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Civil War buff finds rare 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

June 22, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

by RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

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Uncle Tom's CabinCivil War buff finds rare 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

Rummaging through a box of old books at a flea market in Gettysburg, Pa., about a month ago, Dennis Easterday turned up a Civil War artifact he's wanted to add to his collection for years.

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"I wanted to scream, but I didn't want to scare anybody. I knew right away what I had," Easterday said.

Among the assortment of antiquated, yellow-paged books, Easterday pulled out a two-volume, first-edition printing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852.

The book, which analyzes the issue of slavery in the Midwest, New England and the South during the days of the Fugitive Slave Law, sold 5,000 copies in its first week of publication and more than 300,000 in its first year in the United States, Easterday said, citing two Civil War history books.

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Easterday's two-volume book is marked number 70,000 and its estimated worth is between $600 and $1,200 because it's in fairly good condition, he said, referring to a Civil War reference book of artifacts that he always keeps close by.

"I've been looking for this for a long time," he said, carefully removing the two volumes from a glass-enclosed case.

Though the pages are yellowed and contain some brown spots throughout, the print is clear and legible. The books' covers are still intact, though they are coming loose at the bindings.

The books are one of the more prized possessions Easterday is including in his large display of Civil War artifacts that he takes with him when he gives presentations to various groups.

"I consider it to be the book that started the Civil War," Easterday said.

Most historians agree that when "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published, it intensified the disagreement between the North and the South, which led to the Civil War in 1861. Stowe's name eventually became hated in the South.

Though Easterday finally found the book after years of searching, the hunt isn't over.

Now that he knows what he's looking for, he wants to try to find a set of the book printed earlier than the ones he has or a volume in better condition.

There's a good chance he'll find it since, he said, "I'm always rooting through old books."

Growing up, Easterday always heard stories of his great-grandfather who had a farm on South Mountain where, at one time, Confederate soldiers stayed briefly after being pushed back by the Union side.

Easterday's interest in the Civil War developed even more when he was just a boy and started collecting a special series of cards commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Civil War made by the Topps baseball card company.

"Every one of them is bloody action scenes. I used to just sit and read these cards. I had them memorized," said Easterday, who has them preserved in an album.

Easterday's search for real Civil War memorabilia began about 32 years ago when he started going on digging expeditions on farms and in wooded areas near Antietam, South Mountain and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Over the years, Easterday has turned up everything from bullets and bayonets to pocket watches and belt buckles used by Civil War soldiers.

Now his digging is concentrated more on area flea markets and auctions, where he's found and bought Civil War-era artifacts like a pair of crutches, medical instruments, photos and discharge certificates that wouldn't have held up to nearly 140 years in the elements.

"This is a whole new avenue. There are a lot of fakes out there, so you have to be careful," he said.

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