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Entry-Level Civil War Collectibles: They’re Out There if You Know What to Look For

by Ken Hatfield (08/27/12).

This blue wool 1861 forage cap, with leather visor, chin strap and eagle buttons, sold for $5.287.50 in 2010, despite missing a small piece of leather and some moth holes. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

There used to exist in the collecting industry a phenomenon known as the Golden Age. That is, a period of time, usually years after the items were first introduced, when they were still plentiful, reasonably priced and few thought of them as having any intrinsic value.

For comic book collectors, their Golden Age was the mid to late 1950s, when comics were still considered disposable entertainment and mothers, cleaning out their sons’ bedrooms, were throwing them out by the box load. For World War II militaria, it was the 1960s and ’70s, when Baby Boomers, fueled by popular culture, became interested in the Second World War and began collecting memorabilia in the spirit of patriotism and family heritage.

The collecting of Civil War relics began a bit earlier. The first collectors were the veterans themselves who, after the war, put away their uniforms and weapons to be kept as remembrances and passed down through the generations as family heirlooms. Starting in the 1870s, Francis Bannerman published a surplus uniform and equipment catalog, offering Civil War surplus to collectors. That began the true Golden Age for Civil War collecting, when you could buy a Confederate musket for $10 or a Union shell jacket for as little as a dollar and a half.

The 100-year anniversary of the Civil War sparked a second Golden Age for Civil War memorabilia collectors. Again, it was the Baby Boomers, many of whom still had relatives living who knew personally and told vivid stories about ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Although the prices those budding Civil War collectors paid for relics was considerably more than Francis Bannerman’s catalog customers, they were still ridiculously low compared to today.

Those days are long gone. Today, many Civil War collectibles are among the most sought after in the collecting industry. And depending on what they are, they’re also some of the most expensive.

That’s not to say a person with limited resources can’t start a Civil War collection. This article will try to give you some pointers on how to do that.

Firearms are some of the most expensive of Civil War collectibles. This Colt Army .44 caliber revolver came with a document that states: “Indianapolis, Ind. Sept. 20, 1865. This is to certify that William Rider Sergt. Co. D 6th Ind. Cav. retain one Colt Army revolver valued at $8.00 under G.O. 101 War Dept 1865 E. N. Elliott Capt. Co D 6th Ind Cav.” It sold for $2,070 in 2006. . (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

High-End Collectibles

We don’t see a lot of Civil War memorabilia at the auction house anymore. Every once in a while we will get a large firearm, sword or uniform collection from a deceased owner’s estate and when we do, it always sells well. But since our customers include many wealthy collectors and museum curators, the prices are often beyond what “normal” people can afford.

That’s especially true with Civil War era firearms. Firearms of practically any era, if kept in good condition, will almost always command the highest prices. Civil War revolvers, rifles and carbines generally will range from several hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on their condition and scarcity.

Edged weapons are another high-end Civil War collectible. Like firearms, their value is determined by condition and how rare they are, with special emphasis on maker marks and engravings. Also like firearms, they are an excellent investment with virtually no risk that their value will do anything but increase in the years to come.

But perhaps the rarest of all Civil War collectibles are uniforms. Think about it. How many items of clothing do you have that have survived 10, 15, 20 years, let alone 150? Basically, the only uniforms and headgear that survived were put away and somehow protected from insects and moisture and heat and cold and light and all the other things that conspire to destroy cloth.

The good thing about uniforms, and in fact much of Civil War collecting, is that they often come with provenance, which is documented history attached to an item. To be able to put a name or unit or even a state with an item of clothing, brings it to life … and increases its value exponentially.

Civil War-era swords, like firearms, are among the most expensive collectibles in today’s market. This sword, presented to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant by the citizens of Kentucky in 1864, comes with its own scabbard and case and is valued at a cool two million plus.

This Civil War frock coat, an uncommon late-war version with a fold-down collar, comes with provenance linking it to Lt. Colonel Horace Kellogg of the 123rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. It sold for $7,800 in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

One of the bad things about uniforms is that people have been reenacting the Civil War for 50 years and it’s sometimes difficult to tell a 50-year-old frock coat from one that is 150 years old. The size is often a giveaway. Modern reenactors tend to be larger than your average Civil War participant, so chances are, if the frock coat is a size 40 or larger, it likely isn’t real.

