By Julia Fell

Symbols are a way of identifying oneself. We use them every day to tell others what we have experienced, what our political preferences are, what our moral codes stem from, and who else we choose to associate with. During the American Civil War, which was by all accounts a war of American identity, symbols were adopted and used heavily by the Union Army.

Cane, approx. 1865-1920, wood, lead, brass, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Salvatore Cilella, Jr., N0009.2011. Photographs by Julia Fell

Cane, approx. 1865-1920, wood, lead, brass, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Salvatore Cilella, Jr., N0009.2011. Photographs by Julia Fell

The badge system of identification was developed by Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, in March of 1863 [1]. As a result, many of the badges are known to represent the Army of the Potomac, including circles, clovers or trefoils, diamonds, crosses (Maltese and otherwise), crescent moons, and stars [2]. All of these symbols appear on a very unique cane found in the collections of the New York State Historical Association. Along with the geometric symbols, the cane hosts a variety of flags, arrows, anchors, and other military symbols, such as the recognizable crossed sabres.

Corps badges as created by Hooker. All of the corps symbols appear on the cane, although some are crudely formed. Image from the National Park Service website’s Civil War Series: The Battle of Chancellorsville.

Along with the Army of the Potomac symbols, the cane gives a definitive hint to its origin: “121 H.” On a hunch, I Googled the 121st New York Volunteer Infantry, and found out that it was made up of men from Otsego County, which makes perfect sense for an object which is now stored in that county. The “H” Company was comprised of volunteers from Little Falls, Richfield, Salisbury, and Otesego [3].

Cane, approx. 1865-1920, wood, lead, brass, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Salvatore Cilella, Jr., N0009.2011. Photographs by Julia Fell

Cane, approx. 1865-1920, wood, lead, brass, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Salvatore Cilella, Jr., N0009.2011. Photographs by Julia Fell

As part of the Army of the Potomac, the 121st fought in the 2nd brigade in approximately 36 battles, including those at Gettysburg and Appomatox Court House [3].

It is unclear who the owner and/or maker of this cane was, but it is a fair assumption that he was a member of the 121st. The symbols that he hand carved represent the men that he fought side by side with during his service (1862-1865, as indicated on the cane, as well as the duration of the 121st’s activity).

Union officers who were honorably discharged or left service at the end of the war were legally entitled to display their corps badges [4]. There is no doubt that out on the street, this cane would have gathered plenty of attention and let any passerby know exactly who its owner was and what he had fought for. Being a part of the New York 121st Volunteer Infantry was a life-changing experience for the owner of this cane, as well as a sure reminder of the war that changed his country.

(Another interesting feature of the cane is a hollowed out compartment that holds two lead musket balls. A gruesome guess at where they came from may also indicate the reason that the owner needed a cane… his leg!)

[1] Boyd, Steven R. “From “The Boys in Blue” to the Veteran.” In Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War the Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers, 97. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

[2] Landham, Dr. Howard G. “Designs of Civil War Corps Badges.” Civil War Corps Badges. Accessed October 19, 2015.

[3] “121st NY Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.” 121st NY Infantry Regiment during the Civil War – NY Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. April 23, 2012. Accessed October 19, 2015.

[4] Field, Ron, and Robin Smith. “Insignia and Medals.” In Uniforms of the American Civil War [: An Illustrated Guide for Historians, Collectors, and Reenactors], 135. 1. Lyons Press ed. Guildford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2001.

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