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Preserving your place in history

  • Published
  • By W. Keith Alexander, Chief Historian
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Historian's office
In late July 1885, former American president Ulysses S. Grant struggled with his memoirs. Dying from throat cancer, President Grant faced a dilemma. First, Northern newspapers depicted him as a butcher, claiming he had won the Civil War due to numbers and not his skill or leadership. Second, he was bankrupt, which meant his family faced certain poverty. In order to preserve his place in history and provide an income for his family following his pending death, President Grant signed a book contract with Mark Twain, who promised him 75 percent royalties for writing his memoir, according to Brooks D. Simpson, a noted Grant scholar. President Grant finished The Memoirs several days before his death. His books sold more than 300,000 copies the first year, which earned his family $450,000. In addition to providing his family an income, his two volumes argued against contemporaries, who had lambasted his skills as a general. Today, historians consider President Grant's memoirs honest, well-written and well-researched. He was able to write his memoirs because he had taken the time to preserve his papers.

At some point in our lifetimes, we will all leave active duty, whether as a retiree or an honorably discharged veteran. When we leave active duty, we take with us a micro-artifact collection that includes items such as papers, photographs, manuals, plaques, medals, trophies, citations and uniforms. Previous generations stuffed their historic material into footlockers, which they placed in the attic. Some veterans placed their coveted medals in shoe boxes under their beds. Years later, their families discovered these historic items were damaged by humidity, heat, light, pests and other factors.

In order to prevent this from happening to you, you need to know how to preserve your artifacts. First, find a place to store your historic collection. This room should maintain a constant temperature between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, you should place a dehumidifier in the room. The dehumidifier should keep the room's humidity between 45-55 percent. Humidity causes the most damage to historical items such as papers, photos and uniforms. Next, block out all light. Then, take steps to protect your historic artifacts from insects that thrive on uniforms or paper products. Finally, this room must be flood-proof. If using a storage area, place the items on plastic pallets.

How does a person organize their collection? First, pick out the uniform you will be buried in. Take that uniform and prepare it for inspection. Then, place this uniform neatly in an archival box, which was designed for storing textiles and quilts. Next, mark the box to ensure that your next-of-kin does not mistake this box for one of your other uniform boxes. Do the same for your remaining uniform collection.

For paper products, place them in an archival box manufactured to store papers and photos. Inside the box, organize your papers by location, rank and billet. You should also break these sections down into letters sent and letters received, and include e-mails as well.

Once you're finished organizing your papers, it's time to organize your photo collection. Each photo should contain a description of what's happening in the photo, who's in it, where and the date the photo was taken. When identifying people in a photo make sure you include their full rank and name.

After your collection is organized, write a detailed chronological autobiography of your military career and place a copy with each archival box. Then, create an index of your collection listing each item and where it's located in the collection. When you complete this step, now you're ready to find it a home.

Keep in mind, your personal historical collection has value. If you don't believe me, look at the military items for sale on Internet auction sites. Collectors, curators, museums, archives and others also realize your collection has some type of value. So, be sure to find the best home or homes for your collection. Service museums, such as the National Museum of the United States Air Force, are good homes for uniforms and the Air Force Historical Research Agency accepts papers and photos, but these organizations may not be able take your entire collection. If that's the case consider splitting the remaining portions of your collection among your alma mater, your local historical society or a private museum.

Before contacting these organizations, have a plan. Keep in mind, a permanent gift is permanent. Once you give your historic items to a museum, they own them. If you want to loan your historical items or place any type of restrictions on them, negotiate that up front. Government museums and archives won't accept gifts with restrictions or loans. Private museums, college depositories and others may take loans and they typically allow the donor to place restrictions, such as copyright, on historic collections.

Also, be sure to research the dollar value of historical items that you might want to sell to organizations or individual collectors. An old acquaintance of mine from Civil War studies, George Edward Pickett V, was ripped off by collectors who deliberately misled him. He had his ancestor's cap from the Civil War. His ancestor wore this cap while leading "Pickett's Charge" at Gettysburg. A collector approached my colleague about appraising and purchasing this item for a museum in Pennsylvania. Mr. Pickett was not aware of the historical value of this item. He trusted these appraisers, who bought it from him paying far less than the appropriate appraisal value, and then, sold it for millions to the Pennsylvania museum. Luckily, Mr. Pickett sued and won in court. The appraisers went to jail for misleading him, and eventually, Mr. Pickett managed to get his item back.

Hopefully, these tips will help you preserve your historical memorabilia.