War of 1812 Buttons from Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis, Hancock County, Illinois

By Fishel, Richard L. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

War of 1812 Buttons from Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis, Hancock County, Illinois


Fishel, Richard L., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


Abstract Recent archaeological investigations at Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis, two War of 1812-era American military posts in Hancock County, Illinois, uncovered a diverse artifact assemblage that includes a wide array of button types. Of the 318 recovered buttons, 68 percent exhibit military insignias, including those attributed to the infantry, army general service, riflemen, artillery, light artillery, and dragoons. In addition to describing the assemblage, what these buttons can and cannot tell us regarding the occupations of the two military posts is discussed.

Recent archaeological excavations at two War of 1 81 2-era American military posts, Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis (see Nolan et al., this volume), recovered a diverse artifact assemblage that includes a wide array of button types. Originally intended to be simply a fastening device for clothing buttons can also serve as identification and status markers in both military and civilian contexts. Military insignias on buttons denote rank, branch, and nationality, while the material from which buttons are manufactured can indicate class rank, function, or even military branch. A single-hole bone button implies different connotations than a gold-plated brass specimen bearing an eagle grasping arrows and an olive branch in its talons, as does a pewter button bearing the initials "US" or a pewter button containing the script initial "I." Military buttons were also highly prized uade items in some Native American societies (Moore and Haynes 2003:79, 163-164).

The standard reference for American military buttons utilized for this analysis is Alphaeus Albert's Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons (Albert 1977). In his book, Albert assigns a code consisting of letters and numbers to each specific button type and their varieties. For example, the cast pewter infantry button consisting of the script initial "I" on the button's face and manufactured between 1812 and 1815 is assigned the code GI36. A script "I" button manufactured with a five-pointed star within an oval below the "I" is coded GI36A. If the prime point of the star is orientated up, the button is coded GI36A1, and if die prime point is positioned down, die button is coded GI36A3. Some script "I" buttons do not contain a star within me oval, and diese are coded GI36D; odiers exhibit a six-pointed star (as opposed to a five-pointed star) wimin the oval (GI36B). While appearing cumbersome at first glance given the multitude of different button varieties that exist, Albert's coding system allows collectors and researchers to easily discuss each specific variety without significant confusion as to type.

No reference manual is exhaustive, however, and some button varieties are omitted from Albert's book. Additional primary sources consulted for this analysis published after Albert include Tice's Uniform Buttons of the United States, 1776-1865 (Tice 1997) and Wyckoffs United States Military Buttons of the Land Services, 1 787-1902 (Wyckoff 1984); other button sources utilized herein include, among others, Olsen (1963), Polhemus (1977), South (1964), and Stone (1974).

War of 1812 Uniforms

Buttons of course did not exist as an entity unto themselves, but were primarily attached to articles of clothing. Determining the number of uniform buttons associated with a United States soldier at any specific time during the War of 1 81 2 is not an easy task, however. Major stylistic revisions occurred to most uniforms during 1812 and again in 1813 (Chartrand 2011:29-51), which also changed the number of buttons present on some uniforms. As such, it is feasible that, depending on when and in what quantity the new uniform styles reached a specific military unit, members of an individual regiment could be sporting varied uniform styles.

As is the case today, different branches of the United States military in the War of 1812 possessed multiple uniforms to be used on different occasions and during different seasons of the year. …

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