Artifacts of the Month: “Souvenir Mania”

rifle ball embedded in wood

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, curator Larry Bird attributes this behavior to our desire to “touch” the past by owning a piece of our nation’s history.

reverse of Bentonville Battlefield artifact

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.

braid from General Robert E. Lee's uniform

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?