Tennessee Historians Search For Civil War Relics

Tennessee archivists are trying to beef up the state's library of Civil War documentation by asking people to dust off their brass buttons, old family photos and handwritten letters that have survived from the 1860s. State historians plan to hit every county to get digital copies of the relics.

Bob Duncan hands a weathered three-foot sword to Tennessee archivist Wayne Moore.

Moore handles the weapon with white cotton gloves. "What information do you have about it, Bob?" Moore asks.

"It was captured in Tennessee during the war, taken back home to Wisconsin, hung on the mantle for umpteen years," Duncan says. "A friend of mine bought it from the family. And I went to see him and he said, 'Here, I've got something for you. Let this go back to Tennessee.'"

Moore concludes that the artifact is probably a cavalry saber. It will get photographed from every angle -- including close-ups of its ornate handle, which would have guarded a Confederate soldier's hand.

In downtown Columbia, about an hour south of Nashville, Moore is at the first stop of a multi-year Civil War memorabilia tour. Tennessee archivists are trying to beef up the state's library of Civil War documentation by asking people to dust off their brass buttons, old family photos and handwritten letters that have survived from the 1860s.

State historians plan to hit every county in Tennessee as part of an effort to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Collecting Tennessee History

Moore says this project is partly about authenticating true artifacts from forgeries. It's also meant to collect Tennessee stories of the Civil War that didn't make the history books.

"The Civil War is a subject of enduring interest in this state," Moore says. "Everybody is always trying to show us their Civil War stuff anyway, so we thought we'd just formally give them the chance to do that."

The state isn't seeking out donations -- just a digital copy of all the knickknacks stored in cigar boxes and collecting dust in attics. People are bringing in bullets found on battlefields, old railroad bonds and grainy group photos.

"I've got a neighbor that's got two ancestors that's in here," Charles Bates says as he shows off a photograph from 1907. It's a reunion of Confederate soldiers and their wives in Mt. Pleasant, Tenn.

Bates adds, "There's a list of everybody that's here. You can tell where they're located. Well, there's John Goodloe, my neighbor. And there's Sid Goodloe and John Goodloe. And John -- I think he said -- was his great-great-grandfather. So bingo."

Archivist Jami Awalt says having a list of names in a portrait is invaluable.

"We have thousands of photographs at the state library and archives that may not be identified with individuals," Awalt says. "So when we can get a photograph from a local community -- particularly where the individuals are identified, the place is identified -- it makes it much more valuable."

Sentimental Value

To Bob Turner, his most prized treasure is a rare Confederate belt buckle from Mississippi, made brittle after years in the earth.

"Don't drop it on the concrete if you can help it," Turner says.

For decades, Turner has spent his free time swinging a metal detector around Confederate stomping grounds.

"This is a Union buckle found at Five Points in Franklin many years ago," Turner says.

Five Points is now a trendy corner of boutique shops in a wealthy suburb of Nashville.

Turner says he wanted his collection to be documented by the state as a way to increase its historical value and to honor the soldiers on both sides who fought and died.

Turner says he doesn't want to see his collection end up on eBay. He has two sons who aren't interested in his antiques.

"They don't give a hoot about it," Turner says. "They think Dad's crazy."

The archivists don't think Turner's crazy. They hope more treasure hunters will be willing to show off their loot.

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