Civil War relic reveals soldier’s story: a mute witness to the sacrifice that restored a torn union

— Photo by Michael H. Wagner

The back has A.B. Decker’s name, company and regiment, from New Scotland, New York

— Photo by Michael H. Wagner
The front of the brass identification disc has “War of 1861” and a bas-relief portrait of Union Major General George B. McClellan.

To the Editor:

A rare reminder of Albany County’s rich Civil War history was recently discovered due to an online auction. The relic had been part of the lifelong historical collection of a New Jersey man.

The item is a brass identification disc that belonged to a local soldier who served in the Civil War. His name was Abraham B. Decker, and he served in Company G of the 43rd New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment was known as “The Albany Rifles.”

Although the identification discs are often referred to as “dog tags,” they bear little resemblance to the World War II-style dog tags that are commonly found. Identification tags were not provided by the government to soldiers during the Civil War but were privately purchased by the soldiers.

It is one reason that so many Civil War soldiers who lost their lives in the war were buried in unknown graves. It was the soldiers who appreciated the need to carry some form of identification and it was the commercial sutlers who followed the armies that satisfied that need. Camp sutlers set up shop near troop encampments and sold the identification discs (along with other items) to the soldiers and engraved them with personalized inscriptions.

The disc that belonged to Abraham Decker is of the early Civil War pattern that was purchased by many soldiers and has “War of 1861” and a bas-relief portrait of Union Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan was a popular commander who led the Union army in 1861 and 1862 until relieved of command after the battle of Antietam.

Camp sutlers used special die kits to engrave the discs. This example has Private Decker’s name, regiment, and his hometown of “New Scotland” engraved on the reverse side. It is very likely that Decker purchased the disc after he reached the big military camp at Alexandria, Virginia in September 1861.

The camp was one of the defensive positions protecting Washington, D.C. This assumption is based on the reference to Company G stamped on the disc (Decker was transferred to Company D later in the war) and the representation of McClellan.

The discs were worn suspended around the neck on twine or string and often broke in the field. In the years after the Civil War, many of these discs have been recovered by relic hunters after they were lost on the battlefield or in camp. Others were brought home by the soldiers and treasured by family members as a reminder of their loved one’s service in the war.


A hard-fought regiment

The 43rd New York Infantry was raised in Albany County during a critical time. When the Civil War began in April 1861, both sides believed that it would be a short and bloodless conflict. Regiments were formed to serve 90 days.

The insufficiency of the approach became apparent after the First Battle of Bull in July 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln realized the need for additional troops. The 43rd New York was organized in the fall of 1861 with five companies of men from Albany County, two from New York City, one from Montgomery County, one from Washington County, and one from Otsego County.

The 43rd New York Infantry left New York state on Sept. 21, 1861 and encamped in the defenses of Washington, D.C. to help secure the city. In the spring of 1862, the regiment participated in General McClellan’s failed attempts to capture Richmond and lost 71 men in just a single week of battle. Because of the heavy losses, the regiment was consolidated into a battalion of five companies.

The regiment fought at Antietam, Maryland in the Civil War’s bloodiest single day’s battle, and was engaged at Fredericksburg in December 1862 before going into winter camp at Falmouth, Virginia. As part of the Union Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps, the regiment fought at Chancellorsville, losing 138 men at the battle of Salem Church, Virginia, and another 66 men in the second assault on Fredericksburg in May 1862.

The losses of the Sixth Corps brigade to which the regiment belonged were so great that the brigade was broken up and the 43rd New York was assigned to a new unit within the Sixth Corps. The regiment arrived at Gettysburg late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, after a forced march. The regiment guarded the Union army’s rear flank during Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863.

The regiment fought minor engagements throughout the fall of 1863 before going into winter camp near Brandy Station, Virginia in December. Despite the hard fighting and heavy losses, 217 members of the regiment re-enlisted and were given furloughs to return home for a visit with friends and family and helped recruit replacement volunteers.

If the regiment’s battle experience had not been hard enough, what it encountered in the spring of 1864 tested the resolve of all the men. The 43rd New York endured some of the hardest fighting of the war when General Ulysses S. Grant engaged the Confederate army in the densely wooded forests around Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The regiment lost more men in the May 1864 battle of the Wilderness than in any other fight, losing 198 men, including three field officers killed or mortally wounded. Although reduced to an active force of just seven officers and 92 men, the regiment fought at Spotsylvania, Totopotomoy, North Anna, and Cold Harbor and shared in the first assault against the Confederate trenches surrounding Petersburg.

