- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

In today's Army, every soldier is issued a "dog tag" so he can be identified if anything happens to him. In the Civil War, neither the Union Army nor the Confederate army supplied identity tags to its troops. In the Union Army, however, as casualties increased and soldiers became concerned that their families would not know what happened to them if they were killed in battle, ID devices became popular.

Most ID tags were sold to the troops by sutlers (private contractors with permission to sell items to the troops). Some tags were made by soldiers themselves by scratching their name on a flattened bullet or writing on a piece of paper that they would stuff in their pockets or pin to their shirts. The sutlers supplied at least 10 different types that were sold to Union troops, including designs with an eagle, George Washington, a shield, Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan. They were made from several different materials, including brass, lead, pewter and U.S. coins.

In 1999, I acquired such an ID tag. It had belonged to Pvt. David Bossert of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. It is one of the common types made of brass; on it are the words "War of 1861," "United States" and the image of an eagle (similar to the eagle found on the $10 gold coin of the period). It has a hole so that it could be worn on a string around the neck or on a pin to attach to clothing. It is almost 1¼ inches in diameter. Typical of most, the soldier had engraved on it his name, "D. Bossert"; company, "Co. I"; regiment, "49th Regt. Pa. Vol."; and hometown, "Perrysville." Note that his hometown is misspelled as "Perysville."

After acquiring the tag, my research began. I obtained a copy of Bossert's records (available from the National Archives), some of which refer to him as "Bossart." Unfortunately, a copy of his muster, which includes the soldier's description, was not included. The records show that he enlisted on Oct. 24, 1861, and was "present" from July 1862 until discharged on Oct. 23, 1864.

One significant entry in his records shows his transfer to Company A on Jan. 1, 1863. Therefore, he must have bought this tag some time before his transfer. Assuming he wore it for the rest of his service means that this ID tag is probably a direct tie to the Battle of Gettysburg, to the third Battle of Winchester in September 1864, and to other actions between January 1863 and his muster-out date.

My next step was to search the U.S. Army Military History Institute Image Collection for a photo of Bossert. Although the odds were heavily against finding one, I hit the jackpot. Two photos were listed. The first is described as a "half standing view of Pvt. David R. Bossert, Co. A, 49th Regt., Pa. Vol. Inf." This probably was taken early, as he left for war.

The other is described as "A full standing view of Pvt. David R. Bossert, Co. A, 49th Regt., Pa. Vol. Inf." He is in uniform, but the photo was taken at a reunion. (The background is the same as in "half standing view," indicating that he returned to the same photographer to have his picture taken.)He is wearing his identification tag.

What a thrill it is, to hold in your hand the ID tag that belonged to the soldier whose photo you are looking at, and to know he probably was wearing it on those critical days at Gettysburg in July 1863.

The next objective was to see if a regimental history had been written. It had. "History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers," by Robert S. Westbrook, was reprinted in 1999 by Butternut and Blue, but Bossert is only listed in the company rolls.

The history notes that he was discharged in October 1864, which I knew from his records and that it was "in the field." The roll also notes, however, that he died Aug. 31, 1887, at his home in Turbit Township, Juniata County, Pa.

Thus I learned one more fact about Bossert. In "The Union Army," Vol. I, on pages 380 and 381, is a short history of the regiment. Based on this and the dates of Bossert's service, he probably saw action with his regiment at Crampton's Gap, Salem Church, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Laurel Hill, Spotslvania, Cold Harbor and Third Winchester as part of the 1st Division of 6th Corps. So this little piece of metal was carried through a lot of action.

Bossert was one of the lucky ones who served his country and returned to continue his life during peacetime.

Joseph Stahl has been collecting Civil War items for years. He lives in Fairfax.

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