Civil War Relic Collecting Tips and History

Featured Gettysburg Relics
The Jennie Wade Museum: It's rediscovered history and provenance for the museum's battlefield Relics
Faces of Gettysburg
July 1, 1863
July 2, 1863
July 3,1863
The Wheatfield
The 20th Maine and Third Brigade on Little Round Top
East Cavalry Field
Collecting Civil War Relics
Gettysburg Relics for Sale
John Cullison
In memory of John P. Geiselman
Recommended Readings
Recommended Websites

     In this day and age of a fast paced lifestyle and constant pressures and demands, the presence of a "hobby" in one's life is becoming rare.  The hobby of collecting (whether it be stamps, civil war relics, coins, etc.) has many benefits and certainly can be very therapeutic in todays world where the past is easily forgotten. For some, collecting some item can offer opportunities to take a "time out" from the stresses of everyday life and focus on something fun and mindless. For those interested in Civil War history the hobby of collecting Civil War relics has added benefits. Collecting civil war relics allows the collector to come into physical contact with history and with those who participated in it. It is a neat experience to read on a certain aspect of Civil War history and then be able to hold or own an item that was actually there. Indeed, how many a collector has spent some time looking at their collection and afterward felt as though they had just taken a trip back into time! The following paragraphs offer a very brief history of collecting Civil War relics, in this particular article the emphasis is on relics from the Gettysburg battlefield. However the collecting of Civil War relics from other battlefields began in the same way as it did in Gettysburg. For more detailed reading on the history of Civil War relic collecting try reading "The Illustrated History of American Civil War Relics" by Stephen Sylvia and Michael O'Donnell, as well as "Gettysburg Battlefield Relics and Souvenoirs" by Michael O'Donnell which was recently published.
     However, there are a few tips to keep in mind when engaging in this hobby, that if practiced, will make the collecting enjoyable and not stressful. One anonymous old collector once said, "You can't own it all and it can become like a sickness trying". There is a phenomena that can occur in this hobby where each item we obtain suddenly loses it's significance to us once is is added to our collection. We then immediately turn our attention to the next item, then the next, and so forth. This can occur to the point where we don't really enjoy what we have because we are always looking at we do not have.  This can also easily lead to overspending to the point of the hobby becoming a source of stress. One cannot own it all and so we need to be content with what we have. As one old dealer from Gettysburg once said, "these items were here long before us and they will be here long after us". It is healthy to be content with what we have and at times to pass on items we have had for sometime by selling them when adding new items to a collection. This prevents a "hoarding" behavior and gives other collectors a chance to be a "steward" for a time of the historical item.

          The collecting of Civil War relics began during the Civil War as citizens would collect battlefield items soon after a battle ended. This was especially the case in the town of Gettysburg after the three day battle ended there in 1863. Citizens, both young and old, collected souvenoirs from the battlefield. Some Gettysburg residents sold their finds to visitors others kept them and passed their battlefield finds to the next generation in their family. Some collections were famous and adopted the name of their family, for example, The Rosensteel Collection, the Danner's Museum Collection, the Ziegler Collection, the Wert Collection, The Pitzer Collection, The Chritzmann Collection, or the Shield's Collection. Some collections stayed in their respective family for many years, others were placed in Museums named after the collector of the family.


          The first citizen to place his collection in a Museum was Joel A. Danner who created the first Gettysburg museum of battlefield relics named the Danner Museum. The Danner Museum supposedly was in operation from 1865-1890. However research has shown that Danner was selling relics long after 1890 and into the early 1900s. The museum was located on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg not far from what is now Lincoln Square. The Danner museum also functioned as a relic shop as his museum items were for sale (O'Donnell, 2009). As a result, there are multiple Danner items that bear the same painted number. This museum is somewhat mysterious as information about the museum is scarce. It is known that sometime after 1890 (more likely early 1900s) the collection was sold and all or most of the collection ended up in Massachusetts and in some GAR posts. Items from the Danner's Museum are highly sought after by collectors and usually carry a significant price tag. It is also known that the Rosensteel family did attempt to locate and purchase the collection in Massachusetts. However the family was only able to locate and obtain part of the collection. At some point the collection must have been broken up and pieces of the collection filtered out to the public through auctions, etc. Many of the Items that had been in the Danner's Museum have a distinctive number painted on the relic or on the base that the relic sits on. This is especially the case with artillery shells from the collection that have the trademark number painted on the base, a way for Joel A. Danner to catalog his collection. Other items such as swords may have the place where they were found on the battlefield painted on the sheath.
(Photo above below) A display case from the Danner's Museum; Photo below: Gettysburg residents pose in front of the Danner's Museum. Joel A. Danner stands near the doorway to the left of the man with derby and beard. Notice the Union 5th Corp flag fluttering in the breeze.


