South Carolina museum buys smuggled Confederate weapons

Sixth plate ambrotype of an armed Confederate soldier. Image courtesy of archive and Cowan's Auctions Inc.

Sixth plate ambrotype of an armed Confederate soldier. Image courtesy of archive and Cowan’s Auctions Inc.


COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina’s military history museum has bought the bulk of what’s believed to be the largest collection of British-imported Confederate weapons that were smuggled into southern ports through the Union blockade.

The Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum paid $620,800 last month for artifacts collected over four decades by the late Cleveland Adger Huey of Columbia and featured in The English Connection, a book published after his death in 2013 about British arms used by the Confederacy.

“It’s a groundbreaking collection of one of the last unexplored areas of Civil War history,” Allen Roberson, director of the museum in downtown Columbia, said Friday.

The 106 purchased pieces include 41 guns, 12 swords, five bayonets and 15 groupings of bullet molds and tools, said Rachel Cockrell, the Relic Room’s registrar.

They represent “four-fifths” of Huey’s total collection of British-imported Confederate artifacts, which appraised for more than $800,000. Fundraising continues in hopes of buying more, but there’s no agreement for the remainder, Roberson said.

The planned exhibit, set to open in 2019, will tell how the Confederacy armed its soldiers. It’s believed roughly 80,000 weapons were manufactured across the entire South, most of them poor quality. But some 500,000 guns were smuggled in from Great Britain, Roberson said.

It’s a tale of international financing, privateers and profiteers. Charleston was a major player as both a receiving port and home to financiers such as George Trenholm, likened to the fictional Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. Trenholm, treasury secretary of the Confederacy in the war’s final year, will be profiled in the exhibit.

“It is all about the money,” Roberson said. “We hope to tell that story.”

The weapons are in pristine condition, he said, with inspection markings and matching serial numbers on rifles and bayonets. Some are stamped “S.C.”

More than 1,000 documents the museum bought in 2004 for $250,000 could help trace some weapons from Britain to the battlefield. They include the invoices, receipts and shipping lists of Colin McRae, the Confederacy’s chief financial agent in Britain for several years. After they were found in 2002 in an attic in Mobile, Alabama, Huey recognized their importance and connected the sellers to the museum, Roberson said.

“Britain was supposedly neutral during the war, so almost all of those documents were destroyed,” Cockrell said. But McRae moved to British Honduras after the war and took the papers with him, preserving them, she said.

Taxpayers funded most of the collections.

Last year, legislators designated $390,200 in the budget specifically for the “C.A. Huey Collection,” overriding Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto. Private donations provided about $40,000, while the rest came from previous budget allocations the museum set aside.

Fundraising, with Huey’s help, covered about half the cost of the McRae papers, Roberson said.

Last month’s purchase from the estate of a long-time museum supporter “raises the intellectual content of our collections and our profile as a research institution,” he said.

The 120-year-old Relic Room, which has artifacts from every war South Carolinians fought in, expects to showcase part of the Huey collection for a fundraiser later this spring.

By SEANNA ADCOX, Associated Press

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AP-WF-04-02-16 1450GMT