Some of the items of historic significance that have come my way are of the smaller sort, what Victorians would have called "curiosities." There are, for example, a piece of the Hindenburg Line defenses and of Notre Dame, both chipped off as souvenirs by my grandfather Barker on a tour of Europe in the 1920s. There are also buttons with fascinating histories and holding mysteries yet to be fully unraveled.
The first of these arrived in the mail from my Great aunt Margie in 1984 " hastily, in a cleaning fit" as she was going through her mother's desk in her cluttered, rent controlled Manhattan apartment on E 72nd St. I always imagined "Gar's desk" as an archaeological site, with layers of strata laid down by previous generations and seldom emptied except to produce treasures like these for grand-nieces and nephews with appropriate interests. As mine include the American Civil War, Margie sent me the patriotic covers discussed in a previous post, and these extraordinary earrings, above.
They are the small, "dough boy" style half moon buttons of a Federal uniform that have been fashioned into earrings. The handwritten note to which they are attached provides a partial history of their origin but leaves much unexplained:
"Earrings, formerly buttons taken off a Northern soldier's uniform, who was imprisoned in Libby Prison, Richmond, VA., 1863, and escaped through an underground tunnel and reached his home safely."
Margie had no idea who the soldier was or where her mother had acquired these earrings. It has puzzled me ever since. Along with the earrings came an old postcard of the prison itself, which was used to hold Union officers and had many documented escapes. The reverse of the card is undated but reveals that the prison was dismantled and moved from its former location at 20th and Cary Sts. in Richmond and reassembled at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago "and is now there." This would place the date of the postcard somewhere between 1893 and 1899, when the old prison was dismantled and its bricks sold as souvenirs.
If the earrings and the postcard were collected by the same person, perhaps they were purchased by a family member who attended the Fair or the Libby Prison Museum in the years after. Another possibility is that my Gr-Great grandmother, Mary Athalia Stearns, received them from a suitor before marrying my Gr-Grandfather William Nisbet Olmsted in 1871. They are the sort of gift a man might give his wife, or sweetheart, but no one in our immediate family fits the description of the imprisoned "Northern soldier." There was a more distant relative, an uncle named James Jackson Higginson, who was indeed captured in 1863 at the cavalry fight at Aldie and imprisoned at Libby for nine months, but he was exchanged in March of 1864 rather than tunneling out.
The buttons are small, those from a uniform cuff or the gathers at the back of a frock coat rather than the larger ones that fastened the front. They are stamped "EXTRA QUALITY" with two small five pointed stars on the reverse but have no other identifiable marks. The eye for the thread has been removed and earing hooks welded at the top, but this is the sum of what I have learned about them and their reputed origins remain unconfirmed and not fully explained.
I also have these buttons, given to me by H Bruce Rinker, a brilliant biologist and former teacher at Millbrook School whose family was from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and had preserved them as relics from the War. There are eight of them, strung on thick white string, and are made of wood. There is a faded flower pattern on the front, but most are worn with age. Bruce said they had belonged to a family member and had been used on a homespun uniform. During reconstruction, wearing confederate insignia was outlawed and buttons had to be clipped or covered from old uniforms. These ones returned to civilian status, but were kept together as a reminder of those times.
Other buttons comes from political campaigns rather than military ones. The McKinley - Roosevelt one comes from the election of 1900 and probably belonged to my Gr-Great Aunts Bess or Het Ogden. The other two belonged to my Republican grandmother Athalia Barker.
All of these mementos have stories to tell, and silences still to keep.