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Collecting Military War Letters
Letters Home from the Front Lines
For as long as there have been wars, soldiers, sailors and airmen have looked forward to "mail call". Letters from home mean everything when you're on the battlefront, what seems like millions of miles and light years away from everyone and everything you hold dear.
While deployed soldiers crave news of the normal, of the every day, their families back home crave any contact that lets them know that their loved one is alive, safe and well and eagerly looking forward to his (or her) return home. These return letters from the lowest level military conscripts, through the non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks to the most senior ranking officers, offer a brief and personal glimpse into our collective history. They're passed down through families and also prized by museums, historians and amateur history buffs.
Join me in a salute to all of our troops through time as they tell us, with pen to paper, about things many of us can't even begin to imagine.
Revolutionary War - 1775 to 1783
As a collector and as a reseller, I've run across a few precious letters and small items from the Revolutionary War from both soldiers and from soldier's family members in my visits to large estate sales and to auctions. It was quite an experience to view these things. Unfortunately, they've always been well out of my price range, so I've never acquired anything either for my personal collection or for resale.
I work with a lot of consignors. I've had a couple who have had significant period pieces dating back to the Civil War that they've made a decision to part with, whatever the reason. Neither has ever had anything that dates to the Revolutionary War. In one case, the gentleman in question was definitely a student of the Civil War and also a great amateur genealogist. He probably would have cherished something from the Revolutionary War period, had he ever found anything that was within his means to acquire. The other gentleman, sadly, was not a collector. He was simple clearing out an estate that had been passed down in his family for hundreds of years which was eventually willed to him.
This lament leads me to a couple of cautions for collectors: Revolutionary War ephemera is out there. It can come from anyone, anywhere. You'll see below that there are some items that are available, right now, for sale on eBay. We would caution you to do your homework; to know what you're buying and to be totally confident in your purchase. When we're personally dealing with items that are more than 200 years old (or even 100 years old, for that matter), we like to deal with reputable auction houses that we know go to great pains to authenticate what they have. While we will consider purchasing such antiquities from eBay, we certainly will vet the seller of the item in question very closely.
*Authenticity - Is it real? Can it be proven that it's real?
*Provenance - The ownership linage. Can it be traced back to its origin?
Cautions When Purchasing War Ephemera Online
I love eBay! I also love other online auction and collectibles sites. I'm not only a seller, I'm a buyer too.
When buying vintage letters and other ephemera, especially wartime collectibles, there are two things that are extremely important:
*Authenticity - Is it real? Can it be proven that it's real?
*Provenance - The ownership linage. Can it be traced back to its origin?
Those two things often, but not always, go hand in hand. Provenance is much harder to prove as things get passed on outside of families or sold in unrecorded sales. If you have the provenance of an item, it's much simpler to determine its authenticity.
Things that we look for from an eBay or other online auction seller of war items and ephemera:
1. Has the item been authenticated in any way and does the seller offer proof of the authentication within the auction or a way to contact them to obtain proof?
2. Look very closely at any and all pictures available. Ask for more if you need to see more. Read all descriptions and terms thoroughly. Does everything about the item indicate that it was created during the period in question? Pay attention to the postage and the postmark. If the envelope is part of the offering, it will give you more authenticating information to work from than perhaps even the letter will. If there is any doubt at all, ask the seller. If he/she can't make you feel confident that the item is a true period piece, walk away.
3. Use the "Ask the Seller a Question" mechanism if you are unsure of anything. See how long it takes to get a response. Walk away from any seller who can't or won't answer your questions.
4. Check the sellers feedback. Are there any negatives? If anything smacks of an authenticity issue or slow delivery, again, walk away quickly.
5. Check the things the seller has previously sold while you're viewing seller feedback. Has he/she sold similar types of items before? Do they appear to deal frequently in these things and do they have satisfied customers from their dealings or is this item a "one off"? While it's not necessarily bad that it may be a first war letter or collectible auction/listing for a seller, you want to ensure you're dealing with a trusted, reputable seller.
