Monday, June 11, 2018

Lock of Custer's hair auctioned for $12,500; whoever wants his captured Civil War uniform, Tiffany sword will need to pony up a ton more

These Custer items are held by a gallery in Idaho (Courtesy of Cisco's Gallery)
Clump of Custer's hair sold on June 9 (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

The men of brevet Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer's Michigan cavalry brigade ran into a swarm of Confederate troopers at the June 1864 Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia.

The slightly wounded Union legend barely avoided capture while his brigade suffered 416 casualties in an all-cavalry clash that lasted six hours. Among the casualties was a trove of personal items that the dashing Custer, who was only age 24, kept in his headquarters wagon.

Rebel Lt. Frank Blair -- a member of 36th Texas Cavalry briefly deployed to Virginia, where he fought under Thomas Rosser -- made off with the dress uniform Custer wore at his wedding, a Tiffany sword presented to Custer by the 5th Michigan Cavalry in late June 1863, letters, a fine rosewood case, a field writing desk and a valise.

Custer, circa 1865
Tucked inside the sword case was an envelope stuffed with locks of the Union hero’s blond hair. His wife, Elizabeth (Libbie), had wanted the hair to make a wig, but the envelope apparently wasn’t sent to her before it became the spoils of war.

On Saturday, more than 50 strands of that hair, each up to 3 inches long, sold at auction for $12,500, six times the preauction estimate. The hair was in the collection of retired filmmaker Glen Swanson. 

About 260 Swanson-owned items associated with Custer (Civil War and Indian Wars), the doomed 7th Cavalry Regiment and Native American warriors sold for $1.43 million in the Heritage Auctions sale. 

Custer's Tiffany sword (Cisco's Gallery)
How did Swanson come to get a slice of Custer's hair? 

About 15 years ago, he was asked by the current owner of the Custer uniform and sword to help verify their authenticity. 

When going through items, he opened a writer’s valise that had, among other things, a small envelope of hair that had not been previously noticed. Upon concluding that it had, in fact, come from Custer, the owner was so grateful to Swanson for the discovery and for his effort verifying items that he allowed Swanson to take the sample that was sold Saturday," said Heritage Auctions spokesman Steve Lansdale.

The businessman who contacted Swanson has the so-called "Trevilian Collection" up for sale at his gallery in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Sam Kennedy's website calls it "the most historic and important group of Civil War items to surface this century."

Collection kept under a bed

Kennedy, owner of Cisco Gallery, told the Picket he laid out an amount in "the seven figures" to a Dallas man for the collection in 2000. While there currently is no sales tag on the collection, "We are probably in the $10 million plus." He said advertising for the collection will begin later this summer.

"We had goose bumps when we first picked up the sword," said Kennedy, adding he worked with five experts over six months to authentic the Custer items. “The two most valuable (Civil War) swords would be General (Robert E.) Lee’s and Custer’s.”

Custer's dress coat and chapeau (Cisco's Gallery)

Kennedy has previously loaned out the collection, which includes a diary kept by a Civil War officer who helped retrieve love letters exchanged between the Custers. The correspondence had made its away across the South after they were taken at Trevilian Station. Many of the letters survive. (Military correspondence seized at Trevilian had been sent to Richmond.)

Libbie Custer routinely asked for George to send locks of hair from the front so that she could make a wig. She used it for theatrical productions, but it was destroyed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota.

The Trevilian Collection has changed hands about five times, Kennedy said. He learned about it over dinner with someone who told him: "They are under a bed down in Texas. It will cost you a lot of money to find out."

More about the June 9 auction

Gen. Sherman's uniform
Ahead of the recent sale of Custer's hair through Heritage Auctions, Swanson spoke with Heritage’s Intelligent Collector magazine about his collecting passion, especially for items associated with Custer and Plains War Indians.

“We have Gen. [William Tecumseh] Sherman’s uniform – that really is a one-of-a-kind item. He and his son always were at it – they didn’t like each other at all,” Swanson told the magazine. “His son sold just about everything, so about 90 percent of it was lost. But I ran across his tunic, his hat, his sash and belt, his epaulets – which were totally unique.”

The dress uniform belonging to Sherman, a Civil War hero and general of the Army when Custer and more than 200 cavalry troopers were killed at Little Bighorn in June 1876, sold for $62,500, over a $50,000 pre-auction estimate, according to Heritage Auctions. It’s believed to be from the 1872-1883 period.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
Heritage Auctions spokesperson Steve Lansdale said a Sherman campaign hat that sold Saturday for $26,250 ($15,000-plus estimate) was worn probably right after the Civil War. At that time, the general was stationed in St. Louis, ensuring military protection for western expansion.

“The hat shows the effects of perspiration and dust, but otherwise it is in very good shape,” the catalog says.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has the campaign hat that Sherman wore during the Civil War. It is worn and has some holes, and Heritage Auctions believes the one auctioned Saturday was a replacement.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
An inscribed .22-caliber revolver presented to Custer in 1863 by U.S. Volunteers, during the Civil War, sold for $35,000, well below the $50,000 estimate.

