American history buffs' gateway into antique collecting often comes first through acquiring Civil War memorabilia. From a young age, Americans are exposed to so much from the major 19th century conflict, whether it's through family stories and artifacts, museum exhibitions, or popular film and television series. With plaques dedicating parcels of land to past battles and encampments all across the United States, Civil War memorabilia is a vast category of collectibles that every first time collector can enjoy.
Popular American Civil War Memorabilia to Collect
Constantly appearing in the American consciousness through pop culture hits like Gone With the Wind, North & South, Lincoln, and so much more, the American Civil War was a conflict (occurring between 1861-1865) that left behind a number of artifacts and collectibles that far surpasses what should have been possible for just a four-year time span. Yet, it can be said that the American Civil War is the most popular military event among American military collectors, second only to World War II. Thus, there's a huge market for Civil War collectibles, and whether you're thinking of starting a collection or parting with a family heirloom to a collector, it's a good idea to learn more about what's out there to find, which are collectors' favorites, and just how much money you can make off of each piece.
Civil War Weapons & Artillery
Undoubtedly, weapons are the most popular collectibles from the Civil War on today's market. Artillery machines and their munitions, as well as the various rifles, sabers, bayonets, and knives, are just a handful of the different types of weapons that collectors fight over today.
Given that weapons, and firearms in particular, can sell for substantial amounts, it's best to have any potential sales appraised by an official appraiser and brokered by a professional. The nuances of these firearms are significant enough that the average eye might misdate an item by just a few decades, putting it outside of the Civil War period, thereby changing its value.
Of course, value is one of the reasons that people gravitate towards the weaponry from this period. Generally, at their least expensive, you can find Civil War rifles and other weapons for $500-$2,000, and at their most expensive, they can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Weapons with a provenance and documentation proving that they were used in the war can greatly increase their values.
Some of the most commonly sold weapons include:
- Springfield rifles
- Enfield rifles
- LeMat revolvers
- Ammunition shrapnel
Civil War Apparel
Another interesting, if less popular, collectible category from the war is the apparel worn during the period. Both the Union and the Confederate armies had their own commissioned uniforms, and these uniforms are pretty collectible today. When not stored properly, these wool textiles were eaten by the natural world as well as degraded because of their fragile constructions. Thus, entire outfits from the same person can sell for much more than individual pieces, such as their uniform kepis, and those with little wear and tear will always sell for greater amounts than those with significant damage.
Civil War Militaria
Some of the most valuable pieces of Civil War memorabilia--at least in terms of dollar amounts--come from the battles themselves. Major engagements like Gettysburg and Antietam are notorious on their own, and having anything that can be directly linked to being used in the battle (or at the very least, being present at the battle) is highly desirable to collectors.
Due to the tricky nature of documentation over the period of 100+ years, it's unsurprising that these items are few and far between and that collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them when they're in good condition. Generally speaking, the most common (and least impressive to serious collectors) items from battles are bullets or shells. These pieces of shrapnel are still being uncovered at famous battlegrounds to this day, and so places like the Gettysburg Museum will sell them for about $20-$50, on average.
Civil War Ephemera
Ephemera from the Civil War includes all sorts of paper goods, such as enlistment papers, newspapers, personal and professional letters, political cartoons, and so much more. Generally, these items are much cheaper and more abundant than other collectibles from the period. You can find interesting documents and currency for $10-$100 in antique stores around the country, and in all sorts of online retailers.
However, the most valuable of these paper artifacts are those that bear signatures from important people in the war, with Lincoln's being the most valuable out of them all. Other notable figures with valuable signatures include:
- Robert E. Lee
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Tecumsah Sherman
- George B. McClellan
- JEB Stuart
- Jefferson Davis
- Stonewall Jackson
Of course, if you're looking into purchasing anything with a signature, you should make sure that's it been verified by an appraiser or certified by the PSA (an elite card and autograph authentication service) so that you're not getting scammed, as it's not too difficult to copy famous signatures in a convincing way. There have been plenty of collectors who thought they were going to have the most expensive item on Antiques Roadshow, only to find the signature wasn't authentic.
Civil War Photographs
The most common and relatively inexpensive collectible of the Civil War bunch are photographs. Tintypes, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes were the most widely used photographic technology at the time, and due to the sensitive processes needed to create these photographs, the actual images can fade over time. However, pristine photographs from the period can easily sell for about $50-$70 each and are most commonly of unknown soldiers or civilians. That being said, photographs of famous individuals can sell for substantially more money as anything related to the well-known figures of the period tends to do.
Remarkably Expensive Civil War Memorabilia Sold at Auction
Civil War memorabilia continues to be a highly sought after type of collectible, and the prices of these vintage objects at auction often reach incredible amounts. Take all of these past sales, for example:
- Ulysses S. Grant presentation sword - Sold for $1,673,000
- JEB Stuart's personal battle flag - Sold for $956,000
- Robert E. Lee's signed 1861 General Order No. 9 document - Sold for $97,135
- Signed Abraham Lincoln 1863 carte-de-viste portrait - Sold for $92,641
How Much Does Civil War Memorabilia Cost?
