Collection of Civil War documents featured in Jan. 1 sale

COURTLAND, Va. – More than 200 letters and documents pertaining to Lt. Col. Julian E. Bryant, a Union officer who commanded black troops during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863, will be sold as one lot in a sale scheduled for Jan 1, 2008, by Tom’s Auctions & Appraisals.

R S Prussia.jpgOther items in the auction include a Gothic Revival mahogany secretary, circa 1830s; more than 20 pieces of R.S. Prussia; carnival glass, stoneware, paintings and prints, jewelry, guns and militaria.

One of several pieces of R.S. Prussia
to be offered by Tom’s Auctions.

The Bryant documents, which had been in the family for generations, chronicle the life and times of a lifelong abolitionist who found himself in command of black troops during the Civil War.

Bryant.jpgThe letters and documents are contained in the same leather-bound trunk Bryant carried with him during the war. They include his commission into the 33rd Illinois; his wallet, containing a journal kept in 1862 when he was a spy for the Union Army in Missouri; and court-martial papers, accusing a Union soldier of “hanging Negroes.”

Documents pertaining to Lt. Col. Julian Bryant, a Union officer in the Civil War who commanded black regiments.

Also included are special orders from when Bryant was Commander of the 1st Mississippi Volunteer Infantry of African Descent, the 51st United States Colored Infantry, and the 46th United States Colored Infantry; his copies of volumes 2 and 3 of Scott’s Infantry Tactics (published in the 1850s); a journal he kept, inscribed with First Mississippi USA; and other documents and ephemera.

The trunk also contains several poems handwritten by Bryant; a book of poetry by Lord Byron; and chapter outlines for a book – never written – that would have offered his observations on the war.

Julian E. Bryant was born Nov. 9, 1836. He was the nephew of abolitionist William Cullen Bryant, who had considerable power and influence as editor of the New York Evening Post. Julian’s grandfather was Dr. Peter Bryant of Massachusetts, a senator and surgeon who impressed on his sons a “universal brotherhood of man” philosophy.

Three things interested Bryant as a youth: drawing, debate and the eradication of slavery. He also had a flair for speaking. He chose art as a career and studied in New York before returning home to Princeton, N.J. At the outbreak of war, he was an art instructor at Bloomington Normal College in Illinois, but the college president there soon recruited him for the 33rd Illinois Infantry.

In early fall 1861, Bryant, posing as a rebel recruit, walked into the Higgenbotham Plantation near Pilot Knob, Mo., and pretended to enlist. What he and a few others were really there for was information, which they got and reported back to Union authorities. The next day, U.S. troops stormed the plantation and took over, in the process presenting arms to 20 slave recruits.

The slaves became part of Bryant’s 33rd Illinois camp. The regiment marched to Arcadia, Mo., for the winter, but saw little military action until spring. In March 1862, the 33rd Illinois marched into Arkansas to Bayou Cache. On July 7, Bryant’s unit, with fewer than 300 men, defeated a force of 3,000 Texas cavalry, killing 117 rebels.

In early 1863, Bryant was put in charge of the 1st Mississippi Infantry, African Descent. The black regiments, mustered only a few weeks before at Vicksburg, knew little about weapons and received theirs (some defective) only the day before their first battle, a violent encounter at Milliken’s Bend, 20 miles upstream from Vicksburg. The defenders numbered 900 black soldiers and 161 white.

A Confederate division with 2,500 experienced troops and 200 cavalry launched a sudden assault on June 17, 1863. The black regiments held their ground, even as the battle went to hand-to-hand combat at close quarters.

Despite their service, Bryant’s men were thereafter mostly relegated to menial duties, like digging trenches and loading and unloading ships. This infuriated Bryant, who wrote letters to his commanders, as well as his editor-uncle in New York. Slowly, policy changes were implemented that saw black units gain more parity with their white counterparts.

The auction will be the 25th annual New Year’s Day sale for Tom’s Auctions & Appraisals, based in Suffolk, Va. The sale will be held at the Franklin-Southampton County Fairgrounds in Courtland, Va. For more information, visit or call 757-539-2498 or 757-617-9647.