Fake Civil War identification discsBy Mark Chervenka
Fake Civil War identification discs
elaborate fraud involves detailed research
Identification (ID) tags–like the so-called "dog tags" of later wars–were never officially issued by armies of either side in the American Civil War1. Without tags, soldiers killed in combat were difficult to identify and notification of family was difficult.
Soldiers of both sides often made their own ID tags. Besides using odd scraps of wood, metal and other common materials, some tags were fashioned of already existing coins which soldiers engraved with their names and information. Identification tags made from coins are referred to by collectors as "ID discs". Choice original Civil War ID discs from a famous soldier–someone in a historical unit or who fought in an important battle–can sell for $5,000 to $12,000.
In the late 1990s, multiple examples of ID discs made of silver dollars engraved with the name Pender began to surface. Since then other coin ID discs have been found inscribed with a variety of names. All of these recently found ID discs, sold at prices ranging from $200 to $1,000, are modern fakes.
According to Nancy Rossbacher, managing editor of North South Trader's Civil War Magazine, all the names found on the fake ID discs are of soldiers who actually existed. Dorsey Pender, for example, eventually reached general's rank. He died of a wound received in the second day's fighting at Gettysburg. Other names on the new coin ID discs include Col. Joseph Mayo, Jr., Robert F. Bunting of the 8th Texas Cavalry, James B. Washington and A.L.P Vairin.
Authentic names of actual soldiers are relatively easy to find to anyone willing to do the research. Most state archives for example, have troop rosters of residents who served in the war. Genealogical centers have specially indexed references devoted to Civil War veterans. Other sources include pension records, state and local war museums and battlefield cemetaries in the National Park system.
Rossbacher told ACRN of how one ID disc was offered with a particularly insidious twist. "One of the Vairin discs was recently offered for sale with a typescript of his wartime journal," said Rossbacher. "The typescript is authentic enough --- I called and verified its existence with the Mississippi library that has the original. Unfortunately, the marriage of authentic with bogus lends a false patina of authenticity to the faked material."
Rossbacher documented approximately 40 of the silver dollar ID discs as of this article. Pieces have surfaced from Chicago to Tampa to Dallas to Tucson. "The initial concentration seemed to be in the Tennessee, North Carolina, and northern Mississippi areas," said Rossbacher, "but they are now more far flung. They tend to surface at smaller auctions and, of course, at flea markets where there is no buyer recourse."
One such sale was for the Pender disc shown in Figs. 1-2. It was sold at the Gene Harris Auction Center in Marshalltown, Iowa, May 8, 1999. The piece was consigned for sale by an Illinois owner and originally thought to be authentic. When the truth was discovered, the disc was honestly described and sold as a fake. Hammer price was $100.
So far only ID discs related to Confederate forces have been reported. No discs have been reported with Union soldiers' names or Federal units.
A comparative study
Peter Bertram, editor of The Confederate Medals, Badges, Medals and Ribbons Newsletter has done an extensive analysis of the ID coin discs. Although his study was based on a silver dollar inscribed "Mayo" and a half-dollar inscribed "Vairin", his conclusions can be applied to all the fake coin ID discs that have surfaced regardless of denomination or inscription.
"The most damaging evidence against these pieces is the size and weight discrepancy compared to genuine coins of the same era," said Bertram. "Even taking into consideration the wear and the holes, the weight difference is too much. Coins don't shrink." Careful testing has shown all the fake ID discs are smaller in diameter and weigh less than authentic coins, oval in shape and have inconsistent reeding2.
A genuine US silver dollar, for example, is uniformly 38.1 millimeters in diameter, weighs 26.73 grams, is perfectly round and has a fully reeded rim. The fake silver dollar Mayo disc illustrates these points. Its oval shape is 36 millimeters wide by 37 millimeters high; its weight, 22 grams; and has only remnants of reeding around the edge.
The extreme and uneven wear to the coins is also a concern. "Let us suppose that Mayo and Vairin and the others did have these coins engraved as ID discs," poses Betram. "The coins would likely have been only two or three years old at the time of engraving, still relatively new. If worn by a neck chain or carried as a pocket piece, there should be relatively little additional wear. The Mayo, Vairin and other examples, however, exhibit the equivalent of many, many years of heavy use normally received in daily commerce. This heavy wear is clearly inconsistent with their purported original use which would have protected the pieces."
Bertram said the engraving is well done and appears similar to period work. "I might note, however, that authentic period pieces I've seen scratched or engraved by soldiers tended to be only "CS", not "CSA".
How are the pieces made? Authentic United States coins are carefully stamped in skillfully made dies which gives them their uniform appearance and consistent quality. The irregular shape, lack of detail and varying thickness of the fakes suggest they are made by casting. This would appear to be the likliest method since many examples have ripples, dimples and pitting in the surface which are all characteristic of the casting process.
What's out there?
No one is sure how many variations are in the market. Different names have been found on different denominations of coins and various ranks have been inscribed with different names. Different Pender pieces, for example, list the rank as "lieutenant colonel", as the piece in Fig. 2 shows, while others list Pender's rank as "general".
Although the fake coin ID discs first became generally noticeable about 1997, they may have begun filtering into the market well before that time. Bertram said he was told by Joe Levine of Presidential Coin and Antique Co. of Alexandria, Virginia that Levine had a Vairin disc as lot #95 in an auction November 16, 1996. "Levine received two phone calls from two separate parties, each of whom had the identical piece already in their collections," said Bertram, "and Levine's example was not the Vairin example (Fig. 4) shown here."
As with all fakes and clandestine activities, it's difficult to know how widely these pieces have been circulated. What's more chilling is to think that maybe we've caught only the poorly made, more obvious fakes. Are there other, better made pieces we haven't recognized yet as forgeries?
1. In extremely rare cases, ID tags were ordered by small individual units. However, ID tags were never officially issued on an army-or corps-wide scale in either North or South. Eventually private businesses in the North began manufacturing ready-made identification tags for sale to Union troops. Most had patriotic or corps and unit symbols on one side and space for the soldier's information on reverse. These commercially made tags were widely advertised in magazines and newspapers of the times including Harper's Weekly and Leslie's.
Although manufactured identification tags are highly desired as collector's items, they should not be confused with one-of-a-kind hand made ID tags which are much more valuable. No ID tags were widely manufactured in the South.
2. Reeding refers to the vertical lines around the outside edge of a coin.
The growing popularity of Civil War reenactments has seen a corresponding rise in the number of legitimate replicas and reproductions used for this hobby. Although many of these mass produced pieces end up for sale in the general antiques market, it is most often through honest ignorance of the seller.
This is definitely not the case with the ID discs. The high value of originals has made them an attractive target. Whoever is making the coins is carefully researching unit and troop histories to find the names of actual soldiers with deliberate intent to mislead.
Original research appears courtesy Peter Bertram The Confederate Medals, Badges, & Ribbons Newsletter and Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, managing editor North South Trader's Civil War Magazine.