The collecting hobby took off after the centennial celebration, when artifacts began appearing on a large scale. Stockpiles mounted to the point where collectors became dealers. Civil War shows were organized in places such as Nashville and Baltimore, helping collectors bring their artifacts to the masses. Some collectors created catalogs with photos ahd shipped items at cost.
Eledge's collection includes belt buckles, buttons, swords, pistols, muskets — even a Confederate hat. He has about 4 million photos of items in his collection at one time or another, though his inventory is currently about 2,000.
His collection began with a Confederate sword, bought with $60 his father lent him. He took the sword to the Nashville Civil War show, and got $1,450 in cash and trade in return.
He later searched for years for the sword, finding it eventually at a Civil war show in Georgia. Now with the 150th anniversary commemoration of the war under way, the price of many items is much higher today.
"I saw my sword laying on the table," he said. It cost him $5,500 to get the prized sword back.
Some collectors pay several thousand dollars for cannons. At about $2 dollars, bullets are probably the cheapest items available.
But Eledge says fakes and mistakes with Civil War relics can be a problem. He urges buyers to consult appraisers, veteran collectors and reference books to ensure the authenticity of the items in question.
Nowadays with the advent of the internet, relic hunters can peruse Web pages and place orders within minutes, rather than waiting for a once-a-year-show or ordering from a clunky catalog.
Meanwhile, Eledge said, new discoveries by those armed with metal detectors are becoming more unlikely with the passing years, because many battlefields already have been scoured and access to them has become more limited.
"Most of the collections that you see and most of the pieces that you see offered today are from older collections," he said. "It's kind of odd being a dealer because you usually wait for somebody to either have a child going to college, somebody getting marries ... somebody passed away."
Eledge said there's always a new Civil War story to be heard. He recently bought a sword made at Tiffany and Co. that belonged to an officer from New York who was asked to leave his regiment. The officer stopped at a bar, got drunk, and ordered the bartender at gunpoint to serve him and his horse a beer.
The sword has the officer's name and regiment on it, plus the 1861 date he was given the sword. It has gold wash on the blade and a silver handle.
"It's going to have to bring $25,000," he said.
Eledge, who has participated in the supervised removal of relics from Shiloh, notes that it is a federal crime to remove artifacts from federal Civil War battlefields without permission. He remembers one very revealing archaeological hunt at Shiloh in which many bullets were found.
"You could line up where the Union soldiers were firing and the officers were about four or five steps behind because we found the officers' pistol bullets," Eledge said. "It was something to know exactly where these guys were lined up. So many of them were fighting for their lives."
On the Web:
Rafael Eledge's Civil War relics: http://www.shilohrelics.com
Harry Ridgeway's Civil War relics: http://relicman.com
Shiloh National Military Park: http://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm
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