Gen. William T. Sherman Civil War sword and books will go up for auction

At first, it was the rare binding that caught the eye of Danielle Linn, a senior book specialist with Fleischer’s Auctions.

While cataloging items once owned by the Union Army General, William Tecumseh Sherman, she came across a copy of a memoir written by Ulysses S. Grant. The book had been made with rare “tree calf” binding – leather chemically treated to create the likeness of a tree on the cover.

Linn set it aside, but later picked it up to check the publication date. The specialist opened the back cover accidentally, she said, and that’s where she found Sherman’s handwriting. Not only was it a first edition of the 1885 memoir, it was full of Sherman’s personal notes and recollections.

Gen. William T. Sherman on horseback at Federal Fort No. 7 - George N. Barnard/Library of Congress
Gen. William T. Sherman on horseback at Federal Fort No. 7 - George N. Barnard/Library of Congress

The Civil War general, who would go down in history for his “March to the Sea,” became close friends with the future President Grant during the war, writing, “From the day I reported to him from Paducah till his death our relations were as brothers rather than as commander and commanded.”

The historical find is significant because it contains Sherman’s annotations, including a recollection of his first meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, in a book that’s considered one of the finest memoirs by a president or general.

Born in Lancaster, Ohio, Sherman played a key role in the Civil War. His “hard war” military strategy for the Union included the destruction of infrastructure and some personal property through the South in his famous march.

Sherman is also known for his Special Field Order 15, often referred to as “40 acres and a mule” – an initial attempt at reparations for newly freed slaves.

But the auction, which will take place on Tuesday, isn’t without controversy. One official at a museum dedicated to the Sherman family worries the items will land in private hands, and out of the view of the public.

Nonetheless, the find has been personally satisfying to Linn, who, upon her discovery, shouted for the auction house’s founder, Adam Fleischer. He, too, was surprised.

“This is probably the most important offering of Civil War antiques that have been sold in recent memory,” Fleischer said, noting the major general was “one of the most significant figures of the Civil War in American history.”

Fleischer and Linn also found more notes, ranging from corrections to Sherman’s own opinions on events in other books.

“Being able to open up these books and seeing that he had inscribed and signed his name on so many of them was a real moment of discovery,” Linn told CNN.

The collection belonging to Sherman’s descendants, which has never been offered for sale before, was valuable even before Linn’s accidental discovery. It includes the general’s wartime sword, the rank insignia from his uniform during the war and his family Bible.

Two volumes of President Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, including Sherman's annotations, are up for auction. - Courtesy Fleischer's Auctions
Two volumes of President Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, including Sherman's annotations, are up for auction. - Courtesy Fleischer's Auctions

Sherman’s descendants said they are offering the relics “with great pride and anticipation.”

“We are confident they will be cherished and preserved by new custodians, who will continue to honor the remarkable contributions of General William Tecumseh Sherman for years to come,” they said in a statement.

Fleischer said he’s already seen a great deal of enthusiasm from museums and institutions, and the auction house estimates the entire collection could sell for over $100,000 – or a great deal more. Online bidding has begun, and the sword alone has an estimate of between $40,000 and $60,000.

The Sherman House Museum in Lancaster, Ohio, is watching the auction closely. In a March 21 statement, the museum’s director, Michael Johnson, said winning bids by private collectors might mean the items would no longer be available for public view.

“The thought of these amazing pieces of history being stored away in a collector’s basement is disheartening,” the statement read.

Johnson told CNN many people have said they’re hoping the museum will get a hold of the items. In an effort to do so, the museum began accepting pledges and over the past month, they’ve raised around $90,000, Johnson said.

“As the only museum in the country dedicated to the Sherman family, we would love to see as many of these as possible displayed in our museum,” he said. If the museum isn’t able to acquire the relics, Johnson said he hopes a private buyer would be willing to loan the items to the museum – especially Sherman’s sword.

After some criticism from private collectors, Johnson apologized for the initial statement, noting, “We have had amazing collectors in the museum presenting their items for our round tables and I greatly appreciate their efforts.”

Fleischer said the auction house “can’t give any preference to private or public buyers, but we hope that everything will go in the hands of responsible custodians.”

Still flush from the historical find, Fleisher and Lin are expecting a large crowd for the auction.

“I don’t know if there’s anything quite so significant in my career,” Linn said. “It was a real privilege to feel like a detective finding these clues and opening up and finding an American treasure.”

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