They Talk – I Listen

“Each time I handle this artifact I sense an aura of death.”

In this Battle of Williamsburg rendition, the soldier in lower middle of sketch holds what appears to be a Springfield Model 1861 rifle. The unfortunate man’s been struck by shrapnel from an exploding cannonball and knocked backwards. This artwork was created by a Union soldier who actually observed the battle.

I’ve been an antique aficionado going way back. Mom said as a child I drove her and my grandparents crazy asking questions about this and that. I wanted to know anything and everything there was to know about “old things”. I believe all surviving relics have a story to tell. Unfortunately, not all of their stories are accurately told.

I recently came in possession of a Bristol kerosene lamp. It’s beautiful and has nary a blemish. The person I purchased it from said it’d been in his family for over 130 years. There was no one left to pass it down to so he regretfully sold it to me. Holding this jewel in my hand, I sensed that in the beginning, going back to 1890, the lamp was a most cherished item by its initial owner.

Other family members had painstakingly became caretakers of it from generation to generation. The antique talked to me in an unspoken way, whispering that I also needed to give it special love and attention.

A flint hide-scraping-tool discovered in Kansas has significant meaning. It lay untouched many years until I picked it up alongside a dirt farm road. The Indian losing it probably felt as bad as we do after misplacing a wallet or phone. He had to painstakingly chisel out another one before skinning his next buffalo. Holding this artifact in my palm, I realize that 150-years-ago some warrior’s hardened hands held the same.

Papa Haynes had a double-barrel shotgun hanging on a store wall. Papa’s firearm kindled my interest in antique weapons and related accessories. Vintage long arms and pistols talk to me the most. I don’t mean they speak in a vocal fashion. It’s more of a sensual, braille like dialogue. Shouldering an old Sharps or Winchester rifle allows my mind to wander back in time; the same with holding a western era Colt revolver. For the most part all antiques have something to say. You just have to take time and listen.

Perhaps the one item I stumbled across that speaks to me loudest is an 1861 Springfield Civil War musket. Spotting it in an antique shop, I traded a pristine condition Model 1816 Springfield musket for the treasure. My 1816 musket was in far better condition with a clear cartouche on the stock. A cartouche is a branded section in the wood identifying the person inspecting the gun. This pristine musket evidently spent its early years in some government arsenal never seeing action. Because of this pampered life it didn’t have anything exciting to say.

The 1861 Springfield incurred a much harsher life. It was excavated at the site of The Battle of Williamsburg in Virginia. An old hand written tag attached with yellowed string reads as follows:

This “Civil War Musket” was unearthed in 1872 – 10 years after the battle at Williamsburg, VA.

The bayonet is rusted solid to the barrel and it can be noted that shrapnel tore into it and the hammer and lockplate.

From the D.C. Beck collection.

An imposing weapon at 74″ long with bayonet.

Several times I’ve looked down the barrel using a bore scope. It appears a mini ball is still wedged inside. I believe the soldier most likely was on the move, charging forward with gun to hip.

The only way shrapnel could’ve struck the barrel in that location, was if the Springfield was perpendicular to the soldier’s body. If that were the case he too would’ve inflicted serious wounds from the explosion. Each time I handle this artifact, I sense an aura of death. It’s easy to visualize the broken weapon lying on blood stained ground, with the unfortunate infantryman near by along with others; Confederate and Union. Hand to hand combat was common during this horrific melee.

Note the indention in metal barrel just under USA flag to the left. It took a terrific explosion to leave that mark in hardened steel.

There were 3,965 Union and Confederate soldiers killed during The Battle of Williamsburg. Ironically, a pencil drawing of the battle created by a soldier having fought there, portrays an infantryman being blown backwards when a Confederate shell explodes in front of him. It appears the man’s carrying a Springfield Model 1861.

My relic once belonged to famous artist Otto Walter Beck. Walter was a Civil War historian known for his renditions of surviving war veterans. He painted many Biblical pieces of art as well. Walter and his wife Marion created the Innisfree Garden in Millport, New York. This magnificent garden is still blooming and open to the public.

Walter Beck’s excavated Springfield, along with tintype and daguerreotype photos procured from war survivors were part of his Washington D.C. Civil War display during the early 1900’s. Some of Beck’s military paintings still reside within the Smithsonian.

Article on Walter Beck from the December 14, 1913, “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.”

One of the more interesting guns that talked to me took some doing before it’d say anything. Alaska resident, Larry Boyd, discovered the rusted and rotting section of a Winchester lying under floorboards of a decaying miner’s cabin near Dawson City, Yukon Territory (Canada).

Larry gave the relic to my friend Jeff Thimsen. Somehow I ended up with it. Jeff believes the area where it was found is actually more near the ghost town of Forty Mile, Y.T. A serial number on the lower receiver should tell a person exactly where it was sold. This is available by sending that number to the Bill Cody Museum. Unfortunately, only a portion of the number on my artifact was visible. The unseen number was totally obliterated with rust.

Good friend, Tom Doupe, offered to help me uncover the missing link. A pal of Tom’s worked at the Alaska State Troopers Crime Lab in Anchorage. Using special techniques developed by the FBI, this professional offered the use of such to try and recover my missing number.

The process works like this. Whenever a piece of metal is struck with a number or alphabet die, the molecular alignment of material underneath the impression is also changed. Using muratic acid to remove the initial layer of rust, he then lightly touched the spot with a file. A high strength magnifying glass allowed him to make out the missing 7. He then photographed it with with a camera.

The completed serial number showed it was an 1885 Winchester – 22 short caliber – “low wall” rifle. This gun was sold in Seattle in 1896. That year was the start of the Alaska Gold Rush. Miners boarded ships in Seattle during that time for the long voyage north.

A 22 short in Alaska is a relatively worthless bullet. It’d be good for shooting small birds or ptarmigan and only those at close range. The barrel on this particular rifle unscrews from the receiver. It can be converted to a larger caliber simply by switching barrels. I believe the owner may have had that in mind. Perhaps if Larry Boyd had searched further the barrel would’ve been found?

After Gold was discovered at Forty Mile, a larger strike was made near Dawson City. Virtually overnight, the town became deserted, with miners quickly scurrying up the Yukon River to stake their claims . One thing this gun did tell me was that the owner wasn’t struck by a cannonball. It didn’t tell me was what happened to the fellow?

My hunch is a young miner placed the Winchester under floorboards of his log cabin with intents on coming back for it. I like to think he hit it big in Dawson City. At that point, the gun became yet another rusty reminder of year’s gone by.

Not all weapons found in the ground have graphic or interesting stories tell. An 1851 Colt Navy pistol I purchased from renown antique firearms expert, Norm Flayderman, was discovered in an area of Texas where no recorded Civil War battles were fought, nor skirmishes with Indian warriors. The weapon lay under soil for some time because all wood was gone as well as the thin steel trigger. A portion of the brass trigger guard was pushed in as if it struck something hard. I asked Norm what he thought happened.

“It’s something all of us do from time to time. It’s called the dropsies.”

He finished his statement by saying some cowboy must’ve been riding through the area and his Colt accidentally fell out of its holster. It lay undiscovered for over 100 years before someone found it.

It’s really no different than dropping a set of keys from your pocket. Because this surviving relic had little to say I quickly passed it on to another collector. There’s no telling if the new owner put a more climatic spin on his tale when he showed it to pals.

That’s what happens to so many such artifacts. Without credible provenance, their story grows bigger and larger with time!

Lower section of an 1885 Winchester “low wall” rifle found in a crumbling miner’s cabin.

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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