October 29, 2007

Ghosts, Spirits and Books at Point Lookout, Md.

"In terms of important historical associations with ghost stories and a grisly past, Point Lookout Lighthouse in St. Mary's County is right up there. It's five stars out of five stars," says Ed Okonowicz, semiretired college professor and Maryland's premier collector of ghost stories, regional folklore and supernatural tales. According to Okonowicz, the lighthouse at the tip of the island has garnered the title of "America's Most Haunted Lighthouse."

According to a story in the Baltimore Sun, the 530-acre site, including the lighthouse, has been a state park since 1962. It was once one of the most feared and notorious Union prisoner-of-war camps, where more than 4,000 Confederate prisoners died during the Civil War. "The tale of the camp," writes Edwin Warfield Beitzell in his book, Point Lookout, Prison Camp for Confederates, "is a horrid story to tell. It is a story of cruel decisions in high places, a story of diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and typhus, of burning sands and freezing cold in rotten tents. It is a story of senseless shootings by guards. It is a story of the despair and death of 4,000 prisoners, many of whom could have been saved." Beitzell's book was privately published in the mid-1970's and then reprinted by the St. Mary's Historical Association in 1979. Copies seem hard to come by and tend to be priced in the $75 range.

Primary source recollections from Confederates who were imprisoned at Point Lookout also exist and can be quite pricey. Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery by George Neese (Neale, 1911), In Vinculis: or, The Prisoner of War by A.M. Keiley (1866), and In Prison at Point Lookout by G.W. Jones (1898) are just three of numerous titles that tell a tale of woe at this infamous Union POW camp. All three of these titles in the first edition command over $100. The Neese book in particular is quite sought after since it is also a Neale Book and is in demand for content that goes well beyond Point Lookout.

They say that Gettysburg is one of the most haunted places in America. Apparently Point Lookout, though not nearly as famous, might give the sleepy Pennsylvania town a run for its money!

October 28, 2007

A Rare Confederate Imprint: Battle of Young's Branch

One of my favorite Civil War book collecting categories is battle books. These are the tactical or strategic narratives that describe anything from grand campaigns on down to daily or even hourly segments of certain engagements. For me, the more obscure the battle or skirmish, the better. From a collector’s perspective, if the publisher is likewise small or unknown, that’s fine as well. Of course, all of that has to be tempered with the perceived quality of the book. As other Civil War book buyers have written, some tell-tale indicators of a book’s scholarly qualities are the presence of notes and a bibliography that clearly illustrates the depth of primary source research, good quality maps, ample illustrations, as well as a good, detailed index. If any of these are lacking, I tend to pass.

Of course, collectors will often relax or even set aside these new book requirements when considering a battle book that’s 100 years old or more. One such title that is both quite valuable and exceedingly rare is Battle of Young's Branch or, Manassas Plain, Fought July 21, 1861. It was initially published in Richmond in 1862 in yellow paper wrappers and represents a highly partisan though reasonably accurate account of First Bull Run. The book is noted for being an important Confederate imprint, along with one having one of the engagement’s best maps. I also discovered an old New York Times online article from 1910 that described this item even back then as a “rare book.”

Certainly nothing has changed in that regard for a rebound copy offered for sale on ABE has an asking price of $2500. Fortunately, for those who would like to read the book, there exists a modern reprint published by the Prince William Historical Commission (see pic). According to the reprint’s new introduction, the book was written by its two authors to capitalize on the Confederate victory and to foster a martial spirit throughout the South. In addition, this rather thin book (145 pp.) contains details and anecdotes not found in any other study of First Manassas. To assist the modern reader, the new edition also features an index and a fold-out map of the battlefield which has been reproduced from the original at the National Archives. This title is also listed in Richard Harwell’s Cornerstones of Confederate Collecting. I know that the Manassas Battlefield Park bookstore had copies for sale just a few years ago so those interested may want to check with them.

October 27, 2007

Off Topic Rant re Harry Potter

A true first edition, of which I believe only several hundred copies exist, of the first Harry Potter novel has sold at auction for $41,000. You read that right, I did not add an extra zero... Signed by the author as "Joanne Rowling," the book was sold to an anonymous bidder at Christie's auction house. More power to 'em, I guess.

Still, I consider that to be a ludicrous amount to pay for a book that's only 10 years old. I say that from a collector's perspective with an eye cast toward investment potential. Despite the current immense popularity of Harry Potter, it is anyone's guess as to whether these books will stand the test of time. Also consider that this price paid is far in excess of what true cornerstones of the fantasy field command. More than The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings and far more than anything by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or H.P. Lovecraft.

Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography

I once read and firmly believe that reference books and bibliographies form the core of any book collection, whether it's nonfiction or fiction. These can range from price guides to author bibliographies to critical analysis works. Into this last category comes a title that I picked up this week through eBay enitled Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography. It's a one-volume 1996 reprint by Broadfoot Publishers of what was originally a 2-volume work published by LSU Press during the mid-to-late 1960's. The work was edited by Allen Nevins, James I. Robertson, and Bell I. Wiley, three of the twentieth century's most famous names when it comes to Civil War scholarship. As these men write in their preface, the purpose of the work was to establish an annotated, critical bibliography of the major works in the Civil War canon, all under the auspices and endorsement of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. They point out that such a project had never before been so thoroughly undertaken, though several much earlier works had begun the process. Two in particular are very obscure, they being John Bartlett's The Literature of the Rebellion (Boston, 1866) and John P. Nicholson's Catalogue of the Library of Brevet Lieutenant Nicholson...Relating to the War of the Rebellion (Philadelphia, 1914).

It was obviously a massive undertaking. 15 esteemed professors of the day were each assigned a particular topic of the war with the task of determining the key titles within that area. The editors also point out that these volumes contain "bad works as well as good ones" and that "the overall aim of the project was to analyze those volumes familiar and unfamiliar, general or limited, indispensable or useless, for the benefit of anyone delving into the literature of the Civil War."

Close to 6000 titles are listed between the two volumes. In each case the editors state the usual bibliographic particulars, such as author, title, publisher, city, date published, as well as number of pages and trim size. A one or two sentence critical summary of the book then follows.

Since the work is now 40 years old, it obviously lacks all of the important scholarship published since then. Nevertheless, for researchers and those looking to build or expand their Civil War first edition library, it remains an invaluable reference tool.

October 22, 2007

Why Collect First Editions?

A neighbor asked me the other day why I collect Civil War first editions as opposed to a simple (and presumed cheaper) reprint. After all, he wondered, aren’t the words and information the same? His question was reflective of an age-old debate that has no right or wrong perspective. It is somewhat difficult, perhaps, for a “collector” to explain (justify?) his/her passion to a non-collector. I don’t think that I’ve ever been able to really convey my interest to those close to me, other than to say that for collectors, a book holds an intrinsic and magnetic interest as a physical artifact. It is much more than a collection of words and ideas. I came across this great article on the internet that explores our passion. You can check it out in two parts here and here.

It is more than a mere delivery method for the thoughts and ideas contained within, for as the article points out, to non-collectors “the physical book is nothing more than a reader’s fast food wrapper.” And as the second part illustrates, buying Civil War first editions always gives the buyer an opportunity to recoup his expenditures down the road. If you’re buying reprints, it’s likely you’ll never recover your costs.

October 18, 2007

"Abraham Lincoln and the Jews"

News announcements here and here that this long out-of-print and incredibly rare book is now available online as part of the Google project. There are no copies to be found on ABE so I'd say it is indeed a rarity. Does anyone have a copy?

October 16, 2007

Forthcoming Limited Edition of Texas Veterans

The Brenham Banner Press of Washington County, Texas will soon publish a "library quality hard bound publication [that] will feature up to 128 pages of veterans pictures and history from Washington County. The proposed format includes all veterans from the Civil War to present, if photographs and information are available."

In addition, "a leather-covered limited edition will be offered for those interested in a deluxe version. No more than 50 copies will be published. Each will include a numbered custom bookplate affixed to the inside cover."

The full story is available here.

October 14, 2007

Deluxe Edition of Walt Whitman's "Drum Taps"

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is arguably one of American history’s most innovative and influential poets. His life story includes time spent in Washington DC during the Civil War where he worked as a male nurse in the Union hospitals. Whitman was so sickened by the horrors he witnessed during those years that it influenced him to write a series of poems that would ultimately be published in 1865 under the title of Drum-Taps. A second edition was soon printed that included additional verse written after Lincoln’s assassination. Both editions are extremely rare and pricey with asking prices anywhere from $3000 to $5000 depending on condition. The work is highly sought after by poetry and literary first edition collectors in addition to those who want the work for its Civil War connection. These poems were collected into a later edition of Leaves of Grass, ultimately growing in importance in the book as the war's historical significance became clearer in Whitman's mind. Whitman would later write that Leaves of Grass "revolves around that four year's war, which, as I was in the midst of it, becomes, in Drum-Taps, pivotal to the rest entire."

I’ve just learned that sixteen of those poems were brought together in 1991 in a deluxe, fine press edition titled Wrenching Times, Poems from Drum-Taps, which were selected by M. Wynn Thomas. According to the publisher, the poems are described as “standing unique as war poetry. Whitman's Drum-Taps continues to offer us an absolutely convincing and compelling poetic account of men at war.” I’m definitely an admirer of fine press books, which is bookmaking as art, and discuss them in an earlier post. It appears to be quite a production, courtesy of the Gregynog Press of Wales for their artistic vision is highlighted by a 30-copy edition printed on handmade paper and in a special binding. It is illustrated with colored wood-engravings by the American artist, Gaylord Schanilec, and features covers of hand-painted calf leather representing a pale blue sky, with multi-colored morocco leather overlays on lower covers forming the image of an abstract mountainscape. (bottom left) Open the book up and one will find linings made of suede. The entire package is presented in a blue cloth folding box. One dealer currently offering a copy describes it as “a beautifully crafted book with a superb hand binding” with an asking price of $5000. Deep pockets, indeed. Also available is a 450-copy edition designed and printed by David Esslemont with Hugh Willmer using Monotype Baskerville type. This version is illustrated with 8 multi-colored wood engravings executed by Schanilec during his residency at the Gregynog Press and printed from the original wood-blocks. This fine press edition is currently available for $500 or so. (bottom right)

