Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What $61,000 Buys

Thomas Willcox

When Thomas Willcox cleaned out his parents’ house after they died, he found an old stack of papers in their closet. Instead of throwing them out, he transferred them to his car and simply forgot about them. After a few months of riding through the city with them, Willcox began to sort through the stack. He recognized one of the signatures.

The letter was addressed to the governor of South Carolina. It was dated December 27, 1861:

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

It was signed by Robert E. Lee.

When Willcox realized he was sitting on a small fortune, he had the documents appraised and authenticated. The old pile of papers contained three letters from Lee, including another letter describing how Lee planned to use slave labor to bolster his defenses.

According to this story, the rest of the collection features letters written by local residents asking for help, either in defending their communities or in returning runaway slaves.

Still another letter, this one written by Sgt. Maj. William S. Mullins of the 8th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, describes the horror of war. Dated August 6, 1861, a little more than two weeks after the First Battle of Bull Run, Mullins wrote:

But shall I tell you now of the battlefield? 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.

Willcox arranged for the letters to be auctioned off in 2004, but the state of South Carolina objected. They claimed the letters were written as part of official state business; thus, they were state property. A federal judge recently rejected their position and awarded the letters to Willcox.

Willcox had his auction last Saturday. Though the results have not been made public, the three Lee letters went for $61,000.

David Ellison of Columbia, S. C. paid $27,000 for the Lee letter that talked about using slave labor to construct his defenses.

“I’m not sure what his letter says,” remarked Ellison. But any letter written by Gen. Lee in which he mentions slave labor must be “a document of some historical importance.”

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