance day for all Americans. He declared: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Memorial Day
A pictorial record of temporary U.S. military cemeteries in an oversized memorial photo album of 154 pages, brought $1,200 + the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Photo courtesy of Alexander Historical Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Originally called Decoration Day, this day of remembrance took place at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside the nation’s capital. President James Garfield, a Union veteran, was among those who gave a speech. Later renamed Memorial Day, it was not officially recognized as a federal holiday though until 1971. Some Southern states continued to honor Confederate veterans with a separate Memorial Day for decades until after World War I. Since 1971, Memorial Day takes place on the final Monday of May.

Memorial Day
This 69th Regiment, New York State Volunteers, Irish Brigade, veterans parade banner, 83 x 87in, sold for $30,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Militaria collectors run the gamut from those who collect firearms and edged weapons to badges, medals, autographed materials or uniforms. “I think that the most serious collectors of Memorial Day items concentrate on pieces reflecting the true meaning of the day – a remembrance of those who died in the service of their country,” said Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander Historical Auctions LLC in Chesapeake City, Maryland. “Far and away, the most collected items from this holiday would have to be the colorful cards, die cuts, etc. with patriotic images of cannons, flags, flag-draped graves, etc.”

Memorial Day
Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s Society of the Cincinnati medal. Von Steuben, a major general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, is credited with training the American soldiers. The medal sold for $85,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Alexander Historical Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Items honoring veterans also cross over from Veterans Day, but these largely include Civil War reunion items, Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV)  pieces, and so on, he said. Another related category would be posters honoring the war dead.  The common themes running through all manner of collectibles, however, would be the flag, sacrifice and devotion to country.

When seeking militaria examples that share these themes, many collectors seem drawn to the Civil War era. “It makes sense; almost every family lost a member or friend in the war, and in that era, sentimental cards, memorials, parades, etc. were the norm. By comparison, this country lost a tiny percentage of its population in the two World Wars. It’s painful to say, but the more American dead, the greater the visible (and commercial) expressions of grief,” Panagopulos said.

Memorial Day
A massive collection of World War II liberation flags realized $17,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Photo courtesy of Poulin Antiques & Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Poulin, COO of Poulin Antiques & Auctions, Inc. in Fairfield, Maine, said collectors have many different reasons that they choose to collect different periods of military collectibles. “Some important factors that tend to matter to these collectors are the historical importance of the actions of the different units or individuals,” he said. “Some collectors strictly look for high ranking individuals while others look for units that may have fought in a certain battle, were led by a noted general, or were related to an individual that fought within a certain unit.”

Collectors may also narrow their focus to a particular type of antique to collect. “Some collect strictly firearms related to their interest while others prefer militaria or edged weapons such swords, bayonets or daggers,” Poulin said.

Memorial Day
The American flag flown over Pacific Fleet Headquarters during the attack on Pearl Harbor sold for $90,000 + the buyer’s premium in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexander Historical Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors are drawn to items that interest them and many have different motivations that drive their collecting approach. It could be monetary, family service or what they were drawn to when they were in school studying history, he added. “Many militaria collectors are drawn to the historical aspects of the items and the stories behind them. The most important factor for any collector is to enjoy your passion.”

Regardless of which specific militaria remembrance items a collector is drawn to, each item usually serves as a tangible connection with a deceased soldier. “Collectors of this kind of material are generally deeply patriotic and devoted to their country, and recognize the sacrifices not only being made today, but those made even 200 years ago,” Panagopulos said. “It’s a way for them to even today show their appreciation and thanks for those who served – and died – for their country.”

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Memorial Day