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Tennessee Historians Search For Civil War Relics

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Tennessee Historians Search For Civil War Relics


Tennessee Historians Search For Civil War Relics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Archivists in Tennessee have begun a statewide hunt for Civil War artifacts. They're trying to build up the state's library of Civil War documentation. To do that, they're asking people to dust off the brass buttons, old family photos and handwritten letters that have survived since the 1860s.

From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer has the story.

Mr. BOB DUNCAN: This came home from Wisconsin.

BLAKE FARMER: Bob Duncan hands a weathered three-foot sword to Tennessee archivist Wayne Moore, who handles the weapon with white cotton gloves.

Mr. WAYNE MOORE (Assistant State Archivist, Tennessee State Library): What information do you have about it, Bob?

Mr. DUNCAN: It was captured in Tennessee during the war, taken back home to Wisconsin, hung on the mantle for umpteen years. 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.

Mr. MOORE: Okay. It looks like a cavalry saber to me but let...

FARMER: That cavalry saber will get photographed from every angle, including close-ups of the ornate handle, which would have guarded the Confederate soldier's hand.

Here in downtown Columbia, about an hour south of Nashville, state archivists are on the first stop of a multiyear memorabilia tour. 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.

Mr. MOORE: And the Civil War is a subject of enduring interest in this state. 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.

FARMER: 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.

Mr. CHARLES BATES: I've got a neighbor that's got two ancestors that's in here.

FARMER: Charles Bates shows off a photograph from 1907. It's a reunion of Confederate soldiers and their wives in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee.

Mr. BATES: There's a list of everybody that's here and tells 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.

FARMER: And archivist Jami Awalt says having a list of names in a portrait is invaluable.

Ms. JAMI AWALT (Archivist, Tennessee State Library): We have thousands of photographs at the state library and archives that may not be identified with individuals. 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.

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

Mr. BOB TURNER: Don't drop it on the concrete if you can help it.

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

Mr. TURNER: This is a Union buckle found at Five Points in Franklin many years ago.

FARMER: 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.

Mr. TURNER: I didn't want to see my stuff end up on eBay.

FARMER: Do you have kids?

Mr. TURNER: Yes, I have two sons.

FARMER: They're not as interested as you?

Mr. TURNER: They don't give a hoot about it. They think Dad's crazy.

FARMER: The archivists don't think Turner's crazy. They hope more treasure hunters are willing to show off their loot. In their unique door-to-door tactic, state historians plan to hit every county in Tennessee as part of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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