Perhaps the most commonly reproduced Civil War item is the Model 1858/61 forage cap, sometimes called a kepi. The early patterns had a tall crown that fell flat against the head and unit insignia was worn on the top of the cap. When the crown height was reduced, the bullion and metal insignia was worn on the front.

A good thing about reenactor uniforms is that they’re made for reenactors—they’re not made to fool collectors. A good reproduction forage cap will have a wool body with leather visor and chinstrap. However, modern leather almost always has a smell, while 150-year-old leather, not so much. If the leather has a strong leather odor, it’s probably a reproduction. And like uniforms, the larger the size, the less likely it is real.

What we have run into at the auction house, however, are kepis that are purported to be Civil War era but actually were worn much later, perhaps even into the early 20th century, by a state militia or fraternal organization. That’s where provenance comes in handy. Usually we won’t call a kepi a Civil War-era item unless the consigner has provenance to prove it.

Affordable Civil War Collectibles

So, we’ve determined that if you have the money, you can collect all the Civil War firearms, edged weapons and uniforms your heart desires. But what about the rest of us?

Well, not all Civil War collectibles are prohibitively expensive. Let’s look at some on the low end of the price scale:

Field Gear: Because they were made in large numbers, some of which were never actually issued or used, and because they were usually made of more resilient materials, Civil War field gear remains an affordable collecting niche. One of the most common pieces out there is the Model 1858 bulls-eye canteen. A steel canteen with cork stopper, three sling loops and the characteristic bulls-eye body design, it came with a sewn-on wool cover. A canteen in good condition with all components intact will still fetch several hundred dollars, but we’ve sold many non-pristine examples for much less.

This Civil War cartridge box, with U.S. plate and stamped “E. Gaylord Chicopee, Mass.” on the interior flap and with the original tin liner, can be had for about $200, despite the a broken shoulder strap. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

A Civil War bulls-eye canteen, with butternut-hue wool covering and shoulder strap is missing its cork stopper. It sold for $690 in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

Field glasses can some of the most inexpensive Civil War items out there. One of these field glasses is stamped U.S.N. No. 88 Day Glass on the frame of the eyepiece, while the other is unmarked. The pair sold for $108 in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auction)

Civil War cartridge boxes are another collectible that can be very expensive or very affordable. As usual, provenance will usually send prices through the roof, with special attention given to maker’s marks and condition of the leather.

Oddly, one of the most inexpensive Civil War field gear items are field glasses. Most were made in Europe, usually Paris, and depending on the condition, many examples can be found under a hundred dollars.

Belt Plates: Civil War belt plates are a collecting niche to be wary of—they have been restruck, reproduced and faked for years. Due to reenactor demand, even common buckles have been reproduced. Stamped brass Model 1839 U.S. belt plates are fairly common, but high-grade examples will still cost you several hundred bucks. Same goes for the Model 1851 sword belt plate.

At the auction house, we automatically assume that any plate with CS or CSA is a reproduction—guilty until proven innocent. Real Confederate States plates can run in the thousands of dollars.

This is probably a good place to answer a question we’ve been asked many times: Why is confederate equipment and uniforms so rare and expensive? The answer is simple: There was never very much of it in the first place. Unlike the North, which had the full weight of the country’s industrial might at its back, the mostly agrarian South had limited manufacturing capability. That’s why many Southern units didn’t have official uniforms—they went to war wearing their everyday clothes, carrying their own rifles and knives. After the war, Johnny Reb’s butternut uniform wasn’t welcome outside the South, so it was often purposely destroyed or worn until it fell to pieces.

Civil War belt plates are a collecting niche to be wary of because they have been restruck, reproduced and faked for years. Confederate plates are the rarest of the rare. This authentic Virginia plate on the original leather belt has an estimated value of almost $20,000.

