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Civil War artifacts to go on the auction block in N.C.

ANGIER, N.C. — Jimmy Johnson can't resist one more chance to share a surprise.

Like a kid who found where Mom and Dad hid the Christmas gifts, Johnson half-walks, half-trots into a darkened storage room of his Angier auction house.

He emerges holding a 6-foot-long leather satchel of knives, unrolling them on a table. They shine almost as brightly as his homegrown Harnett County smile.

"You've got to see this!" he said.

When Johnson, a veteran of the auction business, gets this excited, it pays to take a peek. And when his near-gleeful attention is caused by one of the largest private collections of Civil War memorabilia to be auctioned in years, it draws more than casual interest.

The collection, which came to Johnson Properties from the estate of a longtime Kentucky collector, features more than 650 Civil War-era items. The Aug. 19 auction is expected to draw widespread interest.

"We've had calls from everywhere, and not just the United States," Johnson said. "I spent an hour yesterday talking with a guy from Georgia, a big-time collector, about one belt buckle.

"There are collections, and then there are heavy-hitters. This is a heavy-hitter."

The owner was Cotton Reynolds, a well-known collector of Civil War artifacts for the past 50 years.

Upon his death, the family asked his collecting friends for a reputable third party to handle the sale — an honor that, Johnson admits, he nearly messed up.

"We had never dealt with Mr. Reynolds that I know of," he said. "And as you might imagine, we get lots of calls from people wanting us to handle estates. We're happy to, but we usually require them to bring items to us. There's no way we're going to Kentucky to look at what could be just a box of old newspapers or something.

"So, when the family arrived with everything in a big truck, I felt kind of ashamed. Then I was thankful. This sort of opportunity just gets me excited. It's a lot of fun."

"Fun" might seem a strange word in the context of the collection. The main auction room looks like the site of a Yankee raid as Johnson sorts through items. Uniforms and belt buckles share space with ornate swords and stout bayonets.

A surgeon's bone saw, the opposite side of the blade honed razor sharp to slice through any remaining flesh, awaits its grim business.

"You hold that in your hand and realize what terrible things its owner saw," Johnson said.

Some items show the effects of battle. Others, such as an ornate saber from the 1st Confederate Cherokee Regiment, are pristine.

Reynolds also collected horse spurs and pocket knives. An extensive collection of John Primble-brand pocket knives and razors could fetch thousands of dollars.

Other items include Confederate money, Union uniform buttons, bridles and bits from both sides of the war — even a short sword cleverly shaped to fit at the end of a rifle.

"I wondered about why the blade was curved downward," Johnson said. "A collector said that allowed a bullet to be fired without hitting it."

Collectors have requested multiple pictures and descriptions of several belt buckles, including some rare Confederate States of America offerings.

"I've had quite an education talking to these guys," Johnson said. "Did you know that you can tell if a buckle is a reproduction by the taste of it? Well, that's what these guys tell me.

"Another got excited when I told him a buckle had arrowhead latches on the bottom. He said to always look for arrowheads or 'puppy dog feet.' That was how you could tell they were authentic."

One grouping within the collection focuses on Union Capt. W.H. Turner of Kentucky. He was an infantry soldier who moved to the Navy, eventually becoming the captain of a ferry boat.

The back story may not be very dashing, but the collection, which took Reynolds 50 years to compile, is impressive. Items include Turner's captain's uniform with epaulets, his ferry whistle, the ship's medicine kit and Turner's billfold, which still held a leaf of tobacco.

Prospective bidders will be able to view the collection and bid online. But the fun place to be, Johnson said, is at the site.

"With some of these items, the guys who'll be bidding want to see them for themselves," he said. "Pictures online can't tell the tale for them. There's just something about holding history in their hands that seals the deal, especially with the amount of money that collectors will be willing to bid.

"This is going to be a big deal. There's 150 years of history here," Johnson said. "You can't help but get at least a little excited."

jacobsc@fayobserver.com
 

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