Civil War battles recalled via relics left behind

By Adrian Sainz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In a Wednesday, March 21, 2012 photo, Civil War relics collector Rafael Eledge holds Union and Confederate belt buckles in his showroom in Savannah, Tenn. Eledge says artifacts connect him with meaningful events and people of the past.

Adrian Sainz, Associated Press

SHILOH, Tenn. — Every Civil War bullet, every sword and every musket tells a story. There's the .69 caliber musket made in 1831 by a company founded by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, the leaden bullet found at bloody Shiloh, the intricately crafted soldier's sword made by Tiffany and Co.

Since the end of the Civil War, countless artifacts from soldier's uniforms to heavy cannons have been found on battlefields, in antique stores and in attics and basements of relatives of Union and Confederate soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the other big battlefields of the past. These are the relics left behind that recall individual and collective stories of struggle between North and South.

Some relics ended up in museums. Others ended up with collectors, who set up display booths at collectors' shows and now use the Internet to show and sell artifacts to Civil War buffs from Tennessee to Tokyo.

Collector Rafael Eledge has some rare relics from the pivotal April 1862 Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. He says artifacts connect him with meaningful events and people of the past.

"It makes you wonder, 'What happened to the solider that lost this?" said Eledge, who appears on "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS. "Did he ever get to see his family? Those guys never knew if they were going to be back."

On an overcast March day, visitors walked among soldiers' graves at the riverfront National Cemetery, while others drove around the park and stopped to read markers designating the key battles. Light-blue cannon mark important battle positions such as the Hornet's Nest, where the Union Army held off the Confederacy amid flying bullets.

Visiting battlefields is a good way to relive Civil War conflicts. Collecting the relics is another way.

The Shiloh National Military Park, with its National Cemetery, is a somber reminder of the fierce fight over a chunk of land some 150 miles southwest of Nashville. Shiloh's proximity to the Tennessee River and to vital railroad lines made this swath of farmland, woods and open fields a strategic necessity for Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on his incursion into the South.

About 45,000 Confederate soldiers attacked on April 6, and what ensued was a battle filled with musket and cannon fire. The Union narrowly escaped with a victory, but it suffered 13,000 casualties. Confederate forces had about 10,700 dead or wounded, and the North eventually took Corinth.

The state of Tennessee plans several events from March 30 through April 7 to commemorate the battle. More than 5,000 re-enactors are expected to descend on Shiloh; a historic locomotive will carry them to the battlefield in passenger cars, stopping in Kansas City, Jefferson City, Mo., St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. on the way.

Besides the re-enactors, there are the relic collectors. They began their trade in Civil War gear when relatives of war veterans began selling or giving away items that veterans either kept after surviving the war or that were sent home after the soldier had died. Some items began showing up in antique stores.

One item won't make it to Tennessee. A trailer carrying a 40-foot replica of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley blew two tires in Atlanta and headed back to South Carolina for repairs.

Meanwhile, hobbyists with metal detectors have since swept former battlegrounds for leftovers of war.

Collector Harry Ridgeway, aka the Relic Man, grew up at the site of Virginia's Second Battle of Winchester, fought in 1863. He was 14 in 1962 when two men showed up on his doorstep with metal detectors, asking to hunt for relics.

The men found some bullets, and soon, Ridgeway and his father had acquired detectors and the hunt was on.

"My father and I became digging buddies and actually we became pretty good friends," said Ridgeway, who now has an extensive Civil War relics website. "At a time when teenagers don't necessarily think much of their parents, we got along just great."

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