For decades, patriotic souvenir hunters have chipped away at Plymouth Rock and cut fragments from White House curtains. Less exuberant collectors satisfy themselves with the mass-produced trinkets available at historic sites. In a recent article on Smithsonian.com, curator Larry Bird attributes this behavior to our desire to “touch” the past by owning a piece of our nation’s history.
The “souvenir mania” he describes inspired us to look through the Gallery’s own collection of relics. One of these keepsakes is a rifle ball embedded in a piece of wood. Inscribed on the back of this piece is “Rifle Ball, Battle at Bentonville, the Last Battle of the War between the States.” This 2 x 2.25 inch fragment was taken from a structure at Bentonville Battlefield as a memento of North Carolina’s largest Civil War battle.
Some relics are associated with revered historical figures, such as this unassuming half-inch piece of fabric, a fragment of the braid from General Robert E. Lee’s dress uniform donated in 1930 to the Library by one of Lee’s cousins.
The Gallery holds a number of souvenirs and relics, and most of these are related to the Civil War. The collection of these is a testament to a universal human desire to connect with monumental events and historic personages of the past.
What relics or souvenirs have allowed you to touch the past?