Original (excavated) Union Civil War bullets include dive dropped .58 caliber minie balls and five “fired” bullets. They were all recovered (legally) at various sites in Central Virginia.

Minie Balls and Bullets: Finally, an inexpensive Civil War relic. Rifle bullets, revolver bullets, musket balls and Minie balls are so common they’re often sold by the bagful, including those excavated at battle sites.

CSA Currency: Moderately common and priced accordingly, CSA currency is valued by its condition and scarcity. Collectors look especially for unusual variations and printing errors, but most examples are not expensive.

Medical Instruments: While the Civil War saw advances in medicine, it was still a very dangerous time to receive a life threatening wound. Medical instruments, especially those used for field surgeries, survived in large numbers, probably partly because they were owned by well-to-do doctors and surgeons. Although complete cased sets can be expensive, individual instruments such as bone saws, trepanning trephines (for boring holes in the skull) and amputation knives can often be found at very reasonable prices.

[To learn more about Civil War amputation kits, read: Civil War Amputation Sets 101]

Civil War Campaign Medals: Although not actually issued until well after the Civil War—1907 to be exact—these are still among the earliest official medals issued by the U.S. government. But beware: The medals continued to be issued well into modern times and in fact can still be legally made today.

The best way to tell an old medal is if it is engraved with a rim number. The other way to tell is by the type of brooch used to attach to the uniform. The first models had what is called a “split brooch,” in which the suspension ribbon was wrapped around the brooch, whose back side has two rounded ends and a gap or split in the back. Those were used until about 1920, when they went to a “wrap brooch,” just like the previous model but without the split. Since those style medals were still being issued to living Civil War veterans, either can be considered a Civil War collectible.

So, while we may have missed the Golden Age of Civil War collecting, there are still lots of affordable Civil War relics and memorabilia out there for the enterprising collector. All you need is a little patience. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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7 Responses to “Entry-Level Civil War Collectibles: They’re Out There if You Know What to Look For”

  1. DJ says:

    Among affordable entry level Civil War collectibles, is correspondence, i.e. letters.

    I agreed to broker a collection of “marine” related letters for a friend. These are
    letters which may or may not contain or verify Civil War history, as they are from a (federal) junior officer, his wife, and his brother, while stationed aboard a service ship that
    accompanied the flag ship Minnesota (which was run aground at Hampton Rhodes and part of the famous Monitor vs. Merrimac).

    Question: Where does one go to verify a “collection” of such letters and how does one establish a value?

    • Ken Hatfield says:

      The best – and really only – way to authenticate and establish value to a collection like that would be to use a company like WorthPoint to hook you up with a professional appraiser. No one else is going to have the incentive to assess an accurate value to something like that, which could be very valuable, or not. An auction company like ours doesn’t see enough Civil War era correspondence to know how valuable it is. All we could do is give you an estimate, then put it on the auction and hope for the best.

      • DJ says:

        Ken,

        Thanks for the response, but accepting your suggestion creates additional questions:

        1) The owner is understandably very “squeamish” about placing these letters in jeopardy. I am assuming that Worthpoint would recommend using an overnight carrier (FedEx) and insurance. But how does one determine an “insurance value” prior to the planned appraisal?
        Catch-22.

        2) If the above can be sorted, what is the appraisal cost?

        3) Is an appraisal cost waived [if] there’s an agreement to use Worthpoint as the auction house?

        I’m sure your response will interest others interested in using Worthpoint for similar purposes.

        • Ken Hatfield says:

          All excellent questions. However, since I don’t work for WorthPoint per se, I can’t really answer them. I would suggest starting with their “Ask a Worthologist” section under “Research Your Items” at the top of the page. I’m pretty sure they can answer all your questions.

  2. Tom Tallmadge says:

    I have several bound Harpers Weeklys from the war year, along with many other Northern, and Southern news papers.Whats my best venue to sell these?

    • Ken Hatfield says:

      If it was me, I would make a test run on eBay. Put something up, see how it does and go from there. Newspapers typically don’t do that well on our auction unless they talk about historic events and are in really good condition. Bound magazines do better, but eBay is a good place to start.

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