If you're interested in purchasing Civil War memorabilia, you're in luck--it's one category of collectibles that has items for literally every budget. Typically, the cheapest items tend to be paper items with little historical significance since there's a lot of them, as they were easy for people to hold on to over the years. Additionally, photographs are a big hit with novice and low-budget collectors as they're normally under $75, depending on their quality.
Bigger budget items are ones with historical significance and/or weapons. Weapons on the whole cost a lot of money, and so antique weapons also cost a lot of money, ranging anywhere between $850-$10,000+. Similarly, items with historical significance (such as ones from the personal collections of military leadership and political figures) will sell for thousands of dollars to interested buyers. Ah, but that's the central element of Civil War memorabilia costs--it's all about buyer interest. Even the most common type of collectible can sell above its estimated values when the right party is interested, and with such a huge collector's market out there for these items, you'll be surprised at just how much you can sell some of these items for.
For example, these are some common Civil War collectibles that've recently come to auction:
- Lot of 3 Civil War documents pertaining to guns and artillery - Listed for $30
- Rare $100 Train Confederate Note certified by the Gettysburg Museum of History - Listed for $139
- Abraham Lincoln's Attorney General James Speed's signature - Listed for $195
- Original Civil War Le Mat revolver - Listed for $27,500
Tips for Collecting Civil War Memorabilia
There are dangers in collecting any type of memorabilia and Civil War era antiques are no exception. The market is flooded with items that are fakes and forgeries, so buyers should absolutely beware. However, there are a few things that you can do to ensure that you're getting what you pay for:
- Collect a small genre of things - For example, collecting only stamps, or flags, or photographs, or whatever you're interested in can help beginner collectors keep a narrow focus and become an expert in their specific collectibles.
- Check for authenticity - Get a Certificate of Authenticity whenever possible, or an official document from an appraiser, as Civil War collectibles are frequently faked.
- Visit with other collectors - Go to trade shows, antique auctions and anywhere else that you can touch, and examine, Civil War memorabilia, as well as talk with other collectors. Mingling with the community will help you learn how to better spot fakes in the wild and see valuable pieces from miles away.
Where to Find Civil War Collectibles
While living near an old war field can be handy, the majority of items that are authentic collectibles from the Civil War can be purchased in antique stores, at online auctions and marketplaces like eBay, and from fellow collectors. Serious collectors will rarely buy dug items though, since it's considered to be raiding someone's grave by many people. Traditional online auctions usually list items as either dug or non-dug, so that collectors know where the items have come from, but retailers with individual sellers don't stick to that custom. Most authentic items at these marketplaces that're in good condition usually come from families that have been collectors for generations or had a family member that served in the War Between the States.
Places to find authentic Civil War memorabilia include:
- Civil War Preservations - Civil War Preservations is an online business dedicated to buying and selling Civil War collectibles and has been in operation in one form or another for over 40 years.
- Heller's Civil War Antique Shop - Since 1999, Heller's Civil War Antique Shop has been selling and buying antique Civil War memorabilia. One thing to keep in mind when navigating their website is that it's built like one from Y2K, so younger collectors might have a difficult time moving through it.
- Georgetown Antique Mall - The Georgetown Antique Mall has a physical location in Georgetown, Texas, as well as a small online store where they sell a variety of antique goods, including those from the Civil War.
- Civil War Battleground Antiques, Inc. - With a headquarters in New Bern, North Carolina and in business since 1981, Battleground Antiques Inc. is one of the most veteran Civil War collectibles company in the country. Their online store is filled with special items such as firearms, flags, photographs, currency, and so much more.
- Uncle Davey's Americana - Another specialized in-person and online retailer is Uncle Davey's Americana. Located in Jacksonville, Florida, Uncle Davey's has much more than your average Civil War seller might have, including a unique array of collectibles from the period, such as clarinets and hair jewelry.
To get the most enjoyment from your collectible memorabilia, be sure to display them properly, and in a way that will protect them from sunlight, dust and fingerprints. Glass front cabinets, glass top tables and special photograph albums with acid-free papers, as well as small vignettes that can be created for more sturdy pieces of memorabilia, are all examples of ways that these fascinating pieces of history can be displayed.
Resources for Evaluating Civil War Collectibles at Home
There are many resources on the internet where you can look at and purchase memorabilia, but sometimes you just don't want to have to troll through hundreds of pages of collector's message boards to get to the bottom of the items you've found at the local antique store. But, thankfully, there are a few print resources pertaining to pricing and identification that you can purchase to help you in your at-home efforts:
The Only War Here Is a Bidding War
No matter your opinion on the war's popularity, there's no denying that the American Civil War doesn't seem to be falling from grace out of American pop culture anytime soon. However, even if you're not a fan of military antiques in general, there's still a ton of Civil War memorabilia relating to civilians, fashion history, medical treatments, and so much more out there for you to connect to. So, take care of those precious family heirlooms because you just don't know when a collector with deep pockets might be around the corner.