Blue vs Gray: How collectors seek understanding through Civil War relics

The Civil War began April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, and the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse April 9, 1865 and all official fighting ceased on May 26, 1865. Between the beginning and end of the Civil War, the way wars were fought and the tools soldiers used, changed irrevocably. When troops first formed battle lines to face each other near Bull Run Creek in Virginia on June 21, 1861, they were dressed in a widely disparate assemblage of uniforms. They carried state-issued, federally supplied, or brought-from-home weapons, some of which dated back to the Revolutionary War, and marched to the orders and rhythms of tactics that had served land forces for at least the previous 100 years.

Confederate C.S.A. belt buckle
Confederate C.S.A. belt buckle. One of several varieties of C.S.A. rectangular belt plates encountered. This is what is known as a “Virginia” style, which is usually associated with the Army of Northern Virginia. The Virginia style is typically thinner than the Western or Georgia style buckles. The Virginia style also has larger periods. This plate measures correctly and is 48 mm high and 71 mm long. This buckle appears to be excavated and, though cleaned, it still exhibits a chocolate/brown patina. A casting flaw in the upper right-hand corner produced two small holes, $2,875.
James D. Julia Auctioneers

Four short years later, the generals and soldiers had made major leaps in the art of warfare on the North American continent, having developed the repeating rifle, the movement of siege artillery by rail, the extensive employment of trenches and field fortifications, the use ironclad ships for naval combat, the widespread use of portable telegraph units on the battlefield, the draft, the organized use of African-American troops in combat, and even the levying of an income tax to finance the war.
This change levied a toll on the nation, however, in the form of more than one million casualties (over 620,000 war-related deaths).

At that rate, nearly one in four soldiers experienced the pains of war firsthand. It was impossible for the war to not impact every one of the 34.3 million residents of the United States and former Confederate States. Over the ensuing years, the pain—for most—subsided, but the memory remained strong. Families still pay homage to their veteran ancestors, grade school students memorize the Gettysburg address, and we bow our heads on Memorial Day.

Many Americans satisfy their desire to feel connected with the Civil War by exploring battlefields or cemeteries or researching their own family ancestors who served. Some people even read countless biographies, regimental histories, or battle accounts, even joining Civil War study groups or “Round Tables.” For many, these very private explorations are enough to satiate their need to learn about the conflict and the lives of its participants.

For some though, simply memorializing the war isn’t sufficient to satisfy the need to remain connected to the events of 1861-1865. Some painstakingly recreate uniforms and equipment to don on weekend campaigns and refight battles, this time firing at their fellow countrymen with muskets and cannons charged with powder and paper instead of canisters of grape shot or loads of buckshot. For these reenactors, such events help them come close to experiencing the daily work, inconveniences, and feelings of Civil War soldiers. Of course, at the end of the weekend, these modern “Sessesh” and “Billy Yanks,” return to their 21st-century lives, leaving the recreated image of maimed fellow soldiers, dysentery, and lice-infested clothing behind.

Finally, for another group of Civil War enthusiasts, collecting war relics is the best way to understand the heritage and role of thousands who served. For these collectors, holding an 1861 Taunton-produced Springfield rifled musket, studying the detail of a Nashville Plow Works’ foot officer’s sword, or admiring the style of a Confederate artilleryman’s kepi are a fast connection. They represent direct links to a comprehensive understanding of the depth of commitment, sacrifice, and engagement the soldiers felt.

Civil War Officer private purchase four-button sack coat
Officer’s private purchase four-button sack coat, trousers, gauntlets and sword belt, $20,000-22,000.
Tommy Haas/Paul Goodwin

Collecting mementos and artifacts from the Civil War is not a new hobby. Even before the war ended, people were gathering remembrances. As with any period of warfare, the first collectors were the participants themselves. Soldiers sent home scraps of flags, collected minie-ball shattered logs, purchased privately marketed unit insignias, or obtained a musket or carbine for their own use after the war. Civilians wrote to prominent officers asking for autographs, exchanged photographs (“carte de visites”) with soldiers, or kept scrapbooks of items that represented the progress of the conflict.

After the war, the passion for owning a piece of it did not subside. Early collectors gathered representative weapons, collected battlefield-found relics, and created personal or public memorials to the veterans. For nearly 80 years following the end of hostilities, veterans gathered for annual reunions to swap stories and pay homage to their fallen comrades. When these old soldiers gathered, collectors were right there to acquire any tidbits or mementos that the veterans would release.

During recent years, it has become commonplace to have major sales of Civil War artifacts by a few major auction houses, in addition to the private trading, local auctions and Internet sales of these items. These auction houses handle the majority of significant Civil War items coming to the marketplace; many of the items listed here are from recent auction listings, making the pricing of items extremely current.

As Americans, we not only have been fascinated with the Civil War itself but we have also been fascinated with its material culture. The majority of these valuable items are in repositories of museums, universities, and colleges, but many items were also traded between private citizens. Both items that are being released by museums and from private collections make up the base of items currently being traded and sold to collectors of Civil War material culture. In addition, many family collections collected over the years have been recently coming to the marketplace as new generations have decided to liquidate some of them.

I am certain that with President Obama and his personal dedication to Lincoln, more and more people will again be looking to the Civil War period as an era of great interest. This, in turn, should boost the collecting appeal of Civil War items and increase the demand for these items.

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