For months, 11 folders of old papers rescued from his parents’ closet sat in Thomas Willcox’ sports utility vehicle. Then he realized some were signed by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and might be valuable.
They were: The three letters written by Lee during the Civil War sold at auction Saturday for $61,000.
That was far off the record $630,000 a Lee item sold for in 2002. But it was an improvement from last year, when two letters from the general who surrendered in 1865 sold 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 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. Neither Willcox nor the auction house had specific figures, but estimates placed the total sales at less than $400,000.
The collection details life in South Carolina from 1861 to 1863. Many of the letters are correspondence between generals and the Confederate government and Govs. Francis Wilkinson Pickens and Milledge Luke Bonham.
“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.”
Other letters are from residents asking for help defending their communities or for the return of slaves taken from plantations to help build fortifications. Some document the grisly details of war.
“But shall I tell you now of the battlefield?” Sgt. Maj. William S. Mullins of the 8th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers wrote in an Aug. 6, 1861, letter about the first Battle of Manassas. “Of the dead hideous in every form of ghastly death: heads off, arms off, abdomens protruding, every form of wound, low groans, sharp cries ... convulsive agonies as the souls took flight. It is useless to write. I know something of the power of words to paint and I tell you that a man must see all this to conceive it.”
‘Some historical importance’
Fewer than 50 people gathered for the auction of old correspondence, telegrams, bills and receipts. Two of the Lee letters were sold to an out-of-state collector bidding by phone. David Ellison of Columbia spent $27,000 for a Lee letter that talked about using slave labor to build defenses.
“I’m not sure what his letter says,” he said. But to put General Lee and slave labor in the same letter “convinced me that that had to be a document of some historical importance.”
The issues addressed in the letters ranged from defense to the mundane. A $75 bid bought a bill of sale for bags of flour.
Willcox’s letters were supposed to be auctioned in 2004. But South Carolina sued, claiming they were written as part of official state business and were government property. A federal judge ruled last year that Willcox owned the collection, which were in his family for generations before he discovered them in his parents’ home after they died.
The legal spat led Willcox to file for bankruptcy.
Willcox said he was disappointed with the sales. 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.