“It was undoubtedly presented by his men when he received a field commission as brigadier general from Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, 3rd Division, Army of the Potomac," the auction house said. "It comes with its original custom thermoplastic case with a patriotic motif on the lid.”

Photos courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Also sold at the auction (above) were a flintlock carbine belonging to Indian chief Sitting Bull and a statue depicting him ($162,500, with an estimate of $50,000-plus before the sale) and three Sioux arrows from the Battle of Little Bighorn ($93,750, with a $10,000-plus estimate).

Picket exclusive: These two sailors went down with the USS Monitor. Now you can see items they carried or were found near them

(Civil War Picket photos)

They are the kinds of things one might carry in a pants pocket: A rubber comb to tame a lock of hair, a small pocketknife, a wisp of string and a stray button that needs reattaching.

While seeming so ordinary, two dozen artifacts under glass at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., tell an incredible story filled with mystery, hope and terror -- a very human story.

Sixteen crew members perished when the Federal ironclad USS Monitor sank during a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Dec. 31, 1862. At the time, it was being towed to a new duty station -- nine months after its famous clash with the CSS Virginia a few miles from the museum. Nearly 50 men were rescued.

The exhibit, which opened last year, showcases items found in the turret. “These objects were found in context with human remains,” says Tina Gutshall, conservation administrator with the museum’s USS Monitor Center. The exhibit is in a gallery that includes two large replicas of the turret; one depicts how the inside looked 140 years later.

The turret was raised by U.S. Navy and other divers in 2002 and brought to Newport News. The museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, removed tons of silt and made the discoveries.

Despite advanced forensics testing and physical descriptions of sailors noted during their Civil War service, the identities of the two crew members remain unknown. Sailor 1 is believed to be William H. Eagan or Jacob Nicklis (Nickles). Sailor 2 is likely either William Bryan or Robert Williams.

“They all speak to me,” USS Monitor Center director emeritus John Quarstein said of the items, which are accompanied by facial and skull reconstructions made during the federal government’s quest to find descendants through a DNA match.

Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.
(Civil War Picket photo)

At top and center in the small exhibit are two pieces of footwear (above). Sailor 1 was found with a mismatched boot and shoe.

“At the moment leading up to the sinking, my hunch is these men were putting anything on that was dry,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

In the chaos, crew members scrambled out of the turret, with the goal of being rescued by the USS Rhode Island. They left a jumble of clothing, shoes and items.

Among the artifacts is a bent spoon that has the initials “JN.” It likely belonged to Nicklis, a 21-year-old sailor from Buffalo, New York. Quarstein believes the utensil was struck by a heavy object – perhaps two Dahlgren guns -- when the Monitor plunged 236 feet and hit bottom.

“There are a lot of spoons and other objects found in the turret. You can imagine the chaotic situation. Some are desperately trying to keep the Monitor afloat, and the last pump of the Worthington pump was the death knell.”

Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

Almost immediately after the Monitor hit bottom, the coal stores gave way and sealed in those who could not escape. The two skeletal remains include bone breaks caused by the cannon striking them.

“They died very swiftly, though the ride down was clearly a terrifying 20 to 30 seconds,” Alberg told the Picket.

Officials spent more than a decade studying the bones and trying to determine to whom they belonged. They asked the public to look at photos, go through the attic and review family histories. “Trying to get people to come forward with a match with maternal DNA, didn’t happen,” Alberg said.

The two remains were buried in March 2013 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. While it may be a long shot, there’s a chance their identities may be known one day.

For Alberg, who was present at the burial, it might be better that they remain unknown.

“They belong all of us together.”

The Picket visited the museum in March and conducted interviews during and after that visit. Here are summaries of the items, based on museum descriptions and those conversations. Artifact photos are courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va. The description of each artifact is below or next to the photograph. Please click each image to enlarge:

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

WELLINGTON LEATHER BOOT, LEFT FOOT
The brown boot, found on the feet of Sailor 1, is in fragile condition. The upper portion of the boot was not attached. “It is possible that the detachment is contemporary with its original use and not related to deterioration after the wreck.” This crew member was wearing two different shoes at the time of the sinking. Remnants of a sock were found in the boot.

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

LEATHER SHOE, RIGHT FOOT
This was the other piece of footwear worn by Sailor 1, showing he may have grabbed what was nearest while trying to escape. “The shoe is made of leather, brown in color with heavy iron staining and in fragile condition yet structurally stable in general." There may be residue of human tissue on the item.

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

RUBBER HAIR COMB
This comb was found by the tibia of Sailor 2. It was made by India Rubber Company, with a May 1851 Goodyears patent. One side has a U.S. Navy inscription. 

GOLD RING
This is possibly a wedding band and is in excellent condition. It was found on the third finger of the right hand of the sailor, possibly worn by Jacob Nicklis. The gold ring has a sealed joint at the back and is decorated with a pattern of swirls, lines and crescents. “Some of the decoration is fairly crude indicating that the ring may have been decorated by the crewman himself or a non-professional jeweler.” Nicklis never married. “There is no way we can really know is it a wedding ring or not,” said Quarstein.

