Civil War Belt Buckle
Can an object define a moment in time? Does the object make the man or does man make the object? To what extent can we analyze and item that we have little or no information on? To what extent can we look at an object to determine its symbolic elements of the time period?
Interpreting a Belt Buckle
When asking someone, “What is a belt buckle?” you are bound to get a variety of different answers with different comparisons and interpretations. Depending on who you talk to, a belt buckle could symbolize many different things. To a cowboy, it could symbolize the rodeo. To a soldier, it could symbolize honor and pride for the side they are fighting on. To movie fanatics, it could symbolize Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. To the more practical person, it could just be a mere device that helps hold up pants. However, all of these symbolic aspects did not appear out of nowhere; instead, they came from a long evolution of what the belt buckle means and what is it used for. Belt buckles have been around for thousands of years and have had a number of different usages that have varied due to the time period, style, and practical needs.
What is the Phoenix Project?
Prior to the construction of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) rail lines in Atlanta, Georgia, an excavation took place to unearth and preserve many artifacts that were located where the tracks were to be built. The study of the objects found is called the “Phoenix Project.” If this excavation did not take place, many of these artifacts would have been destroyed or lost; however, due to this excavation, many artifacts were unearthed that dated back to be more than a century old. Among all of these artifacts found, the Civil War Ammo belt buckle was one that was unearthed in this excavation.
Civil War Belt Buckle
This belt buckle dates between the years that the Civil War took place (1861-1865); however, it is difficult–if not impossible–to determine the actual date of this specific object’s creation and usage. Due to the appearance of the object, however, it can be directly linked to the Civil War because the key signifier located on this object–the United States bald eagle.
The buckle itself is round with about a diameter of two and a half inches, no more than a .5 centimeter width, and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Although the object is light in weight, compared to modern belt buckles it is heavy with a weight of about 5 oz. From the top down, the circle becomes slightly broken at the bottom possibly due to erosion, and at the top, it is also slightly bent. The objects consists of two sides: the front and the back.
For reference points, I will refer to the side of the object with as the eagle the front and the top of the object will be the eagle’s head.
The Front (Side with eagle)
the original color due to the lack of preservation because it was underground years prior to excavation. Near the center of the object is a spot of built-up rust with a length of about 1 cm. This area pops out of the object for about two millimeters. It is made out of a tough metal that shows signs of aging and rust, although the metal is still strong. The outer edge of the object slightly pops out for about 1 millimeter.
Going from the top down, the object displays a bald eagle on the front with the eagle looking to the side so only one eye is visible. Above the head there is a small bump that; however, it stops before reaching the head. The head consists of two main parts: the eye and the beak. As the eagle is looking to the side, its beak consists of about half the size of its head. The head is fairly smooth with not as much texture compared to the rest of the object. Going down, the neck of the eagle is about 1 centimeter long and the texture of the hair on the eagle’s neck is very fine, but as the neck reaches the body, the texture becomes more spread out. The body of the eagle slightly leans to its left with its left wing is larger than its right. The right wing is about 1 centimeter wide and 2 centimeters tall, whereas the left wing is about 1.5 centimeters wide and 1.5 centimeters tall. Following the body, there are two legs that slightly pop out more compared to the body. The legs are relativity smooth compared to the texture of the rest of the eagle. The eagle’s right foot consists of four toes holding three arrows pointing upwards. The arrows are about 1.5 centimeters long and the bottom arrow is faded more than the top arrow. The left foot is holding a tree branch. The branch is much more faded compared to the arrows. Between the legs is the area of built-up rust.
Around the eagle consists of the army green color. The object shows signs of wear due to many broken marks on the object. Also, the bottom of the front is broken off with about 2 centimeters long broken off; however, it only goes inward for about 1.5 millimeters. Compared to the back of the object, the front is much more preserved, which shows that there might have been some chemical involved in the preservation process that treated the front but not the back.
The back of the object does not consist of as much detail as the front of the object because it was most likely the part that attached to the belt. The color of the back consists of many different shades of grey and also some rust. It has a very rough surface texture that is similar to the texture of a limestone rock. There are two parallel spots of rust on the object that show where the the buckle would attach to the belt. There are multiple signs of chipping that show that the back of the object was not treated with a preservative compared to the front which is much more in-tact. Also, there are many “crater-like” markings on the back, which contribute to the rough texture.
History of Belt Buckles
To further understand this belt buckle, we must look back at the history of belt buckles. Belt buckles have been around for over a century and have had a variety of different uses. From practical uses to stylistic, belt buckles have served a variety of different purposes over the years.
The Romans were the first to use belt buckles in the second and third centuries. These belt buckles were D and square shaped and were pounded out of wrought iron by a blacksmith. Moreover, they were used for functional use, rather than for fashion–like carrying weapons and tying their tunics. Although the belt buckles served many practical uses, they were very heavy which weighed down Roman soldiers. There were many different designs throughout the evolution of the Roman belt buckle; however, they were all made out of heavy metals that often weighed down the soldiers.
