Certainly, the collecting of battlefield souvenirs or trophies is as old as warfare itself. There are several accounts going back to pre-Roman times of both combatants and non-combatants visiting battlefields to scavenge, steal and basically remove anything of use. And why wouldn’t there be?
If you think a battle was savage enough how about the thinking that a dead or dying man would no longer have use of his sword, his boots, the clothes on his back or even his teeth?
Barbaric or a by-product of a darker harsher time?
The Battle of Waterloo was a huge success for the British and the end of Napoleon’s empire-building dreams. Facing each other across a series of muddy fields, impassable tracks and fortified farms, Wellington and Napoleon’s armies infamously battled.
The two opposing armies were so great in numbers of men, canon and horse it took many hours to manoeuvre into position until the first shot was fired at around 10 o’clock on the morning of June 18th, 1815 (The French claim it was 11.30).
The battle raged all day, with its climax and Wellington’s victory coming around dusk. As 50,000 lay dead and wounded, a sinister force emerged onto the corpse-strewn battlefield. Scavengers and thieves, intent, not only on robbing the corpses and dying of their possessions but also their teeth!
The teeth of the dead were removed and sold to dentists who crafted them into false teeth. Although barbaric it was considered, amongst some, to be a lot simpler and cheaper than using elephant or walrus ivory for false dentures, practiced since around the 6th Century BC.
In fact, such was the demand for these ‘Waterloo Teeth’ that weeks and even months after the battle, graves continued to be dug up and teeth removed.
The problem was so great that bodies were often transferred to deeper graves and soldiers, or local militia men were left to guard the battlefield. The reason for such a demand in false teeth was a simple one. The mouths of the rich were rotten due to a sweet diet and very little oral hygiene!
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Expensive Porcelain Teeth
The teeth were highly prized by their new owners and became quite the talking point amongst the fashionable of London.
Demand eventually outstripped supply and dentists even sold ‘fake’ Waterloo teeth to unsuspecting clients. As a somewhat macabre footnote it should be noted that although grave robbing was a crime, stealing and selling people’s teeth was not.
In fact, the same strange spectacle happened during the Crimean War in 1853. This time dead Turkish and Russian soldiers became unwitting teeth donors like the fallen British and French of Waterloo.
After the War in Crimea had ended in 1856, despite the invention of expensive porcelain teeth, British dentists still had an appetite for fresher and cheaper specimens. Consequently, crates of teeth began arriving on British shores from the battlefields of the American Civil War!
Trophy Hunters and Battlefield Souvenirs
By the winter of 1861 the American Civil War was well underway, though the battles hadn’t quite yet reached their bloodiest points.
One thing that had been noted, by both sides, was the keen pursuit or ‘pastime’ of trophy hunting. Soldiers, freshly slain on the battlefields, would often be cleaned of all their possessions, with the robber relishing and even bragging about their mementos.
In fact, some soldiers would argue that after putting their lives on the line and defeating their foes it was their right to take what they pleased and to seek out high value prizes.
It wasn’t always about value or gain though and it wasn’t always the common soldier who engaged in this grisly pursuit.
Either as a sign of humiliation or out of respect, officers would also frequently send home battlefield mementos taken from fellow commanders, and would be particularly on the look out for swords or pistols from a notable manufacturer.
In September 1862 during the Battle of Ox Hill, Union Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, heavily outmatched and ignoring calls to surrender, rode up to enemy lines and was shot in the back.
The bullet that struck him killed him instantly and he was dead before he hit the ground. The General’s remains were later returned to the Union Army—minus his “sword, pistol, watch, diamond brooch, finger rings, and the pocketbook, in which the millionaire general always kept a large amount of money.”
A fair punishment for a foolish man or a disgracefully disrespectful act to a brave one?
My First and Last Attempt to rob a Dead Yankee.
Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier and later author of the Civil War book ‘Co. Aytch’ wrote in his memoirs of a dead Union General he encountered on the battlefield “He had on the finest clothes I ever saw, a red sash (cloth belt) and fine sword. I particularly noticed his boots. I needed them and had made up my mind to wear them out for him. But I could not bear the thought of wearing dead men’s shoes. I took hold of the foot and raised it up and made one trial at the boot to get it off. I happened to look up, and the colonel had his eyes wide open and seemed to be staring at me. He was stone dead, but I dropped that foot quick. It was my first and last attempt to rob a dead Yankee.”
In another example, in 1864 Confederate Maj.Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s body was discovered after the Battle of Franklin:
“He was in his socked feet, his boots having been stolen,” recalled a witness some years later. “His watch, sword belt and other valuables were all gone, his body having been robbed during the night.” Cleburne had fallen within his own Confederate lines, his body having been looted by his own soldiers.
It wasn’t just valuables or clothes that some men were after though. After Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer was shot and killed his body was stripped almost clean by troops on both sides, with some reportedly even trying to scalp him.
Private John Boss of the 9th Ohio wrote “When the soldiers saw Zollicoffer’s corpse, they tore his clothing from his body, and split up his shirt, in order to have a souvenir.
A Tennessean wanted his whole scalp but was prevented from that because a guard was placed there.” A newspaper correspondent later wrote of Zollicoffer’s body: “I am sorry to say that his remains were outrageously treated by the thousands of soldiers and citizens that flocked to see them,”.
Sometimes items were taken from the bodies of comrades due to necessity, such as ammunition, food or warm clothes.
However, sometimes greed took and the site of a fob watch, silver ring or even a gold tooth proved too tempting, and in the heat of battle these were often snatched, either by those who knew the fallen man or much more often by those of another regiment or opposing army.
Whatever the reason, trophy hunting or battlefield looting was alive and well during the American Civil War and in fact became something of an accepted hobby.