As a collector of militaria and a self-professed amateur military historian, I am only just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to collecting artifacts from the Civil War. My skills and experience are so limited when it comes to understanding what I am looking at (or, for that matter, looking FOR) that I have to bring to bear the skills that I do possess to compensate for the areas where I am lacking.
This year (2012) was a banner year for me in my quest to uncover rock-solid details and history pertaining to those in my ancestry who served in the military. I was able to use the National Archives and other research resources to my benefit in order to produce narratives of service for a handful of my relatives. In that process, I was able to learn that one veteran in particular served with a rather unique (Pennsylvania) cavalry unit that had participated in some of the most notable (and devastating) campaigns and battles of that war.
The discovery of this cavalry veteran ancestor was the catalyst that launched me into collecting militaria associated with the Civil War. Like many Americans, I had a sincere interest in this tragic conflict. During travels for business, if I found myself in close proximity of a Civil War battlefield, I would take the time (sometimes adding a day or more to my time on the road) to visit and tour the sites, not knowing that I had ancestors who might have fought at any of these sites. Back in those days, I was more caught up in the history of these men and their sacrifices.
One thing I have learned is that Civil War militaria is probably the most widely reproduced area of historic military items due to the thousands of Americans that are actively participating in reenactments throughout the country. Reenactors painstakingly recreate accurate representations of the soldiers they portray, spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in their pursuit of maintaining history with their living portrayals of historic battles. Civil War reproduction is a large industry that recreates everything from uniforms and insignia to rifles, bayonets and other weaponry of the war.
Due to the popularity of the war, relic seekers have been uncovering and selling artifacts seemingly since the guns fell silent and the surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865. In addition to the selling of authentic pieces, forgers have been working diligently to create fake relics as the prices for the real items rose to stratospheric levels in the 1990s. Some of the pieces (created by these unscrupulous counterfeiters) are incredibly accurate. The process used to age and relic these pieces, make them virtually indistinguishable from the real McCoy.
Those of you who follow my CollectorsQuest blog postings know where I stand on purchasing militaria. Buy the item, not the story. If the story can be verified with indisputable, irrefutable proof, then the you should be willing to pay for the item and the story. On a recent episode of The History Channel’s Pawn Stars television show, a man brought in a Civil War-era officer’s field desk that he sought to sell.
At first glance, the desk appeared to be a fairly generic desk. When the man opened the collapsible desk the provenance almost poured forth. The cubbies and compartments were filled with period-correct documents, ledgers, books and other pieces that were left behind by the original owner, the seller’s great, great-grandfather who was a captain with the 10th Indiana Volunteer Regiment (“C” Company) and served with them from 1861-1864. The ephemera includes a diverse selection of materials ranging from enlistment documents to a quartermaster’s ledger book detailing the company’s clothing expenditures. Clearly, the information supports the story (presented by the seller) that the desk and it’s contents are genuine.
What is baffling to me is what could prompt someone to part ways with a museum-caliber artifact that possesses rock-solid history of the family’s ancestry and military heritage. Perhaps my dismay stems from my own challenging pursuit of artifacts to recreate some sort of tangible representation of my ancestor’s service. The desk’s owner was unsuccessful in the pursuit of his $15,000 price tag having received and subsequently rejected a one-tenth offer from Richard Benjamin Harrison (“The Old Man”). The two were miles apart ensuring the desk would remain in the family for the time-being.
Perhaps this episode will give pause to family heirs who seek momentary monetary gratification as they part ways with their own history. The generations who follow them spend untold hours (mostly unsuccessful) in their pursuit to reconstruct what was so easily cast aside.
[Pawn Stars, HISTORY and the History “H” logo are the trademarks of AEN. Collectors Quest is a partner of AEN.]