Collecting the American Civil War
This week in history saw both the start and end of the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, the hostilities broke out, when Confederate forces opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter. Almost four years on, on April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces, effectively ending the Civil War.
This significant period is considered, along with the Declaration of Independence, as one of the most pivotal episodes in American history. Civil War memorabilia has a vast and abiding community of collectors and experts in hot pursuit. We take a look at their objects of interest, items relating to the American Civil War.
The American Civil War ran from 1861-1865. It was the result of eleven US states declaring secession from the United States after Abraham Lincoln, an anti-slavery Republican, was elected president. The rebelling Southern Cotton states formed the Confederacy, aiming to protect their rights to keep slaves. After war broke out, the Union and Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the United States, and to abolish slavery across America.
The Union victory resulted in one of the most important historical events in American history – the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing nearly four million African Americans who had been slaves.
There are certain figures that stand out in the history of the Civil War. Many collectors choose to focus on these famous characters, their personal and/or battle-used items. Quite aside from Abraham Lincoln, who is a collecting genre entirely of his own, some of the most popular include:
Ulysses S Grant
Grant was an extremely successful general during the Civil War, and later went on to become 18th President of the United States. Lincoln made Grant lieutenant general and commander of all the Union armies in late 1863, and it was under Grant therefore that the Union army defeated the Confederates. He was pitted many times against Confederate General Robert E. Lee, resulting in his eventual surrender, thus ending the war.
Robert E. Lee
Lee was Grant’s confederate counterpart. He was the commander of the army of Northern Virginia, and was made General in Chief of Confederate forces in 1865. He surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The next day, he issued his Farewell Address to his confederate troops. He was graceful in defeat, and supported the end of the war and drive towards slave emancipation.
George Armstrong Custer
Custer was a hugely successful United States Army officer and cavalry commander during the American Civil War. He rose to prominence for his part in the first major engagement, the first Battle of Bull Run. He and his troops also played a decisive role in the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign and the surrender of Robert E. Lee. Ironically, he is better known for his biggest failure, during the Indian Wars. His entire force were defeated at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and every man killed including Custer, the battle known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.
The American Civil War is such a significant part of history that it inevitable holds many collectors in thrall. Whether collectors focus on Union items or Confederate, on flags, uniforms, weapons, documents, photographs, medals or anything else, interest in Civil War memorabilia endures and renews with each generation.
Over four years, 237 battles were fought as well as numerous bouts of minor action and skirmishes. A large amount of memorabilia has been discovered at the scene of these old battles, lying hidden in the ground across the last century and a half until accidentally stumbled upon or uncovered by enthusiasts. There may well still be numerous items lying beneath American soil waiting to be found.
It was also one of the earliest industrial wars, often referred to as the ‘first modern war’, employing use of railroads, telegraphs, steamships, and mass produced weapons. The upshot of this great scale is a large number of collectible items.
Every year, re-enactments of Civil War battles are played out by enthusiasts. Due to this, there exists a great amount of replica and imitation Civil War items, for example there are thought to be twice as many ‘Civil War’ uniforms and hats in existence today than there were at the time of the Civil War. While they generally do not try to pass themselves off as genuine antiques, it is worth being wary and ascertaining the authenticity of each item.
It is common for items to have remained in the families of participants in the Civil War, passed down through descendants of Civil War-era soldiers and families. Many items therefore carry impeccable provenance if and when they finally come to auction.
The valuable and important items are often sold through big auction houses. More general collectibles can be found at antique shows, flea markets, second hand stores and garage sales.
An overview of types of American Civil War collectibles
Firearms used by Unionists were manufactured in the Northern weapons factories. The South did not have access to these guns, so there was great Confederate demand for foreign firearms. They sometimes managed to get hold of Union firearms on the black market, or manufactured imitations using the often inferior materials they had to hand.
