During my forty-five years I have managed to put together a modest collection of artifacts related to the American Civil War – everything from the canister shot I bought at a flea market for fifty cents as a child to the Enfield Rifle I dug from a Union camp site in Vicksburg.
Relics of the “late unpleasantness” have always had a power to transport me to a time and place which I find so fascinating – by holding something as simple as a minie ball in my hand I can instantly time-travel to Manassas, or Sharpsburg, or Vicksburg – the battlefields where our nation’s history was written in blood. This obsession I have with the tangible remains of the Civil War is certainly not a new thing – the collecting of artifacts began while the conflict was still being fought, and continues straight through to this day.
For 9 1/2 years I had the good fortune to work as an historian at the Old Court House
Museum in Vicksburg, where I was surrounded by thousands of relics from the war. In my time there I spent many hours pouring through the musty newspaper collections in our research library, and I was surprised by how many articles I found that mentioned the discovery of Civil War artifacts. What follows are some of the most interesting stories that I have found in which Civil War artifacts play a central role.
In July 1861, the citizens of Vicksburg were electrified by the news of a Southern victory at the Battle of First Manassas. On August 9, 1861, the Vicksburg Daily Whig announced to its readers that it had a genuine relic of the battle to show to the public:
A Trophy – We received yesterday from Gen. Patridge, by Adams’ Express, a musket barrel, picked up on the Manassas battle field by Mr. Vincent Corrie, a member of the Volunteer Southrons. It belonged to a private of one of the New York regiments, and was found by the side of a federal soldier as he lay dead, the morning after the battle. The barrel bears the marks, it is supposed, of several bayonet thrusts and sabre cuts, and at one end is the impression of a cannon ball, which has bent and twisted it terribly. It can be seen at our office.
The soldier mentioned in the article was Vincent Corre, a private in Company A, 21st Mississippi Infantry. His regiment missed participating in the battle by about a day, but they were stationed near Manassas afterwards, affording the men the opportunity to do some souvenir collecting. Corre served with the 21st Mississippi until a wound to the knee at Gettysburg ended his duty as a front line soldier. Afterwards he was detailed to the Ordnance Department in Richmond.
At times during the war soldiers took items from the enemy for plunder; but in the following case, the items in question were taken to satisfy a debt of honor between two brother Masons, one Rebel, one Yankee. The following story was published in the Vicksburg Daily Herald, August 4, 1864, and in the Milwaukee Sentinel, December 17, 1863:
A MASONIC INCIDENT – We are told the following circumstances in regard to the
death of Lieut. Tinkham, who was killed in the second battle of Corinth: It apppears that Lieut. Tinkham was not seriously wounded when the rebels took possession of that part of the field where he fell, but was only shot through the leg, and as our boys were contesting the advance of the enemy with desperate bravery. Lieut. Tinkham raised himself upon his elbow, to see the fighting, when another leaden messenger pierced his body and he fell to the ground again. Seeing that he must soon be numbered among the slain, and that his life-blood was fast flowing out, he made the grand hailing sign to a passing rebel, who immediately came to Tinkham’s side, and rendered him all assistance in his power. Just before he expired he handed the rebel his watch and some money, with the instructions to forward it to his family the first opportunity he had, and a few moments after expired…Time rolls on, and on the Fourth of July, thirty-five thousand rebels surrendered to our victorious army at Vicksburg, and among that vast multitude we find Lieut. Tinkham’s friend eagerly searching for the 14th Wisconsin regiment. He found the regiment and safely delivered the watch and money to one of its members, and disappeared among the throng. The articles have been received by Mr. Tinkham’s friends in this county.
