Oilman's museum holds unique collection of Civil War memorabilia

Posted Friday, Feb. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Heritage Auctions

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The nonprofit Texas Civil War Museum is at 760 Jim Wright Freeway North, Fort Worth.

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed on major holidays).

Admission: Adults, $6; students 7 through 12, $3; children 6 and under free with an adult. School and group tours are available with two weeks notice.

Information: 817-246-2323; www.texascivilwarmuseum.com

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FORT WORTH -- After keeping it under wraps for years, Civil War collector Ray Richey is finally bringing one of the rarest and most expensive coats in the country out of the closet.

The simple sack coat that Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is believed to have worn when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, is considered the holy grail of Civil War artifacts in private hands.

Richey bought the well-worn coat for more than $2 million in 2009 from a Virginia collector in an eye-popping bundle deal that included the sword carried by Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who was killed in battle in May 1864.

Also in 2009, Richey, 57, paid the same collector $1.6 million for Grant's presentation sword, a spectacular specimen with a silver grip and scabbard and the general's initials scripted in 36 diamonds.

Those kinds of quiet additions over 25 years of dead-serious collecting have made the unassuming Fort Worth oilman's stunning trove of 5,000-and-counting Civil War artifacts one of the finest anywhere, experts say.

What makes the assemblage even more unusual is that unlike most collectors with the wherewithal to corral such historical rarities, Richey shares it at his nonprofit Texas Civil War Museum in northwest Fort Worth

But for reasons he can't explain, Richey has kept Grant's coat to himself.

He quickly put the Grant and Stuart swords on display at his 15,500-square-foot museum, but he's only shown the Grant coat to a handful of people.

Richey even kept quiet when the National Park Service reached out to him as it prepared exhibits for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer. He loaned the museum three Confederate uniforms and another general's sword.

"I didn't tell them about the coat because I didn't want to tell them no. It's never going to leave Texas," he said.

Sometime in March, the coat will go display at his Fort Worth museum.

'Riding high'

Richey's big buys in 2009 came as he was flush with cash and "riding high" on the natural gas boom.

"Later that year gas hit bottom. I knew it was going to end, I just didn't know when," he said. "I spent every penny I had buying Civil War stuff."

Has it been a good investment?

"My wife says it's not worth anything because I'm never going to sell," he says with a laugh.

Even at Richey's rarefied level of collecting, Grant's coat, which features extra long breast pockets to accommodate his cigars, ranks at the pinnacle of Civil War artifacts.

"It's really up there in terms of what has been discovered. I don't think there is anything else like it in private hands," said Sam Small of The Horse Soldier in Gettysburg, which specializes in military antiques.

Dennis Lowe, director of Civil War auctions for Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, says the coat is believed to be the only existing Civil War uniform of the tenacious general and future two-term president.

"I've been at this for 40-some years -- there's great stuff out there all over the place -- but this is a different animal," Lowe said. "It certainly ranks as one of the rarest Civil War artifacts ever held in private hands. What makes it even more significant is being able to pair it with Grant's sword."

Don Tharp, the Virginian who sold Richey both the Grant sword and coat, says nothing in the Civil War collecting world comes close to the coat.

"There is no uniform that would be more significant. Grant was the victor, he was the general in chief, he was the one who brought the war to an end," he said.

Richey's collection can only be matched by a handful of museums, Lowe and Small said.

Tharp says it's better than that.

"His collection is the most magnificent in the world. It is unsurpassed by any institution," he said.

Inside the vault

For four years, the coat has kept good company inside Richey's museum storage room, which is more akin to a one-room treasure chest overflowing with period pieces.

The room is jammed with immaculate blue and gray uniforms, swords, guns and trappings from a who's who of generals and officers.

There's Union Gen. Philip Sheridan's embroidered saddle blanket stacked near Confederate Gen. Jo Shelby's uniform. Sheridan's sword is just one of a score of ornate officer's blades stacked below enough pistols to outfit a cavalry patrol. On the floor, guarding the door is a cannon barrel. (Next up for Richey's museum is a nearly finished wing for his five mounted cannons and other artillery-related pieces)

Richey just smiles and shrugs at the stacks of artifacts. "I don't want to show everything at once. It's rotational material."

Richey stays on the hunt but says his buying has slowed. He's now focusing on items connected to the 70,000 Texans who served in the war. One of his newest prizes is a custom "ditty" box that a cavalryman used to store personal items. The leather-covered box is lined with hair from the trooper's wife.

"I just look for cool stuff, something with a story behind it," he said.

Grant's coat fits that bill.

At the Appomattox surrender, the two military masters were a study in contrasts, according to an account of the meeting by Union Gen. Horace Porter.

"Grant, then nearly 43, had a nut-brown beard and was 5-feet-8-inches tall with slightly stooped shoulders. He wore a single-breasted sack coat of dark blue flannel and an ordinary pair of top-boots with his trousers tucked inside and no spurs or sword," Porter wrote. His boots and clothes were splattered with mud.

With silver hair and beard, Lee, 59, was resplendent in a new uniform. He carried a sword with a hilt studded in jewels. On his shiny top-boots were spurs with large rowels, Porter wrote.

In his memoir, Grant referred to his own garb as a "rough travelling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general. I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form."

'The holy grail'

Lee's Appomattox uniform and his sword were given by his descendants to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.

What makes the Grant coat so rare is that his wife, Julia, cut up his other war uniforms and gave pieces away as souvenirs. Even the sack coat is missing its four buttons, which is another sign of its provenance, Lowe said, noting that the Smithsonian Institution has two Grant swords and 15 buttons but no Grant uniform.

After the war, the Grants gave the coat to Col. William S. Hillyer, who served as Grant's aide-de-camp.

The coat stayed in the Hillyer family until 1995 when descendants sold it for $160,000 along with various other items to Lowe, Small and Tharp.

It included a note from Julia Grant stating that it was her husband's coat.

Grant's affinity for cigars and the tobacco bits left in the oversized pockets are probably one reason why there are small insect holes in the coat, Lowe said.

"Bugs have eaten a lot of Civil War uniforms," Richey said, adding that insects have been particularly hard on Rebel uniforms stored away in the buggy South.

The jacket measures 35.5 inches at the chest and 31 inches at the waist, according to a 1996 appraisal that is part of four binders documenting its history. "Provenance is everything. If there are any doubts, I don't buy it," Ritchey said.

Richey's public display of his treasures is what sets him apart from other collectors at his level, Lowe said.

"He's interested in telling the story but he also wants to share it. That is really unheard of," he said.

Richey says the coat was costly but worth every penny. "It was a deal as far as I'm concerned. It's the holy grail of all things Union. It's from Grant, an icon of the Civil War, a national treasure. Who wouldn't want to own it?"

Steve Campbell,

817-390-7981

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