War of 1812
Between the United states and the British Empire
America declared war on the British Empire in 1812. This was the result of continuing issues relating to American independence and the desire to expand including:
*British trade restrictions
*Forced conscription of American sailors into the Royal Navy
*British backing of Indian tribes in an effort to halt westward expansion
*A perceived American desire to annex Canada
America had maintained a standing Army. As such, they pushed into Canada and they would have successes there into 1814. The British fought back but they lost more battles than they won because they were spread thin - they were also at war with France and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The British empire won a great and embarrassing victory in 1814 when they succeeded in burning Washington D.C. including the then under construction White House. Though the war itself is all but forgotten in the annals of U.S., Canadian and British history, many a soldier and Washington insider of the day wrote about the burning. More than one British insurgent did too. These letters do surface from time to time.
The Americans would rise from the ashes, in a fashion, and soundly defeat the British on several fronts. The Battle of Baltimore in 1814 was the inspiration for the words to the National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
The War ended in 1815 with the official signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
With over 2 1/2 years of war and thousands of men involved, both standing Army and conscripts, letters from the front exist for the period. We would point out the same cautions as we did for Revolutionary War letters.
Early War Letters from eBay - Revolutionary War & War of 1812
If nothing appears here, it's because nothing is currently available, with at least 1 bid, for the search term "Revolutionary War Letter" on eBay. This module cannot search more than one term at a time. We've set it to look only at auctions because that's the most common selling method for reputable Revolutionary War pieces. No bids typically means it's either a brand new listing, The seller has set the starting bid too high or there's no interest (typically due to questions about authenticity).
Please check back in the future here or on eBay for Revolutionary War items. For War of 1812 items, please check eBay.
The Civil War / War of the Rebellion
1861 to 1865
Civil War items abound on many online auction sites. Period pieces, modern reproductions and an endless stream of books, videos and the like boggle the minds of collectors, amateur historians and everyone else, in between. I've attended live auctions where a simple soldier's belt buckle or an article of clothing can sell for hundreds of dollars. Written and printed ephemera can sell for less...or more. It all depends on who it came from!
In general, anything signed by President Lincoln commands a high price whether sold on eBay or at a live sale. It's borderline common to see appointments and high ranking officer commissions change hands in a sale that's in the high four figures and sometimes over $10,000. Lincoln experts are out there and many of his signatory items are known. Authentication and, in fact, provenance are typically accomplished quickly.
Authentic letters from Generals or other high ranking officers - on either side - are the most sought by collectors and they command the highest prices. That's not to say that any other letters have no value and/or are not collectible. Letters from lower enlisted men and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) can be popular too especially if unit or other identifying information is available, if the envelope is available and/or if the letter contains any sort of military information.
***A great example: One of my consignors presented me with a one page letter to resell that a northern Private who had been jailed sent to his commanding officer seeking to be pardoned for his crime (which was undisclosed). He was asking to be returned to his unit. The Private was not very contrite in his letter, for whatever his crime may have been! It would have been a real coup to have the commander's response. Regardless, the single page letter commanded more than $50.00 at auction!***
The Civil War enjoys a special reverence among collectors and, as a result, all legible letters tend to command good to high prices. If you're looking to purchase any civil war items, you best bring your wallet!
World War I - 1914 to 1918
World War I (WW1) marked the beginning of the era when photography became more available to the masses. Pictures started coming home with letters from the front. Photo postcards also found their way through the mail, though these were more limited given censorship of sensitive data.
Letters from home and writing letters to loved ones back home were often the only reprieves ground combat troops had from the grim realities of trench warfare. Unlike in previous wars, more troops were educated enough to write and had the means and materials to do so. There's considerably more material available to the collector from WW1 than from any war prior.
We've run across quite a bit of ephemera from "The Great War to End All Wars". As with Civil War material, the higher ranking or more important the writer, the more sought after the letter is but, also as before, a compelling story will bring collectors out of the woodwork too.
**Another of our rare finds: We attended a live local auction once in a favorite, out of the way, country auction house. They had the combined large estates of the decedents of two prominent local family crammed into every conceivable space. One had been a prominent doctor and one a much loved teacher with more than 50 years of service to the local school district. Both were, apparently, keepers of anything of significance and both seemed to have items dating back to the Civil War. There were lots of letters though from WW1 from the doctor's estate and those drew our rapt attention. In sifting through a box of such letters, we ran across an old brown file folder. Inside was a complete, original training plan for troops engaging in trench warfare in France. We were on pins and needles when the box came up that the folder was in. Shockingly, while a couple of other bidders showed interest in the lot, they dropped out early and we won the bid for the ridiculously low price of $10.00! It still makes me shake my head!