The Oshkosh Public Museum in Wisconsin has in its collection a letter written by Colonel John Hancock, commander of the 14th Wisconsin, on October 20, 1862. In this letter he mentions the death of Lieutenant Tinkham, and in the process gives a poignant look into the toll that the war took on those placed in command of other men:
God has been kind to me darling. He has brought me out of dangers that you know not of. A kind and beneficent hand has protected me in my times of peril and what I most fear is that my life is not in accordance with such kindness: that I am not sufficiently thankful for such blessings and such mercies. Four hard contested fields now I have taken an active part: Blackburn’s Ford; Bull Run; Shiloh; and Corinth. In all, that same care has been over me…My noble and brave boys are happy in camp tonight: music in different parts of the camp; joking, talking and laughing. They seat themselves around the campfires and joyously thus they pass their time away: no care, no responsibility. Sometimes I think I [would] rather be in the ranks with them than with the responsibility of a regiment on my hands…Upon our last battlefield I lost three of my bravest and best: Captain L.W. Vaughn of Kewanee County; Captain Samuel Harrison of De Pere, Wisconsin, and Lieutenant Samuel A. Tinkham of Waupaca. They were all my friends. After I assumed command of my Regiment, I had Lieutenant Tinkham promoted for bravery at Shiloh…He was a very fine, principled, quiet young man, brave and liked by all. Such my darling are the vicissitudes of war: some to glory and some to the grave.
When the war ended in 1865, peace returned to Mississippi, but the debris of battle that littered the landscape could still find new victims, as their article from the Vicksburg Daily Herald, April 23, 1868, explained:
KILLED – We are informed that two negroes of a prying turn of mind, who were endeavoring to pry off the cap of an unexploded shell, were blown into eternity on yesterday evening, near the residence of Mr. Henry Hammett. We do not mean that the residence of Mr. Hammett is any where in the neighborhood of eternity, but we are of the opinion that the negroes imagine they are now, yet when last seen they and the shell were near Mr. Hammett’s.
Another story in a similar vein although with less fatal results was published in the Vicksburg Daily Herald on February 7, 1872:
Explosion at Jackson – At about eight o’clock last evening, a loud explosion was heard in the western part of the city, which caused some to think that a steam boiler had collapsed a flue, or that the Federal troops were once more bombarding Jackson…It appears that a blast was being melted at the Ecelsior Foundry, in West Jackson, and among the old iron placed in the cupola were two shrapnel shells, relicts of the late little unpleasantness, which had been purchased by the proprietors at the foundry to transform into more useful, and certainly more ornamental materials. These shells were supposed to be as harmless as cast-iron lions at a park gate, or sleeping sculptured lambs on a tombstone, but they chanced to be loaded, and when sufficiently heated went off…Fortunately no one was killed.
Not all relic related stories in the immediate post-war period were so explosive in nature – another article published in the Vicksburg Daily Herald on March 5, 1868, was simply concerned with an interesting artifact from the Siege of Vicksburg:
During the siege of Vicksburg it is reported that two balls – one a minie and the other from a Belgian rifle – fired from opposite points, met in mid-air and were almost completely welded together.
Among the most moving artifacts to be reported on were those found when the lost graves of soldiers were accidentally disturbed. This article from the Atlanta Constitution was saved by Sophie Goodrum of Vicksburg in her scrapbook, and it illustrates the reverence that Southerners had for relics that belonged to their fallen soldiers:
WHO ARE THEY? – Photographs Buried In A Fallen Soldier’s Grave. Editor Constitution: Just beside me as I write is a picture we handle with tenderness and sad emotions. It has been buried perhaps twenty-eight years next to the heart of a soldier. On the works of the new Belt line railroad, four miles from Atlanta, at Black’s dairy farm the diggers unearthed some human bones and skulls, and investigation of the grounds showed the lines of the Confederates. Last Sabbath Captain McKelvey, J.M. Hainey and others sought further into the excavation made by the railroad and found the picture mentioned, besides Confederate buttons and a clay pipe…It is an old-time daguerreotype and represents a young woman and man, perhaps sister and brother, somebody’s boy or somebody’s husband, watched for in vain; his burial place unknown to his loved ones. Relics like this must ever be regarded with tenderness. Mementoes small within themselves become valuable beyond price to those loved ones remembering the brave heart that gave its life for its country. (Sophie Goodrum Scrapbook #6, Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi)
There was so much iron and lead strewn over the landscape after the war that some enterprising locals were able to make a lively business of collecting it:
A great many relics of the war still continue to be picked up on the whole battlefields near Vicksburg, and there is hardly a day passes that a local junk dealer does not buy quantities of lead bullets. To give something of the idea of the amount of lead the ‘Yanks’ rained down upon the city, the books show that he has brought and shipped some seventy-five tons of leaden bullets, not including shell, solid shot, etc., and he did not enter the business until two or three years after the larger portion of the trade was over, and some half a dozen other establishment in the city buying at the same time, and still the supply is not exhausted. (New Orleans Times, October 3, 1877)
As the years went by and the 19th century gave way to the 20th, time took its toll on the surviving Civil War veterans. By the third decade of the new century there only a handful of old soldiers left in Vicksburg. While most of the men who had fought for the Hill City were gone, many tangible reminders of the fighting they had done still remained. From the fortifications they dug, to the minie balls they fired from their muskets, to the iron shot and shell belched from hundreds of cannon, Civil War relics littered the landscape in a wonderful variety.
