In the beginning, there were “Army” or “Navy” stores. They did not sell what we would consider surplus.
Instead, they sold new goods directly to soldiers and sailors, who were issued a very limited set of equipment and expected to supplement with anything else they thought was necessary.
In the aftermath of a conflict, very little value was placed on what equipment made it back to military storehouses.
Much of what remained was recycled. Cloth could be cut up into rags and eventually turned into paper. Metal could easily be scrapped and melted down. Why would anyone want to buy an old rifle or an old great coat? Especially if it had been dragged through the mud on some battlefield.
But the massive industrialized mobilization of the Civil War eventually resulted in the United States having a LOT more leftover war materiel than previously seen.
The vast industrial resources of the Union States had churned out millions of uniforms, rifles, cannons, repeating artillery, horse tack, and more. And it was all put up for auction during the later half of the 19th century.
The Rise of Francis Bannerman
Francis Bannerman was an exceptional salvage man from almost the very start of his life.
During primary school, he spent most of his time working the Brooklyn Naval Yards in New York City, recycling scrap metal or other unwanted items he was able to sniff out around the busy harbor.
His father (also named Francis) was a keen treasure hunter too, and had amassed a great deal of knowledge regarding United States military auctions.
Together, they often sold the more unique finds they encountered to second-hand stores. What they were buying was most often valued by the government as little more than trash, so the finder’s fees they charged to store owners earned them a significant profit. But the younger Bannerman wanted to do more.
While still a teenager, Francis dumped much of the money he had earned selling scrap into bids for a number of Civil War surplus auctions.
He soon had a store fully stocked with merchandise. And people came in droves to buy what he had to sell.
From the profits selling Civil War surplus, “Bannerman’s” would eventually grow to be a store a block in length, over 40,000 square feet, and 7 stories tall.
When Bannerman began his business, military surplus was almost completely unregulated.
The auctions he won did not just include uniforms and gear. He also gained access to swords, rifles, cannons, Gatling guns and more. Also millions of rounds of ammunition, even bombs and explosive ordinance. There was no product manufactured for Union forces that Bannerman could not get his hands on to stock his store.
And you didn’t have to come to his store, you could also buy your artillery through the mail. At its peak, Bannerman’s comprehensive 350-page surplus catalog rivaled Sears & Robuck.
When the Spanish-American War began, Bannerman made money both outfitting officers heading into the conflict, as well as buying up surplus at its conclusion. By some estimates, Bannerman cornered 90% of the Spanish-American war surplus.
During the Russian-Japanese War of 1904, Bannerman filled an order for over 100,000 saddles, rifles, backpacks, slings, uniforms and over 20 million cartridges from the Japanese government.
By 1900, Bannerman had purchased an island in the Hudson River to store his continually growing stockpile of surplus. On the island, he stashed artillery and more than 30 million cartridges of all sizes. Today you can still easily see the ruins of his enormous arsenal.
The Decline of the Bannerman Empire
Francis Bannerman died in 1918, while his business went on for many more years afterward. But the glory years were obviously gone, and the military surplus machine he had painstakingly constructed was being challenged by changing tastes in the marketplace.
The massive Bannerman operation was run primarily on surplus from the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Crimean War and other 19th century conflicts. As the United States entered World War I, the style of surplus became entirely different. A new, much more mechanized style of warfare was coming into play. World War I also brought more modern weapons and more modern gear. The large inventory already in the Bannerman arsenal became worthless as people started looking for 20th century guns, helmets, and other gear.
To top it off, increased government regulations had made it impossible to sell much of the heavier weaponry Bannerman had accumulated. Automatic machine guns, artillery weapons, cannons and more sat rusting in Bannerman storehouses.
By the time World War II was in full swing, the Bannerman empire was a shadow of its former self.
The island was in ruins after a massive ammunition explosion in 1920 destroyed much of the property. The business relocated all remaining military surplus to mainland warehouses in 1950 to avoid constant ferrying back and forth across the river. The island was sold back to the government and a mysterious fire in 1969 destroyed much of the remaining structures.
In the aftermath of World War II, a new golden age of surplus was about to take wing.
But that story is for another day.
The Rise and Fall of the Bannerman Empire (Antique Trader)