         Clearly the most famous of currently intact collections is the Rosensteel Collection which was donated to the National Park Service in 1971. Most of the collection can be viewed at the Visitor's Center in Gettysburg. However much of the collection remains in storage as the collection is too vast and there is insufficient space at the center to display the entire collection. The Rosensteel Collection was started by John Rosensteel who was a 16 year old Gettysburg resident at the time of the battle. Around the end of the end of the 19th cent John Rosenteel would create the Round Top Museum (no longer in existence) to house his collection at the time. John Rosenteel's collection would eventually be taken over by his nephew George Rosensteel. The Rosensteel Collection was composed of other collections that had been purchased intact from others as well as items purchased from individuals and even farmers in Gettysburg who had masses of relics stored in their barns. In 1921 George Rosensteel opened the Gettysburg National Museum. He had opened this museum on a piece of ground that his Uncle had sold him on Ziegler's Grove next to the Nation Cemetery. George Rosensteel went on to obtain many collections from other collectors and veterans of Gettysburg which as mentioned earlier would be donated to National Park Service.


(above) A relic display board or "showboard" assembled by John Rosensteel.       
          There were also many other collections and museums in Gettysburg. The Thompson house in Gettysburg had become Lee's headquarters during the battle. After the war it became Lee's Headquarter's Museum. Relics from this museum can be found in some of the relic shops in Gettysburg. There was also the Shield's Museum. The Shield's Museum was started by Arthur H. Shields who opened the museum in 1925. The museum consisted primarily of relics collected from the battlefield. The museum eventually closed and its collection was auctioned off on November of 1985. Items from the museum can be found in individual collections and in relic shops also.
         A large Gettysburg collection that was recently sold was the John Plank Geiselman Collection. John Plank Geiselman was a life long Gettysburg resident who passed away on September 11, 2001. The collection is considered to be the last of the large Gettysburg collections that will be available to the public. This collection was recently purchased by The Horse Soldier and items from this collection are available to the public to purchase. The Horse Soldier, located in Gettysburg, is the source to contact concerning the John Plank Geiselman Collection. They have photographed the entire collection and keep extensive records of each individual item from the collection. A link to The Horse Soldier's website, which features photographs of the John Plank Geiselman Collection, can be found below.
          Unfortunately for the average collector the low prices that relics used to be purchased for when the massive collections accumulated no longer exist. Civil War relics, particularly Gettysburg relics, have become expensive. However there are relics that are affordable to everyone such as minnie balls, shell fragments, buttons, even some cannon balls and artillery shells. Even collecting minnie balls can be a worthwhile hobby as there are so many different types. A minie ball was "there" just as much as another larger or more expensive relic. One should use caution however when collecting relics. One should make sure to buy from a reputable dealer who will guarantee the authenticity of their relics, even with a signed letter if possible. This is especially the case of relics from the Gettysburg battlefield. Unfortunately there are incidents of relic dealers selling relics from Virginia battlefields as relics from the Gettysburg battlefield. Also, always try to find out as much as possible as to the origin of the relic, dont hesitate to ask questions such as how the dealer acquired the relic. It is adviseable to not be content with being told "it is from an old collection". Such an explanation is not adequate, the dealer should know the name of the collection or who had owned the collection. There is one relic dealer that I highly recommend in Gettysburg and that is very reputable. That shop is The Horse Soldier, the shop is family run and the shop's website is www.Horsesoldier.com. One can find an excellent selection of Gettysburg and non-Gettysburg relics ranging from minnie balls and shell fragments to uniforms.  The hobby of collecting relics is not an act of glorifying war, but rather about coming into physical contact with history and experiencing the fascination of the secrets that each relic holds.


(above) Michael O'Donnell's book on Gettysburg battlefield artifacts is highly recommended. It is an epic work that took over twenty years. No book on this topic has been published before of this magnitude and scope and no book in the future is likely to match it. The Book can be ordered through The Horse Soldier.