Mike Pride was writing a chapter about the Union Army's Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers when he found one of its soldier's letters for sale on the Internet.
He learned that Sgt. Charles Phelps had written his sister in 1862 describing the Civil War battlefield at Fair Oaks near Richmond, Va. An important find, the letter not only provided information about the battle, but also insight into Phelps, who was becoming an important character in a book that Pride was writing with fellow journalist Mark Travis.
"I contacted the seller and asked if he'd let us have a Xerox. I was a real novice at this," Pride said. The seller wouldn't provide a copy, he said, because some potential buyers want exclusive possession of the contents of a document.
He also learned that the seller had two other letters for sale separately - and that's how Pride came to own three of Phelps' letters, paying $1,100 and spending several nights nervously watching the online auction.
His experience reflects the booming interest in the Civil War on the Internet.
Demand for Civil War memorabilia has jumped in the past 10 years, said Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts for Butterfields Auctioneers of Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, a Gold Rush-era fine-arts auction house that was acquired by eBay, the giant online auctioneer, in 1999.
"A large part of our business is Civil War manuscripts and photographs," Williamson said. "In the first 100 years of Civil War collecting, people collected letters and documents from famous politicians and generals."
Now there's a new appreciation for the writings of ordinary soldiers. In part, that's because there is so much material available. The Civil War was the first war to be fully documented in photographs and writings, thanks to advances in photography and the literacy of so many soldiers in the field.
Meanwhile, Web sites on the war, hosted by sponsors ranging from museums to families, are accessible to historians and everyday enthusiasts alike. The demand by collectors for Civil War memorabilia has brought to light unknown letters and journals that have enriched the field, as packrats empty their attics and basements to make some money.
Some of the new material disappears into possessive hands, but many buyers and sellers share the content.
"The Internet as a tool for historians is growing by leaps and bounds and will probably completely transform the whole field," said John Y. Simon, professor of Civil War history at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who is executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association Inc. "I really don't think it's reached its full potential; it hasn't exploded."
Previously, the offerings seemed to be the same items passed from dealer to dealer. Much new material has surfaced, said Simon, whose association keeps its eye on the online marketplace.
Though Pride found his soldier's letters invaluable, he believes they should have been kept together and made available for research.
"These dealers tend to want to sell the letters one at a time to get more money," Pride said. "This is troublesome for researchers, because one of the things you find if you're trying to bring soldiers alive is that the letters they wrote right after an event happened are the absolute best sources. They are trying to convey to someone they love and care about exactly what's happening in their lives. You get a very strong sense of the character, and it helps you to bring a character alive on the page."
Pride and Travis, the editor and editorial page editor, respectively, of the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire, spent eight years researching and writing My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth. It tells the story of a unit that had the most battlefield deaths of any of 2,000 Union regiments, and of its leader, Edward E. Cross. Cross died at Gettysburg - as did Phelps, just after he shot the rebel marksman who had shot his colonel.
Pride is considering donating the sergeant's letters to the New Hampshire historical society: "My belief is they belong in historical archives, available to historians."The Lincoln Enigma. He said he finds online Civil War offerings fascinating.
"But there's another story which appalled me to no end: They were selling for $500 or something like that 'original Lincoln writing,' and I knew you can't get anything for that kind of price," Boritt said. "It turned out to be a dealer who got a Lincoln letter and chopped it up, and he cut every single word into one 'document.' "
The cruelest cut
The dealer framed a copy of the letter, then pasted in one word actually penned by Lincoln, he said. "By the time I got on eBay, there weren't many words left. One was 'the' - but it was in Lincoln's hand."
"It's amazing vandalism; it's amazing entrepreneurship," said Boritt. "In the process the document was destroyed, but it went from say $10,000 to ten times $10,000."