October 12, 2007

The Brave New World of Book Collecting

Imagine going to a library book sale and finding a first edition of The Killer Angels for a buck! Let's see, a several thousand dollar book for $1. Someone else can calculate the return on investment of that purchase! Finding gems at library sales do happen occasionally but for the most part, you're having to wade through piles of slush to find a handful of desirable books -- and if you're not a member of the local "Friends of the Library," then forget it, for most library sales will have a special preview for their Friends before opening up the sale to the general public. 99.9% of all desirable books will be long gone by that point. I readily recall joining all the area Friends so that I, as a collector, could give myself first crack at the sale, only to discover that every other dealer and collector I knew had done the same! When the doors opened, a feeding frenzy often ensued with many dealers often just tossing old books into their boxes without even looking at what they were. They'd weed them out later...

But the times they are a changin'. Just check out this article about the 21st-century technology now being employed by book dealers at these type of sales. I'm sorry, I'm just way too old school to use a handheld scanner that monitors bar codes for pricey first editions. The whole thing just doesn't seem as sporting as it once did.

October 8, 2007

The 1862 Confederate Invasion of New Mexico

I was watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the other night, which is my all-time favorite western and stars Clint Eastwood in his classic "The Man With No Name" persona. The film tells the tale of 3 less-than-savory characters seeking out buried Confederate gold in the American southwest.

unrelated sidebar - is there any better cinematography and musical score than this? :-)

General Henry Hopkins Sibley's 1862 Confederate invasion of New Mexico serves as a backdrop for the film which got me thinking about core and collectible books pertaining to that campaign. From my perspective, the standard work is still Sibley's New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. It was originally published in 1960 by the University of Texas Press. First edition copies in fine condition are not easy to come by and command around $150 when found. Though it was long out-of-print, the book was reissued in 2001 and is now readily available. The dust jacket image is for this reprint but is very similar to the original. Hall also wrote The Confederate Army Of New Mexico, which is primarily a genealogical book that focuses on the personnel of the Army of New Mexico, comprised almost entirely of Texans, including some of the most prominent figures of the times.

It appears that the most desirable older title is Autobiography and Reminscences of Theophilius Noel, self-published in 1904 by the author, who served in Sibley's 4th Texas Cavalry. I found several copies for sale ranging from $200 to $450 for a signed copy.

There are several other modern titles that cover various engagements within the campaign and have become collectible due to their limited nature, including John Taylor's Bloody Valverde and Don Roberts' The Battle of Glorietta. This campaign has always fascinated me, occurring as it did thousands of miles away from the better known eastern battles.

October 4, 2007

I've Not Heard of This One...

Looks like the Friends of the Stones River Battlefield have come across an uncommon first edition copy of William D. Bickham's 1863 Rosecrans' Campaign With the Fourteenth Army Corps: A Narrative of Personal Observation, with an Appendix Consisting of Official Reports of the Battle of Stones River.” Not just any copy, but one that was owned by a Union soldier who particpated in the battle of Stones River. Apparently, this book represents one of a few first-hand accounts of the battle published during the war. According to this story, the book is being donated by the Friends to the Stones River Battlefield Park Library. Props to the Friends for their magnanimous gesture! Needless to say, the book is pricey though not too terribly rare as ABE lists 4 copies for sale with prices ranging from $150 to $440. According to one bookseller, "the author was a [Cinncinati Commercial] war correspondent during part of the war. His letters and dispatches soon gave him a valuable and reliable reputation." For those who want just a reading copy, it appears the book has been reprinted and is available for $29.99 through Amazon. The map is of the Stones River battlefield and is taken from the book.

October 3, 2007

Deluxe "Battle Cry of Freedom"

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom has been hailed in some quarters as the best, single-volume modern history of the Civil War. Other critics have been less kind. The first edition was published in 1988 by Oxford University Press, has been in print ever since, and can be had in fine condition for around the $40 mark. The book was reissued in 2003 as a profusely illustrated "new" book which included a deluxe, leather-bound edition, limited to 1000 slipcased copies that were geared toward the collector's market. Each copy was hand-signed and numbered by the author. The work features high-quality paper, colored end-papers, gold-foil edging, and is now sold out from the publisher. Copies have become scarce in the secondary market and when available, tend to go for around $100. This beautiful book features some seven hundred pictures, including a hundred and fifty color images and twenty-four full-color maps personally selected by McPherson. As an intro into the Civil War or book collecting, this particular volume would be hard to beat!

October 1, 2007

An Interesting Guide

Here’s a webpage I've found that’s billed as “A Guide for the Civil War Book Collector” by E. E. Billings. As I’ve mentioned before, reference books and bibliographies form the core of any great book collection.