By the time Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, to his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, more than half a million Americans had been killed in the nation’s four-year Civil War. In their wake, they left behind a trail of swords and shoulder arms, uniforms and headgear, and mountains of often heart-wrenching correspondence.
The decorations created to honor those who fought in the conflict were produced and bestowed both during and after the war. Although President Lincoln signed a bill authorizing a Medal of Honor at the end of 1861, the first one was not awarded until 1862 to Jacob Parrott and others who had hijacked a Confederate train known as The General. Eventually, more than 1,500 Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers, many posthumously.
After the war, veterans groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic created badges and medals to honor its members. The United Confederate Veterans produced similar pieces for its members, and by the end of the 19th century, the two groups organized numerous reunions, which were attended by mixtures of the former combatants. In the late 19th century, another group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, gave its Southern Cross of Honor to Confederate veterans.
The arms used in the Civil War are also of high interest to militaria collectors. Shoulder arms manufactured at Union armories such as the one in Springfield, Massachusetts, included the Model 1855 and 1861 rifle-muskets. These arms were designed for fixed bayonets, which are also collected. Companies such as Colt and Sharps also made rifles, while some soldiers chose to purchased their own Henry and Spencer rifles.
After the supply of arms in U.S. armories in the South had been exhausted, the Confederacy imported many of its weapons from aboard, although arms were made at armories in Richmond, Virginia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Arms were also manufactured at a private armory called Cook & Brother, which was based in New Orleans until it was forced by Union occupation to move to Athens, Georgia.
In fact, both sides imported rifles from the U.K. (the Enfield Model 1853 rifle-musket was widely used) and Austria (the Lorenz). As for hand guns, some Confederate troops are thought to have used the pistols made at the Palmetto Armory in the 1850s in South Carolina. Union troops used the Colt Army Model 1860 and Colt 1851 Navy Revolver, while members of the Confederate calvary carried Kerrs imported from England.
Edged weapons were also ubiquitous. Sabers sheathed in protective iron scabbards hung from leather belts—the U.S. Model 1840 was produced in both artillery and calvary styles, although many historians believe these blades did more damage to horses and the troops that rode them than their enemies. In general, sabers carried by Confederate soldiers such as those made at the Palmetto Armory in Columbia, South Carolina, and the ones produced by Thomas, Griswold & Co. of New Orleans are the most highly sought...
Swords were more suited to officers, medical staff, and musicians, especially dress swords. Very small numbers of cased, ceremonial, presentation swords were given to officers for successes on the battlefield—some of these were even produced by New York jeweler Tiffany & Co. Then there were the cutlasses, from the relatively common U.S. Model 1860 naval cutlass made by Ames Mfg. Co. of Chicopee, Massachusetts to Confederate naval cutlasses stamped with the letters "CSN."
When it came to uniforms, the Union had the advantage. Most soldiers were issued blue flannel sack coats, which had just four brass buttons on their fronts and were manufactured in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Few have survived. More plentiful are the shell jackets, which had a dozen buttons and brocade around the collar, and chasseur coats, which were lined with cotton, featured decorative piping, and had epaulettes on the shoulders. Frock coats, some double breasted, were longer and worn by enlisted men and officers alike.
One of the most distinctive uniforms was worn by regiments of Zouaves, who were French North Africans hired by the Union. Their dark-blue coats were decorated with heavy red brocade and sported dozens of brass buttons. The Zouave even had their own rifles, which were made by Remington.
Gray Confederate uniforms wore out even faster than the blue Union sack coats. Soldiers in the North Carolina Infantry had the best uniforms since they came from a textile-producing state. But keeping the troops supplied with anything, let alone fancy uniforms, was a difficult task—at one point, when North Carolina mills ran out of gray dye for their Confederate uniforms, they used blue instead, with predictably disastrous results on the battlefield.
For headgear, men on both sides of the conflict wore forage caps, the most common of which for Union troops was the leather-visored Model 1853. The fronts of these caps above the visor was tall enough to show off one's regimental insignia, although sometimes crossed swords or a bugle would be sewn to the top of the hat. Hardee hats, often decorated with an ostrich plume, were worn by those in the calvary, while slouch hats were favored by officers as well as enlisted men. Many of the Zouave wore a felt fez topped by a blue or gold tassel on their heads.
Collectors who haven't the room or means to acquire uniforms and headgear often focus on buttons. Manufacturing techniques included one-piece, two-piece, and "staff" buttons, which have an extra rim detail holding the two button pieces together. Buttons are often sold as "dug" or "non dug," which refers to whether or not they have been excavated. Cast buttons bearing the stamp of the confederacy, "CSA," are among the most sought-after. Other buttons, North and South, bore state markings, initials, and seals.
Another highly collected area of Confederate clothing are belt buckles and plates. There were hundreds of styles, designating the wearer’s affiliation with the Confederacy (CSA or just CS) or state. Brass, iron, and pewter were the most common materials; foundries in Atlanta and Richmond made most of them, but thousands were also imported from England.
Two other areas of collecting for Civil War enthusiasts are photographs and correspondence. The Civil War was the first U.S. conflict to be meticulously documented by photographers, foremost among them Mathew Brady. Most of these were ambrotypes, in which the negative is made on a glass plate. It took two photographers to produce the images, which were developed in darkroom wagons under trying, battlefield conditions.
Equally remarkable are the Civil War letters that have survived, which in the South were mailed using Confederate stamps. Furloughs were restricted on both sides, so soldiers often had lots of time of their hands to pour out their hearts of the conditions in the camps—the dust in summer, the mud and cold in winter. And if they were really lucky, and survived to see the day, they received a letter back in reply.