World War 1 Letters from eBay
Please Note: While this lens focuses on U.S. war letter collectibles, you will find letters available on eBay from all countries involved in the war in the listings below.
After WWII, the Korean peninsula, formerly under the control of a now defeated Japan, was divided in two. The U.S. took primary responsibility for the Southern portion. Meanwhile our WW2 "allies", the USSR took control of the Northern portion. As any student of history knows, it wasn't long before capitalism and communism collided and war exploded on the peninsula. The war was 'modern' at first but, after the northern insurgents were pushed back deep and the primarily U.S. supported South had to fall back because the North was receiving significant support from both China and the USSR, trench warfare of a style similar to WWI appeared.
U.S. troops in the south mostly played a waiting game until the armistice was signed in 1953. There weren't a lot of large scale missions across enemy lines. What there was, was quite a bit of mortar bombing back and forth and, in South Korea, widespread boredom.
While volumes of letters were written by these waiting and watching troops they don't seem to turn up on the collectors market often. As this conflict occurred using men now in their 80s, many of these letters are still retained within their families. Often, when letters do appear to the secondary market, they can be had for a song.
If you're seeking letters to add to your collection from the Korean war, your best bet is to advertise your desire. An older vet or a former veterans family may take you up on your offer. We've had luck buying on eBay, certainly but we've had better luck finding interesting items by placing ads on Craigslist and with ads placed inexpensively in local community weekly papers.
**M's Story: As a retired Army Sergeant, I've known lots of war vets. Both of my own grandfathers served in WWII. My dad was in the Navy during Vietnam and his brothers both served in the Army at the time. Given the time frame of my own military career, In the early portion of it (the mid 1980s), I worked under a lot of Sr officers and Sr NCOs who had served in Vietnam. But, in a 22 year military career, I met exactly one Korean War vet. Just one! If he's still with us today, he would be approximately 90. SSG Garcia, if you're still out there, I hope you've had a long and fulfilling life!
World War II
1939 to 1945
Collectors of military war letters can have their fill of collectible items if their primary focus is on ephemera from the 2nd World War. We don't have to look hard to find WWII items of interest to us as collectors and as re-sellers. Go to any antique shop in any small town or attend a local "country" auction just about anywhere and the chances are pretty good that you'll run across something great or at least something significant in the grand scheme of things.
Pricing on WW2 memorabilia is usually all over the map but, in general, as before, anything from an officer will go for more and the higher the rank the more desired. Specifically in the case of WW2, anything that includes photographs (especially if they're annotated) is going to draw lots of collector attention.
**Consignments: We've had lots of great items come from eBay consignment customers that did really well at auction for them. Two specifically come to mind; One was from an officer who detailed his work with the Berlin Airlift to a family member at the very end of the war. Another was a letter from a Sergeant to his mother back home that was unremarkable in overall content but it included several bills of small size US paper currency that was issued to the soldier as pay and that he was sending home to her. Though the money had not retained much value over the years, it generated quite a bit of collector interest given that there was a letter with context for it. That auction was ultimately won by a middle school teacher who was anxious to share the contents of the letter and show the small money to her students. What a history lesson! **
The Korean War - 1950 to 1953
Korean War Letters from eBay
If nothing appears here, it's because nothing is available for the search term "Korean War Letter" on eBay right now. Please check back in the future here or on eBay for Korean War letter items.
1955 to 1975 / Strongest U.S. Involvement 1960 to 1973
Vietnam remains a politically charged topic. It was in the 1960 and still is today an unpopular war. Many men were sent and died for reasons that were vague then and they are still today.
There was a lot of animosity against our government, against the war and toward our troops conscripted to fight it. Many troops themselves had nothing but animosity for the situation they were thrust into and they did everything within their power to ease their own pain while serving and to forget it all and move on with lives lived under the radar on their return home.
Given this disdain now turned to indifference on all sides, it's no wonder that any Vietnam ephemera can be had reasonably cheaply by someone desiring to put a collection of it together. Search eBay for "Vietnam Letters" or "Vietnam Lot of letters" and you'll find plenty of sellers but few other bidders. It's a sad commentary on a sad period in our nation's history.
Great Military Letter References Available from Amazon.com
From the youngest conscript, to the highest ranking Generals and Admirals, their letters tell a personal story. Please feel free to share.