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IDENTIFIED CIVIL WAR INFANTRY LT. COLONEL’S WHITE ENAMELED LEATHER BREAST STRAP – MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT - ACCOMPANIED BY A PUBLISHED BIOGRAPHY OF THE OFFICER AND A PERIOD PHOTOGRAPH OF THE MOUNTED OFFICER  - A VERY NICE GROUPING:  This is a rare offering of a White Enameled Breast Strap - a key piece to complete the display of a Civil War Infantry Officer’s Saddle – with the added value of being definitively identified to Civil War Lt. Colonel Victor Vifquain of the 97TH Illinois Infantry, recipient of the Medal of Honor.  Included in this grouping is a biographical account of Vifquain’s military and diplomatic career, a enlargement of a photograph of the colonel mounted on his horse and showing this very breast strap, and a reprint of his war record and discharge issued at the end of the Civil War. 

Son of a veteran of Napoleon’s cavalry, Jean-Baptiste Victor Vifquain was born May 20, 1836 in Belgium to French parents.  “Victor”, so called to distinguish him from his father, visited the United States at the age of 16, returning to Belgium in 1854 to attend the Ecole Militarie Belge, graduating as a second lieutenant of cavalry in 1856.  He returned to the United States in 1857, renewed a friendship with Caroline Veulemans which began on his first trip, and they soon married late that same year with the couple settling in Nebraska.  At the start of the Civil War, Vifquain traveled to New York and enlisted in the 53RD New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as Epineuil’s Zouaves.  His prior military training and leadership potential was quickly recognized and he was appointed as adjutant at the rank of first lieutenant.  The 53RD was attached to General Burnside’s corps, but its war service was cut short due to a shipwreck at Roanoke Island during Burnside’s expedition against North Carolina, resulting in the regiment being mustered out after only four months service.   

At this point, Vifquain’s sense of adventure and bravery took an interesting turn.  Disappointed at such an ignominious interruption to their service, Vifquain and two other French born fellow officers from the 53RD and a fourth Frenchman who was no less than the cousin of Secretary of the French Legation cooked up the plan to travel to Richmond to kidnap President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.  The four adventurers assumed new names as part of their disguise – Vifquain choosing D’Artagnan, and the others Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, - no less than the four heroes Alexander Dumas’s novel.  While the historical record confirms this scheme never came to fruition, reading the details confirms the old adage “you just can’t make this stuff up” and amazingly enough, Jeff Davis and the four conspirators all survived the plan.   

Having returned to Washington, D.C., Vifquain secured a recommendation from no less than Secretary of War Stanton and traveled to Illinois to offer his services to Governor

Yates who had recently been tasked to form forty regiments for active service.  Timing is everything.  The 97TH Illinois Infantry Regiment was mustered into service in September of 1862 with Vifquain as their newly appointed adjutant. 

The regiment, and with them, Vifquain, would write an impressive history through the course of the war as they participated in such campaigns as the Siege of Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign, and the Mobile Campaign where then Lt. Col. Vifquain had assumed command of the 97TH Illinois.   

On Sunday, April 9, 1865 – effectively the last day of the Civil War in the east – Vifquain was ordered to deploy his regiment against Ft. Blakely.  Vifquain led the assault on the breastworks where he personally seized the Confederate Battle Flag, then leading the regiment into the interior of the fort, his troops seized both the headquarters flag of Gen. Samuel French’s division and the battle flag of Gen. Monroe Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade.  Not yet 30 years old, for his actions against Ft. Blakely on that day Vifquain was brevetted to brigadier general and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.   

The 97TH was mustered out of service in June of 1865 at Galveston, Texas and the regiment returned to Illinois, with Vifquain continuing on to his home in Nebraska.  He enjoyed a varied life, acting as a land agent, founding a newspaper, and was appointed to diplomatic posts in Columbia by President Cleveland.    

The Spanish American War brought Vifquain back into uniform when he joined the 3RD Nebraska Regiment and was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel.  He eventually assumed command of the regiment as their colonel and proceeded with the unit to Cuba.    

After the war’s end Vifquain returned to Nebraska where he continued to remain active in politics.  He passed away in Lincoln on January 7, 1904.  In honor of his highest brevet rank attained during the Civil War, General Vifquain’s remains were honored with a military procession which included the general’s horse, saddled with the boots reversed in the stirrups and a full military internment ceremony.  It is very likely the horse was fitted with this breast strap for this, his final parade.       

The breast strap was not only decorative, but it served an important purpose in that it prevented the saddle from shifting to the rear – a real concern when mounted on a horse in the chaotic environment of the battlefield.    

This breast strap is surmounted in the center by a brass heart shaped shield measuring 3 ¾” high and 3 ½” wide.  Larger than generally seen on other specimens, the shield has a separate full sized federal eagle applied to the face.  The eagle is struck with considerable detail including the veins of the eagle’s feathers and on the fletching of the arrows.  The brass heart is mounted on a heart-shaped black leather safe, measuring 4 ½” high and 4 ¼” wide. 

The body of the breast strap measures 26” long on each side and is 2” wide at the widest point, narrowing to 1” at each end which are mounted with a brass buckle for attaching the strap to the saddle.  Exhibiting a high quality of workmanship, the strap is very well made of a double thickness of leather.   

The body of the breast strap is highlighted with strip of applied white enameled leather which stands proud of the base strap, an unusual feature as most of these breast straps were only enameled on the base strap which resulted in a thinner, less substantial strap.  The white enamel has aged to a soft ivory colored patina.  The enameled surface is mostly intact with some flexing and crazing, and there is one 1 ½” long section of the enamel surface which has been worn away from the left hand section, evidence of the use to which the strap was exposed.  The underlying layer of leather is still present and the strap is still solid.  There is little doubt this breast strap saw some service, however given the rarity of these officer’s saddle accessories, the level of wear is really inconsequential. 

The following items were acquired with this breast strap and will accompany this sale:   

*  An author autographed copy of a 63 page biography, A Frenchman Fights For The Union – Victor Vifquain and the 97th Illinois, written by the colonel’s great-grandson, Jeffrey H. Smith, Ph.D.  This book not only documents the war record of Vifquain and his regiment, but it is very well written, includes a number of fascinating anecdotes, and features several photographs of the colonel taken through his life, to include one photograph of the colonel mounted on his horse which is fitted with this very breast strap, and another bust view of the colonel wearing his Medal of Honor.   

*  A framed 13” by 8 ¼” print of a photograph taken of Lt. Colonel Vifquain during his service in the Spanish American War.  The photograph is very clear with very good contrast and is mounted in an antique gilt relief frame.  The frame shows some wear and one corner has lost some of the relief appliqué, but it is still solid.   

*  A reproduction of Lt. Col. Vifquain’s Discharge and Battle Record, issued July 29, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.   

This Infantry Officer’s Breast Strap is the type of horse equipment that was not produced in large quantities to begin with, and those few that did survive field service and years of storage rarely appear on the market today, the majority resting quietly, and unattainable, in museums or in private collections.  The added value of being identified to a an officer such as Lt. Col. Vifquain who recorded such an extraordinary military record, elevates this grouping to a level which would be a stunning addition to your saddle, and make it a center piece of a Civil War collection or a display of US Military Saddles.  (0362) $1550

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

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