In general, firearms used by the confederate soldiers are rarer and more valuable. Firearms ordered from Europe or elsewhere could not pass through the Northern blockade. The examples made in the South by Confederate forces are in particular very highly prized collectors’ items. For example, a rare Whitworth patent Civil War .450 caliber percussion sharpshooter’s rifle sold for $155,250 in 2007.
Some of the firearms used by the Unionists include:
- The Colt Third Model Dragoon revolver
- Remington 1858 New Model revolvers
- Smith & Wesson Firearms
- Sharps rifles
- Springfield muskets
- Spencer Repeating Rifles known as ‘Lincoln’s Choice’
- The Enfield-Pattern 1853 Rifle-Musket
Some of the firearms used by the Confederates include:
- Remington 1858 New Model revolvers sold on the black market to Confederate soldiers, also counterfeit versions of these made by the Confederates using brass instead of steel for the frames
- LeMat revolvers
- Brass imitations of Sharps rifles
- Copies of Springfield muskets
- The Enfield-Pattern 1853 Rifle-Musket acquired through the black market
- Tranter revolvers
Firearms are most valuable, however, when owned or used by notable Civil War figures, or possessing a good battle story. For example, a cased Colt Third Model Dragoon Revolver owned by Colonel P. M. Milliken of the 1st Ohio volunteer cavalry, killed whilst leading a charge against the Confederates at Stone River Tennessee in 1862, sold for $805,000 in 2011.
Edged weapons continued to be used extensively throughout the Civil War despite the widespread introduction of firearms. Before the introduction of cartridge weapons, the guns would often only contain one shot. Therefore swords would be taken out to continue combat after the shot was spent.
Presentation swords are among the most valuable items of American Civil War memorabilia. These are often stunningly intricate and beautiful items, awarded for impressive performance in battle or to mark a promotion. Those awarded to famous figures are the most valuable, for example, Ulysses S. Grant’s diamond-studded presentation sword, presented by the residents of Kentucky to celebrate his promotion to General in Chief of all Union forces in 1864, sold for $1,673,000 in 2007.
Flags carried into battle during the Civil War are extremely popular collectible items that continue to appreciate in value. There were numerous flags used during the war, many homemade for soldier by their wives and mothers. They are, of course, more valuable when owned by famous general or connected with famous battle, such as the personal battle flag of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, made by his wife Flora, sold for $956,000 in 2007. However, this is a more accessible collectible than some others, as less famous flags can be acquired for less money.
Civil War uniforms are an interesting area. Uniforms were of course intended to distinguish between the Union and Confederate forces. However, for the Confederates in particular, there were severe shortages. Many uniforms were created at home, cobbled together in an attempt to look as similar as possible to their side, which makes many uniforms unique. Even more common was the practice of capturing uniforms from Union soldiers, which must have made the whole process of knowing who to fight very difficult. Over time, blue became defined as the colour of the North and grey that of the South, though often the blue Union uniforms would fade to a grey colour anyway.
A complete Zouave uniform, complete with accoutrements, and worn by W. Beriah Chandler at the Battle of Gettysburg sold for $125,475 in 2007.
Some collectors make it a project to assemble a whole uniform, others may focus on just one area: jackets, helmets/hats, belt buckles, badges, patches, buttons. A rare Civil War Confederate waist belt buckle sold for $13,145 in 2012.
Other collectible items
- Medals, e.g. the gold Civil War medal of Major General Philip H. Sheridan, presented to him by Ulysses S Grant, sold for $22,00 in 2008
- Newspapers, e.g. The Southern Illustrated News, September 1862 – July 1864, sold for $12,000 in 2011
- Photographs, e.g. a Carte-de-Visite album of Union officers sold for $33,600 in 2005
- Documents, e.g. the Terms of Surrender letters signed by Robert E. Lee, sold for $537,750 in 2007
- Letters, e.g. a handwritten letter by George Custer written in 1864, defending his loyalty to the Lincoln administration, sold for $75,000 in 2005
- Musical instruments such as bugles and drums, e.g. a Richards Maker Boston bugle, sold for $1,000 in 2007