Identifying those who gave: Soldiers & Sailors sheds light on the history of dog tags

When people pass the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum on a windy September day, they can hear the clink of silver garlands hanging above the steps facing Fifth Avenue. Thousands of hanging dog tags display outside the building in honor of soldiers who have lost their lives over the past two decades in conflicts overseas as a result of the September 11 attacks.

Tim Neff, vice president and director of museum and education, said the exhibit honors those who have served our country and their heroism.

“It’s very powerful,” Neff said. “It is a testament to the sacrifice and patriotism that resulted from 9/11 and those who were willing to serve.”

On Thursday, Soldiers & Sailors hosted their monthly “Spotlight On” virtual program, and this month’s topic was the history of dog tags. Neff and Mickael Kraus, Curator and Civil War Historian, discussed the history and evolution of dog tags.

Kraus said there was no way to identify soldiers killed in action before the Civil War. He said that started to change after the government announced the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

“The cemetery was a government project, so there had to be a record of how the money was spent and all the procedures,” Kraus said. “Samuel Weaver was the man responsible, and when they exhumed bodies at the Battle of Gettysburg between July and November 1863, he carefully noted the contents of a grave.”

According to Kraus, if a soldier died in battle, his comrades would sometimes mark his grave with a board with the soldier’s name or initials engraved on it. He said vendors, called sutlers, would set up around Union Army camps and sell an item called the McClellan tag, which was both a novelty item and a way to alleviate the fear of being unidentified. The label bears the name of General George McClellan.

Kraus said the McClellan tag had a picture of General McClellan on the front and appeared blank on the back. A soldier’s information could be hand-stamped on the back, but the poorly made pins that held the tags in place caused many to be lost in battle. However, he said officials sometimes retrieve the tags with soldiers’ bodies and use them for identification purposes.

Beginning in 1863, Kraus said, vendors also began selling body badges, a much more elaborate identification tag that contained the body a soldier was in. He said the body badges did not identify individual soldiers, but they did illustrate the usefulness of such an item.

“It may have shaken the tree a bit, they may have said, ‘It helps identify someone, it’s something that’s indelible, it’s not going to crumble or break. Can maybe we should create something like this for soldiers, on an individual level,” Kraus said.

According to Kraus, the Army finally decided to individually identify soldiers in 1907 and came up with an aluminum disk about the size of a half dollar. He said the discs were stamped with a soldier’s name and service number, which were new to the military. Each soldier wore two such discs so that one can be left with the body and the other collected for record keeping purposes.

Neff said the military began using what would be considered a “modern dog tag” during World War II. These tags contained a soldier’s name, service number, and body as before, but now included religious information and blood type.

“You’re going to have a blood type, so if you’re injured you can’t talk and they drag you to a field hospital for a transfusion, that’s really helpful information,” Kraus said. .

Neff also said that despite the standardization of labels during World War II, they often looked different from each other. By the Vietnam War dog tags began to appear much more uniform, with most containing name, service number, religion, and blood type. Neff said dog tags were developed to have tubes around the chain, usually plastic or rubber, to silence the sound of the chain on a soldier.

“They’re starting to look alike, but you’re still not going to say they’re all the same,” Neff said.

Robert M. Larson