Although belt buckles dated back this far, for the more practical use–for holding up your pants–suspenders were much more common than belts, and this was due to the heaviness of the belt buckle. As stated, belt buckles were made of wrought iron by Roman blacksmiths, so practically speaking, when used in battle the belt buckles would weigh soldiers down and become burdensome. Then, in the 1800s, a man named Albert Thurston (from England) manufactured the style of suspenders that are still relevant to today (which were know in Britain as “braces”). At the time, men wore high-waist pants so suspenders were much more common due to the current style of the time. Suspenders were worn by the average person for majority of the 1800s because belts were often too heavy and were not popular during this time period. In addition, it wouldn’t be until after World War I when men would favor belts over suspenders.
Moreover, despite common stereotype, many cowboys actually avoided wearing belt buckles due to the fear of the bulls horn being hooked on the buckle; instead, they wore suspenders until the early 1900s. Suspenders did not act as a threat as belts did to the cowboys; however, once the belt buckle started taking the screen and appearing in many movies, many cowboys adopted it as part of their dress.
The Civil War
In the United States, belt buckles began to gain momentum around the Civil War era (1861-65) due to the practicality of the belt. From the research of this belt buckle, this belt buckle was worn by Union officers during the Civil War.
Both sides in the Civil War wore belt buckles; however, the process to make them was very different. The South was a much less developed area compared to the North. The South consisted mostly of plantations, so majority of their supplies were handmade, and not mass-produced. Since majority of the South’s materials were handmade, the belt buckles on the Confederate side were much less uniform compared to the Union. For collectors, it is often difficult to tell a fake and real belt buckle apart because every belt buckle made on the Confederate side is a little different. Moreover, there are also many different variation of the Confederate Civil War buckle that were used by different regiments in different states. Soldiers either wore belt buckles with the names of the states or a “CS” Confederate buckle.
Compared to the South, the North had a much higher population, more factories, more railroads, more iron/steel production, and more wealth, so when it came to supplying uniforms and supplies to Union soldiers, the North excelled over the South. The belt buckle on the right was the most common style belt buckle worn by a Union soldier. This belt buckle was manufactured by the company “S&S Firearms,” and there are many interesting things to note about it. As stated about the South, it is difficult to tell a fake and a real buckle apart; however, this is not the case with the North because since their buckles were made in factories, they were all uniform in size and detail. Another interesting fact about this belt buckle was that since there were so many of them, Confederate soldiers would recover them, turn then upside down, and it would stand for “Southern Nation.”
After research, due to the detail of the belt buckle, it is clear that the eagle belt buckle was worn on the Union side because the South did not have the technology to create a belt buckle with as much detail. As stated, the belt buckle that is featured in this exhibit was worn by a Union officer because the more common soldier would wear the standard “US” buckle. Moreover, due to the detail of this belt buckle, it is clear from its design that it carried more prestige than the standard “US” buckle.
Although the Civil War was more than one hundred years ago, there are still many belt buckles and Civil War artifacts found at battle fields and other areas where there were Civil War soldiers roaming. This video bellow shows a man unearth a variety of different Civil War pieces from a soldier.
Belt Buckles and Battle
As we have seen, up until the early 1900s belt buckles were primarily used by soldiers. This was because of the resourcefulness that the belt buckles offered. The could carry supplies like swords, guns, ammo, and many more items. It provided an easy access to obtain these supplies compared to reaching in a backpack or carrying it in a jacket. Belts represented soldiers and the things they carried. They symbolized the side that the soldier was fighting on, and symbolized valor and pride.
Although belt buckles are very practical and useful for soldiers, perhaps they are better known today for their influence in Hollywood cowboy films. Actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made the belt buckle a symbol for cowboys and “machismo” that is used today. John Wayne was famous for cowboy roles and symbolized this idea of what it “means” to be a cowboy, and that cowboys wore belt buckles–despite the fact that they did not wear them because of the fear of being hooked on a bull’s horn.
Then, in the 1950s, Hollywood designers began to design the belt buckles more flashy and the clothing became the type of clothing that we all now image cowboys wearing. Although it might have been exaggerated, it is now the style of clothing that we all imagine cowboys
We don’t know who wore this belt. We don’t know his age, his motives for fighting in the Civil War, or his rank in the military. We don’t know what why this buckle was in the spot that it was found. Moreover, we don’t know the answers to these questions, and it is possible that we might never know the answers just by looking at this object. However, from analyzing this object, we DO have many answers to questions like, what war was it? What era was it made? And how was it made? Although this belt buckle was made more than a hundred years ago, it is still in great condition and can tell us a lot about the honor and pride that soldiers fighting in the Civil War had.
Through object analysis, the object begins to tell us its life story. Connections begin to emerge as we begin to understand its journey. Although we might not understand the details of this specific belt buckle, we do understand why certain decisions were made in its design.