During ANTIQUES ROADSHOW’s May 2022 tour stop in Nashville, Tennessee, a guest named Chris brought in an archive of letters written by a pair of brothers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War — Lem and Cam McNabb. While Lem was captured at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge in May 1863, and later died in prison, Cam switched sides and fought for the Union Army for the remainder of the Civil War.
“They’re so descriptive,” said Arms & Militaria appraiser Tim Prince, “and then the other wonderful thing about this archive is that it covers a couple of years of war service where [Cam] does change sides.” Prince then gave the letters an auction estimate of $1,000 to $1,700.
While the value of the letters shocked Chris,“the historic value…is just immeasurable,” he told Prince.
Shortly after the appraisal was filmed at Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville, Chris reached out to Prince to help him decide next steps for his collection. In the spring of 2023, Prince emailed ROADSHOW:
Many of the guests who appear on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW have no intention to sell the treasures that they have brought to have appraised. Rather they are hoping to find out some more about the items, and the value is secondary to them. In some cases, when the item has a level of historical significance, they will reach out to the appraisers for suggestions on how best to share the items they have had appraised with others who might be interested.
In the case of these letters from a Tennessee Civil War soldier, who fought for both the Confederacy and the Union during the war, there seemed to be no more appropriate repository for the preservation of the documents than the Tennessee State Library & Archives. When the historical significance of the content was discovered, it appeared obvious that this story needed to be preserved and shared. While thousands of letters from the war survive, rarely do they discuss such emotionally disturbing events as the shooting of a deserter, or the “galvanizing” of a Confederate soldier; the act of abandoning the Confederate cause and joining the Union army to fight against his former comrades.
Prince suggested that Chris reach out to Myers Brown, who at the time was the director of Archival Collection Services and Chief Historian at the Tennessee State Library & Archives. Prince knew Brown personally, and also knew he had a particular interest in this period of Tennessee history. “In fact,” Tim told ROADSHOW, “[Brown] had written books about the Civil War in Tennessee and the Tennesseans who fought. One of his books specifically dealt with pro-Union forces from East Tennessee, the region where our letter writer was from.”
Shortly after speaking with Prince, ROADSHOW contacted Brown and learned that in August of 2022, Chris had gifted his collection of Civil War letters to the Tennessee State Library & Archives. Brown recalled visiting Chris’s home in Eastern Tennessee in July of 2022 after emailing back and forth for several weeks. Brown was surprised to learn the extent of Chris’s collection, and the rich history the documents contained, sharing that he ended up visiting with Chris that day for several hours.
Several weeks after Brown’s visit, he returned to Chris’s home to personally pick up the collection and bring it back to the State Library & Archives, where the documents have since been digitalized for public viewing. Like Chris, Brown emphasized that while a monetary value can be placed on these documents, the historical value goes further than that.
Prince explained, “As the letters had been saved by our guest from potentially being lost forever as trash that was being discarded, this was a wonderful end to a story that might have had ended very differently. Now the story of these two brothers and what they went through during the war will be preserved forever for others to read and learn from.”
Thanks to Jamie Ritter, state librarian and archivist, and his team at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, viewers can see Chris’s full collection of letters from the McNabb brothers here.