04 October 2007 by Published in: General musings 1 comment

As some of you know, there was a big kerfuffle a couple of years ago over the ownership of documents that were in the possession of Evander M. Law at the end of his life. The State of South Carolina claimed them, and so did the family, who wanted to auction the stuff off. Unfortunately for those of us who care about this sort of thing, the state lost, and the stuff went to auction. Here’s an article about it:

Confederate Gen. Lee’s Letters Sell for $61,000 at Auction

By Jim Davenport


Associated Press


COLUMBIA, S.C. — Three letters written by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Civil War sold at auction for $61,000 Saturday.

The sales prices were far off the record $630,000 a Lee item sold for in 2002. But two letters from the general who ended the war with surrender in 1865 sold last year for $5,000 and $1,900, said Patrick Scott, director of rare books and special collections at the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library.

The letters were among more than 400 documents Thomas Willcox put up for auction after a protracted fight with the state, which claimed ownership of the documents that had been in Willcox’s family for years. Willcox had carried them stuffed in 11 manilla folders in the back of his SUV until one day about six years ago when he got bored, looked through them and found the three letters signed by Lee.

Neither Willcox nor the auction house had specific figures, but estimates placed the total sales at less than $400,000.

Willcox said he was disappointed. He said he’s sure he at least broke even after spending money on legal fees and $70,000 for a detailed appraisal of the documents. “I thought it would have gone better,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s over,” he said.

Two of the Lee letters sold to an out-of-state collector bidding by phone who would not immediately agree to be interviewed. One – selling for $20,000 – was written to South Carolina Gov. Francis Wilkinson Pickens talking about troop strength and conditions along the state’s coast.

“The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the state,” Lee wrote to Pickens on Dec. 27, 1861. “It can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it in the field.”

Another letter about troop strength from Lee to Pickens dated two days later sold for $14,000.

David Ellison of Columbia spent $27,000 for a Lee letter that talked about using slave labor to build defenses. Ellison hadn’t read the letter and bought it based on the description in the auction catalog as a piece of history. “I’m not sure what his letter says. But to put General Lee and slave labor in the same” letter, he said, “convinced me that that had to be a document of some historical importance.”

But Ellison also was bidding on and winning letters from his great-great-grandfather, Civil War Gov. Milledge Luke Bonham. Those, he said would be something important to give to his sons. He said he would think of making the Lee letter available to a museum or some other institution.

At least two dozen of the letters mentioned slaves, from their medical treatment to use as labor.

For instance, a letter from Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant de Beauregard protested discharging of slaves from their work when “the enemy is throwing at our works more than 500 projectiles an hour.”

Fewer than 50 people gathered to hear auctioneer Bill Mishoe work his way through notebooks filled with the old correspondence, telegrams, bills and receipts held up in plastic sleeves for bidders to see.

The issues addressed in the letters ranged from defense to the mundane.

For instance, Pickens wrote to Brig. Gen. Arthur Middleton Manigault on Oct. 3, 1861, about receiving and disposing of Enfield muskets. The letter sold for $300. And a $75 bid bought a bill of sale for bags of flour.

Cal Packard drove down from Mansfield, Ohio, and left after spending more than $100,000. He said his biggest prize was walking away with original documents tied to South Carolina’s secession convention in Charleston – including Pickens’ copies.

That’s “really cool,” the former teacher said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of historical significance.”

“Really cool” indeed. Now, I’m not opposed to the idea of private collections–I have a tiny one myself. However, this stuff should be in a repository where the public can have access to it, not where it’s hoarded away for personal delight.

I deeply regret that the court found in favor of Willcox, as this material should rightfully be in the South Carolina State Archives, not being used as a profit-making venture by some yahoo who has no appreciation for the treasure he had in his grasp.

Scridb filter


  1. Thu 04th Oct 2007 at 10:03 pm

    I could not agree more….


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