The Union victory at Gettysburg has gone down in history as the turning point of the Civil War. In fact, there were several turning points, all bloody with high casualties, all considered necessary by both sides to win the war. Nonetheless, President Abraham Lincoln considered a small river town in Mississippi as the real path to victory. He remarked, “Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” His opposite, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was likewise knowledgeable of Vicksburg’s importance, stating that the riverside community was, “The nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

The Union forces were overwhelming: 77,000 boys wore blue, 33,000 boys wore the gray. Still, it took the soldiers of Ulysses S. Grant’s army over a year to capture Vicksburg, mostly due to a stranglehold siege. The casualties were horrendous. Around 17,000 Union soldiers fell and were interred in the 116 acres of the Vicksburg National Cemetery, the largest Union cemetery in the U.S. Of the 17,000 soldiers buried there, almost 13,000 of those graves are marked as unknown. Confederate dead from the Vicksburg siege were originally buried behind the lines until re-interred to the Vicksburg City Cemetery, known as the Cedar Hill Cemetery. Approximately 5,000 boys in gray fell, of which only 1,600 have been identified.

Due to poor record keeping and the wholesale slaughter of the Civil War, around 45% of the dead were classified as “unknown,” while at Vicksburg the “unknown” was roughly 75%. There is a Union National Cemetery in Salisbury, N.C. Of the 12,126 boys buried there, 99% are listed as “unknown.”

One of the biggest fears of all combatants in the Civil War was to fall in battle without being properly identified. Thus, most soldiers figured out some way to be recognized: marking their clothing with stencil or pinning on a paper tag beneath their uniform. Others made I.D. tags out of old coins or pieces of round lead or copper. The Marines were known for carving their names into chucks of wood that they strung around their necks. The gruesome casualty rate during the Civil War ushered in the era of “unofficial” dog tags.

Sutlers, merchants who followed the armies during the war, sold engraved metal tags to the soldiers who could afford it. One fellow from New York, ironically named John Kennedy, proffered the idea of making thousands of engraved disks for the soldiers. The War Department declined his suggestion. By the end of the war, however, the concept of identification tags gradually began to take hold.

During the Spanish-American War, Army Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who was in charge of the Army Morgue and Office of Identification in the Philippines, suggested that all soldiers wear some type of disk or tag to help identify the dead or seriously wounded. Finally, in 1906, the Army required soldiers to wear an aluminum disc-shaped ID tag around their necks. In 1916, a second disk was required; one to remain with a body, a second for burial service record keeping. The enlisted men were given the tags; officers had to buy them. By the end of WWI, known then as The Great War, religious symbols were added – H for Hebrew, P for Protestant and C for Catholic.

Apparently the ID tags were not worn between World War I and World War II, except for the Marines who have worn tags since 1916. The ID tags were reinstated in May of 1941 to all services in the now-familiar rounded rectangular shape made of nickel-copper alloy.

The origin of the nickname “dog tags” has a muddled past. The draftees of WWII were said to call them dog tags because they considered themselves to be treated like dogs. Another rumor stated the tags looked similar to the metal tag on a dogs’ collar, thus the name “dog tags.” In 1936, the newspaper industrialist William Randolph Hearst is said to have coined the name “dog tag” due to his dislike for President Roosevelt’s New Deal since the newly established Social Security Administration wanted to hand out nameplates for the personal identification. Hearst is said to have called them dog tags because they were similar to the ID tags worn by military personnel.

Veterans never forget their military serial number, it’s etched into our brains for life, we were truly just a number in many cases, but a necessary part of war in a modern era. Then in 1969, someone came up with the brainy notion to replace the cherished serial number with a soldier’s Social Security number. Made sense, or so they thought. For 45 years, soldiers became easy targets for personal identity theft and the loss of personal information. In 2015, the dog tags were once again stamped with the soldier’s Defense Department identification number.

Identifying the dead has come a long way since Vietnam, mainly with the introduction of DNA to identify remains. Experts in the DNA field suggest that there will never be another “unknown.” I beg to differ. A large caliber shell, like fired from a battleship in WWII, vaporized soldiers on both sides, as did a British Tallboy 12,000-pound “earthquake” bomb. Sometimes dog tags may be all that remains.

America’s late entry into WWI kept our casualties much lower than other combatants’. However, 4,400 boys are still missing.

World War II was indeed a long four-year ordeal for America. At the end of the war, 79,000 Americans were missing. Today, 72,000 remain missing. On the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the South Pacific, 400 Marines remain missing. Almost 78 years after the guns fell silent on the tiny speck of an island, Marines are still being disinterred.

The Korean War was a meat grinder in below-zero temperatures. Our boys were killed, froze to death, many were just forgotten. Approximately 7,800 are still waiting to be found and returned home.

The dense jungles and murky waterways of Vietnam still hide the remains of approximately 1,500 Americans, and time is not on the side of future recoveries. The acidity of the Asian soil will eventually eat away remaining bone fragments; therefore, the dog tags may be the only source of identification.

Veterans and those still serving in the military belong to a very special club. All we had to do to join was sign our lives away. We even accepted the fact that our dog tags may be all that remains in the end.

From “Johnny Get Your Gun” by Dalton Trumbo:

“If the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for, then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it at the last minute of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important, so if you’ve given it away you’d ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded for it. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?

“You’re damn right they didn’t!

“They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for, the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother, a father, a wife, a child. They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born, please God just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything, and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds, and that was I want to live, I want to live, I want to live.”

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Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration, visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.” Mecca is also host of a weekly radio program on veterans. The program airs Wednesdays at 10 a.m. at americaswebradio.com.

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