February 5, 2012

"Civil War books combine history with collecting"

Here's a nice article on collecting Civil War books by Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston – America’s oldest and one of its largest antiquarian bookstores. The story was originally published here on Nov. 6, 2011.

It’s now 150 years since the start of the American Civil War, which ran from 1861 to 1865 and was one of the most interesting and tragic chapters in the history of our country. It has spawned thousands of different books, both in non-fiction and fiction. Collectors interested in Civil War books can find everything from histories of individual regiments to extensive historical accounts of all four years of the war. In Massachusetts, The Historical Sketch of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, written by John W. Hansen in 1866, is an accurate and interesting depiction of soldiers from this area. Another popular edition is The History of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African-American regiment.

These types of books are highly collectible because they contain encapsulated histories of the war and present a more personal picture of what happened to our ancestors. When these regimental histories were first released, they had limited distribution and print runs because the only people interested in local history were, of course, the local residents.

What makes these books, which can sell for a few hundred dollars, so intriguing are the details. They list every member of the regiment, allowing people to trace the lives of their great-great-grandparents. They also contain complete battle specifics, right down to the movements of all the soldiers. For history buffs and Civil War re-enactors, this kind of detail provides an accurate picture of what happened during the battles.

For a more general book on the Civil War, Kirkland’s 1866 edition of The Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the Rebellion is a good choice. Written right after the end of the war, it has a fresher perspective than books written 30 or 40 years later. This book sells in the $35 to $100 range – a lesser price than the regiment histories because there were more Kirklands published.

The most requested Civil War book I see is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, written in 1886. There is a whole series of biographies and autobiographies written about Civil War generals, but the most famous one is Grant’s. This book is probably also the best written of all of the books about Grant.

He was a great writer with a great editor: Mark Twain. This book, available in a two-volume set, was reprinted several times and sells for about $250 for a good copy, more for a deluxe leather-bound edition. However, prices are moderating as those searching for info now go to the Internet which decreases the demand though new and serious collectors keep collecting.

A number of people who pick up this book see Grant’s signature on the inside flap and think they have a valuable find. What they don’t realize is that Grant’s signature was printed in every copy of the book. It would be really amazing, a miracle in fact, if someone did have a copy with Grant’s actual handwriting inside – he died a month before the book was released.

The presidents who followed Grant have that book to thank for their pension program. Grant was essentially impoverished by the time he was an old man and wrote the memoirs to provide income for his retirement. When people realized a former president had been reduced to selling his life story for income, a push was made to implement the presidential pension plan that exists today.

There are stories behind so many of the books of the Civil War. It is one of the most highly collected events in world history because it is one of the few wars that transpired right on American soil. The impact of brother fighting brother also made the stories of the war dramatic and emotional, resulting in good reading as well as collecting. Although interest in that period has always been strong, the release of Ken Burns’ Civil War sparked a renewal of attention for the war.

Books written about events in the North are much easier to find than books printed in the South. Simply, the North had more money and supplies than the South, which even ran out of paper at one point during the war. By 1865, newspapers in the South were being printed on old sheets of wallpaper, something that makes them very collectible today.

The newspaper accounts of the war, particularly those written by writers in the regions where the battles were happening, often contain the most accurate information. They allow the reader to see the history as it unfolded, with day-by-day accounts of the fighting. The Southern papers tended to be more impassioned and thus are more valuable, than the ones from Northern publishers.

There are as many different aspects of the war upon which to concentrate a collection, as there are books. Everything from the naval history to the social events has been written about and chronicled in numerous books. Just collecting the photographs of the war, which depicted the battles in detail and showed soldiers proudly wearing their uniforms, can provide an amazing amount of information about the war. No matter which area of the war a collector decides to concentrate on, there are sure to be hundreds of books, in a wide variety of price ranges, available. The craze for Civil War memorabilia is still strong and shows no signs of slowing any time soon.

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