American armies have utilized uniforms that range from the ornate flamboyance of the past, to the drab utilitarian look of the modern era. Given our European background, early American military equipage followed the models of the French and English armies with respect to doctrines, armaments, and organization. As the militias and regular army grew, a multitude of uniforms and insignia came into use to identify the various ranks, units, and branches of service, as was done in Europe. This proliferation of uniform styles continued through the Indian and Spanish American Wars. Along with these uniforms came a multitude of buttons. Aside from performing their physical task, they evolved into a device of rank and organization taking on many faces. From state seals to martial eagles, the varieties of buttons grew and eventually gave rise to an entire industry needed to supply a growing Army. It was likely that here, at this early point in Americas military history , that buttons began to be collected. The soldiers themselves were the earliest collectors. With new unit assignments came new uniforms and new buttons. Lost buttons were replaced with newer ones of different die variations and styles. Old coats were discarded as they decayed but the buttons were saved out of practicality or reverence. As the buttons were were often silvered or gilt in color, they were desirable as curios and were traded among the soldiers as collectables . They were passed down to future generations and used on later uniforms and in later campaigns. Many adorned civilian coats and even women’s dresses as curios of past service of a father, brother, or grandfather. Enter the modern collector.
We , here in America, have a limited historical time line. Limited but rich, passionate and recent. Our history remains vivid as our ancestors, and the armies they were a part of, are not that distantly removed. From the early Colonial Militias to the Viet-Nam War, collectable militaria has always been evident in American culture. From the saber that was carried at Gettysburg , to the spurs that rode across the great plains, to the uniform that went “over the top” on the western front. We find these relics of past service hung over fire places, framed on walls, and in jewelry boxes where they occupy places of special reverence. And so it is with buttons taken from uniforms.
The General Staff button as a collectable, is a small niche in the realm of Civil War era Americana. Small , but attractive enough to satiate that collector’s sense of “specialization”. These buttons were used from the late 1830’s through the 1920’s, so they were produced in quantities enough to assure availability. Even today one can begin a collection easily enough, but still retain that special scarcity and value of a historical relic. Although made to basic design specs of a three piece construction with eagle device on the face, the button has hundreds of variations of dies and finishes. Enough exist to create a common, to rare and difficult to find scale. And, as with all collectibles, common to rare dictates the costs involved in their purchase. Staff buttons remain affordable, with most requiring a modest cash outlay, while the more rare command higher premiums. Compared to their Confederate cousins , which command thousands of dollars, they are affordable to even the novice.
The elegant appearance of staff buttons are another attractive feature of their collection. Used almost entirely by senior officers, they are indeed, “a cut above” the rest of the Federal uniform buttons. As opposed to the common two-piece branch of service type button, the staff button is larger and has a third piece or annular ring around it. This ring essentially frames the centered eagle. The buttons are usually of a high convex or domed structure and are meant to stand out and compliment an officer’s uniform. The many die faces are usually of exquisite workmanship with the eagle , lined field, and stars in vivid detail. Imported examples from France and England are truly artistic jewelry in button form. Most are constructed of heavy brass and finished in a lustrous gold gilt. Variations of silver plated buttons exist and are in high demand for their beauty and aged patina. The Staff button is indeed an “objet d’art” .
Lastly, but most importantly, the Staff button has a unique historical perspective. The use of this button spanned a period of major historical significance for America, an era of expansionism, when the Army was used to forcefully claim lands and resources to the west and beyond it’s borders. They were ushered into service during the Second Seminole War and the relocation of the Indians from eastern lands. Then, on into the Republic of Texas era and the War with Mexico, where for the first time the Army took to the field in a foreign country. There, a generation of American officers, who would later command armies during the War Between the States, wore uniforms with these buttons. The Civil War period further defines them as iconic representatives of that era. Aside from the increase in the manufacture of these buttons, their usage by both Union and Confederate officers defines them as truly American. Many Southern officers had served the country in uniform prior to the Civil War as Federal soldiers. Now, in Confederate gray, they would often choose to continue the button’s use. Lee, Stuart, Longstreet, and Johnston, all had uniforms with their old staff buttons sewn on. In the Indian War era, the Army continued to specify these buttons for field grade officers. They rode west with the Cavalry troops and saw service during the many campaigns to suppress the western Indians and connect the continent . The buttons ended their service to the Army during the Spanish American War when the country began a new age of American power and influence on a global stage.
As young Americans we learn the history and the songs and see the images and the movies of these historical eras. They are represented by men and places and things. These things we hold in high esteem for their relevance to the past. The staff button was present for much of this past, and was used to adorn the uniforms of the leadership participating in it. It was meant to reflect the rank and prestige of that position as well as the social refinement and bearing of the men who wore it. These men were some of the most capable and educated men of their times and were witness to some of America’s most historical events.
William M. Stafford