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."
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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