The sheer quantity of artifacts available in Vicksburg at this time was documented at great
length by V. Blaine Russell, a columnist for the Vicksburg Evening Post, who wrote for the paper from the 1930s to early 1950s. A keen observer of all things Civil War related, Mr. Russell often mentioned in his column the wartime relics he spotted as he wandered about town on foot. A lover of the path less traveled, Russell often found reminders of the war in out of the way places, such as one of the caves Vicksburgers carved into the soft, loamy earth to shelter from the Federal bombardment during the siege of the city:
James Farrell, venerable citizen, has spent most of his long life in Vicksburg. As a small boy during the siege his family cave was behind the present J.B. Smith home on Second North Street. Mr. Farrell remembers the cave had one entrance but two separated rooms back inside – one for the males and one for the womenfolks. The siege cave still open in a ravine off Lovers’ Lane is of that construction – one door, but two rooms. Today it is so obscure and brush-hidden few know hot to find its mouth. (V. Blaine Russell Scrapbook, Volume 1, Old Court House Museum collections, Vicksburg)
Russell had a knack for eyeballing relics, and he loved to relate his latest finds to his readers:
War relics may still be found hereabout. On a Wednesday’s nosing we picked up twenty minie balls and buck and balls; also the metal base of a Civil War scabbard.
Reading Mr. Russell’s columns now, it boggles the mind that relics were once so plentiful that he could make the following report:
Went again on a lone investigation of the spot where lately we dredged out 106 minie balls and fragments of shrapnel. This last time we found fourteen more bullets and five fragments of shrapnel in the same hole. We theorize now that perhaps this cache of missiles got in one spot because Confederates were being shot at there as they came down to the water hole to fill their canteens; or perhaps some soldier died there and his load of ammunition settled about his body. (V. Blaine Russell Scrapbook, Volume 1; exact date of the column is unknown, but it was sometime in November 1937)
Artillery shells were so common in the Hill City that Mr. Russell noted:
In Vicksburg, cannonball gate and doorway ornaments are not unusual. You see them in many places. Sometimes they are well matched, again they are not. There is a well-balanced quadruplet of missiles on the Collier front lawn at Speed and Washington. Two of them are the big mortar shells, the other two are the bullet shaped missiles. (V. Blaine Russell Scrapbook, Volume 1; exact date is unknown, but it was sometime in February 1937)
Time marches on, as it inevitably does, and in the 21st Century, relics are not as plentiful as they once were, but to the dedicated searcher, they can still be found. In the March 3, 1999, edition of The Vicksburg Evening Post, the paper reported that a 20-pounder Parrott shell had been found in the National Miltary Park, and that it was the third to be found that year.
As long as these bits of lead, iron, and brass continue to surface, stories will be written about them, reminding us of a time, not so very long ago, when brother fought against brother.