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Identification Discs of Union Soldiers in the Civil War

by Larry B. Maier and Joseph W. Stahl, McFarland & Co., Inc., 2008, $55

When the outcome of the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 made it clear that the Civil War would be longer and bloodier than either side had expected, concerns about dying anonymously on the field drove many soldiers to seek means of identification, from tags to inscribed Bibles. The first written reference to metal discs purchased to record the owner’s name, company, regiment and possibly his hometown was in a February 1862 letter from Henry L. Franklin of the 2nd Vermont Infantry, who purchased two and planned to send one home. In the months to come, pierced coin-like discs made of metals ranging from gold to cheaply mass-produced white metal proliferated throughout the Union Army. Today they still provide information about their owners and are highly prized items of Civil War memorabilia.

Usually obtained from sutlers who accompanied the armies, identification discs were neither standard nor uniform, though they served as prototypes for the dog tags that have since become standard military issue. In Identification Discs of Union Soldiers in the Civil War: A Complete Classification Guide and Illustrated History, historians Larry B. Maier and Joseph W. Stahl have compiled their findings from examining roughly 600 examples to illustrate the 49 basic styles and provide a guide to those commonly used in some 250 Union regiments. In addition to helping the collector identify his disc, the book includes information on how to distinguish it from a postwar product, a reenactor’s replica or an outright fake. To underline the importance of ascertaining the value of authenticated discs—and how much that extends beyond monetary—the book concludes with expanded life stories of some of the men who wore them. This is one of those specialized Civil War books that an enthusiast may open wondering what possessed the authors to write it, and finish wondering why nobody had thought of it sooner.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here