SILVER SOUP SPOON
This Rogers & Bros. decorative spoon bears the initials “JN,” indicating it is more than likely the property of ordinary seaman Jacob Nicklis, 21, of Buffalo, New York.Nicklis came on board the USS Monitor on Nov. 7, 1862, when it was undergoing repairs at the Washington Navy Yard. In a letter to his father, Nicklis said while he did not care for his accommodations on the Monitor's berth deck, he conceded that he at least had "plenty to eat and drink" including rations of sea biscuits and "what they call coffee." 

The bent spoon has a significant dent on one edge, indicating it may have been smashed when the Monitor struck the bottom and heavy objects were dislodged. The spoon was found near the left femur. The location, according to the museum, suggests placement in the front left pocket.

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

SPOON STANDARD SIZE
Rogers Bros. is stamped on the back of the handle, and the front has the initial “S.” After treatment, the shiny silver utensil is free of all debris and in excellent condition. 

BRASS BUTTON
The copper alloy button with four recessed holes is in excellent condition. It was found near the wrist of Sailor 1.

The button was likely a part of the uniform worn by crew members aboard Monitor. There is no textile associated with the button.

Images courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

SKELETON KEY
This was found among pockets for Sailor 2. The main key body is tubular with outstanding rings and detail. The tooth of the key, which was made of copper alloy, is perpendicular to the key body. This object is in extremely fragile condition. 

FLYING EAGLE COIN
This coin was with other items in Sailor 2’s pocket. It is a Flying Eagle coin, one of the first small pennies made in the US. It is made of German silver and is in fair and stable condition.

The edge of the coin is uneven and irregular and no design is discernible on either face. The surface of this coin is eroded beyond recognition of any design or lettering.

LIBERTY HEAD HALF PENNY
This corroded/eroded coin may have been minted in 1813. It is made of copper and is in extremely fragile condition. The edge of the coin is jagged, uneven and irregular.

Although details are difficult to discern, the coin has a decorative serration around the front edge. On the back is what remains of the words HALF PENNY. The coin and other items were together in a pocket.

WOOL FIBERS
This wool string fragment was recovered from the mouth of Sailor 1 in 2002. The string appears to be braided in some areas and frayed throughout. The string is approximately 8” long when laid out straight. The dark brown string is in good condition after treatment.

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

SILK FIBERS
Three separate masses are made of wool, silk and another unidentified vegetal fiber such as linen, flax or hemp.

BONE BUTTON
This is one of nine buttons recovered from the dredge spoil around Sailor 1‘s hand area. The button is dark brown in color and in good, yet fragile, condition. The button has a concave center with four thread holes and is made of bone. 

MOTHER OF PEARL BUTTON
This four-hole mother of pearl button was found with other items in what was the pocket of one of the crew members. The button holes are filled with green concretion and may contain traces of thread. It at one point was concreted to a bone button.

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

WOOD KNIFE HANDLE
These wooden pieces appear to have belonged to a knife rather than a fork or spoon due to the flat shape. Each half of the handle has a 3/16" diameter hole in the butt, as well as four small pin holes. There is no metal remaining and the two halves have separated. 

Image courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.

POCKETKNIFE HANDLE
These knife handle parts are made of bone and still have some visible iron staining from the blade. “The exterior faces of the handles, those that were not against the bolster lining, have a gnarled, uneven surface, similar to antler. The interior faces of the handles are mostly smooth with visible saw marks related to manufacturing.” The museum says the artifact was concreted with other contents from one of the sailor’s pockets.


(Picket photo)

Coming soon: When it was launched, many didn’t think the USS Monitor would meet success. They were wrong. A closer look at the crew and the ironclad’s history.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Renovated home will tell Elmira's story

An Elmira, N.Y., home used during the Civil War is getting a 21st-century touch-up. The Foster House on West Water Street will undergo some major renovations. The Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp teamed up with the building's owner to mix history with function. The ground floor will be dedicated to Civil War research. A library will be built with reference material. And residential apartments will be on the top floors. • Article

Friday, June 1, 2018

Your chance to learn about field hospitals

The Gettysburg Foundation will open the historic George Spangler Farm Civil War Field Hospital site to visitors on weekends, June 8 through August 12. Visitors will be transported back to July and August of 1863 as they walk in the footsteps of those who experienced the carnage left from the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg. • Article

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Invalid Ga. teen left fascinating diary

LeRoy Wiley Gresham's short, painful life in Macon, Ga., ended about the same time as the Civil War, but he left behind a legacy treasured by historians. Starting in 1860 at the age of 12, a few months before Georgia seceded from the Union, he started keeping a diary and did it almost daily until his death on June 18, 1865, two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. Now, for the first time, the diary has been put in book form, called "The War Outside My Window." It will be available on Amazon beginning Friday. • Macon Telegraph article | • Emerging Civil War review