It was brutal, relentless fighting, and it is perhaps no wonder that an older soldier (40 years old in the summer of 1864) such as Private Decker took sick. He was reported “absent, without leave since July 27, 1864” on the regimental rolls but returned to the ranks in August of that same year.

He was present for the final battles of the regiment. Private Decker witnessed the costly battles around Petersburg and at Sailor’s Creek when General Robert E. Lee’s army tried to make its escape from the Petersburg defenses. The regiment was present at the surrender of Lee’s Army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The regiment was mustered out of United States service at Washington on June 27, 1865.

During its service, the 43rd New York Infantry had a total strength of 2,327 men, of whom 692 were killed, wounded, or captured. There were 94 men who perished from accident or disease and 27 who died in Confederate prisons. The regiment was one of the finest fighting units to take part in the Civil War.


Private Decker’s war

Abraham B. Decker was born in Berne, New York on Oc. 24, 1823. He was a farmer and was 38 years old when he joined the 43rd New York Infantry on Aug. 31, 1862, at New Scotland, New York.

He volunteered to serve three years and was mustered into service as a private in Company G on Sept. 14, 1862. Later in the war, on Sept. 22, 1864, he was transferred to Company D.  He was also recorded as “Abram Decker.”

He was discharged from service at Washington, D.C. on May 27, 1865. In the records, he was described as having hazel eyes, sandy hair, and a light complexion. He stood 5 feet, 7 inches tall.

New York muster-roll records list Private Decker as “Present for Duty” on the following dates: Feb. 28, 1862; April 30, 1862; Oct. 31, 1862; Aug. 31, 1863; Oct. 21, 1863; Dec. 31, 1863; Feb. 23, 1864; April 20, 1864; June 30, 1864; Aug. 31, 1864; Oct. 31, 1864; Dec. 31, 1864; and Feb. 28, 1865.

These dates document when the regiment was brought together to receive pay and can help determine the battles in which Decker participated. He would have been present for most of the regiment’s battles and participated in the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

Private Decker received enlistment bounties of $100 paid by the town of New Scotland, New York, and $50 paid by Albany County. These bounties, controversial with the early volunteers, were paid to encourage enlistment after the initial enthusiasm for the war was blunted by the news from the battlefield, and state and local governments were threatened with the imposition of the draft.

After the war, the New York State Veterans Census for 1890 lists Decker as residing in the town of New Scotland as of June 1890 and provides further notice that he was “discharged on account of disability on May 27, 1865.”

The 1865 New York State Census lists Decker as a “boarder” living with his wife, Sarah, in New Scotland. Both the 1870 federal census and the 1875 New York State Census, list Decker as working as a “Laborer” living with the Peter Slingerland family on their family farm in New Scotland, New York. In 1880, he is listed as working as a farm laborer on the farm of Jerry Winnie in New Scotland.

Civil War identification discs are very rare and highly prized by collectors. This example is in fine condition and does not appear to have been recovered from the battlefield. It was likely brought home and saved as a reminder of Decker’s service.

The early pattern disc, dating from 1861 to 1862, would have accompanied Private Decker on all his adventures, from his first experience in combat, the horrors of war, the privations of camp, and the long march into Pennsylvania that culminated in the defeat of General Lee’s Confederate army at Gettysburg. 

It would have been suspended around his neck during the grim battles of 1864 when General Grant’s army pounded away at the Confederates at places like the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and was there when Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox in the spring of 1865.

It would have bounced from his neck as Decker marched in the Grand Review parade in Washington in May 1865, which marked the final display of the North’s military might.

Such a personal relic as this identification disc is a mute witness of the war that took an estimated 875,000 American lives. It survives, in testament to Private Decker’s service, to the sacrifice of all Albany County residents who fought, and to those who helped to restore a fragile union torn asunder by conflict during the years 1861 to 1865.

Bill Howard


Editor’s note: Bill Howard is an author and historian whose most recent book is “All the Drowned Soldiers: The Battle of Ball’s Bluff ” (History Press) 2018.


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