In the fall of 2006, a history devotee named Dean Thomas was surprised by something he saw on eBay, the online auction house. Someone was offering 144-year-old letters sent by munitions companies to Philadelphia's Frankford Arsenal, a major supplier of the Union Army during the Civil War. How had he missed these? Thomas wondered. Hadn't he combed the records of that very arsenal in that very conflict? "Boy, am I a dummy," he thought.
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Thomas is the author of an impressive, if not best-selling, addition to Civil War studies titled Round Ball to Rimfire. Its three volumes explore every type of cartridge, ball and bullet used in the war—used, that is, by the North. With a volume on Southern munitions yet to come, the opus stands at 1,360 pages—yours for $139.90 from Thomas Publications, the company Thomas founded in 1986, according to its Web site, "to produce quality books on historical topics."
The company occupies a drab building west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that is as much museum as business, displaying old weapons as well as its books. Between stints of writing at home, Dean runs the business, and his brother, Jim, sets type, lays out pages and crops photos. It was Jim who first saw the Frankford Arsenal documents as he was hunting for a gift for Dean—a perpetual challenge, because Dean's got everything a history buff could want, or almost. "How many people do you know have a cannon on their porch and a Revolutionary War soldier's hut in their office?" Jim says.
Jim bid on two of the Arsenal letters. Their presence on eBay didn't alarm him, because old public papers can find their way into private hands in legitimate ways and be legitimately sold. What did worry Jim, though, was whether his brother would like them, so he asked him to peek online. Dean liked the letters enough to ask Jim to bid on a third.
Yet Dean, 59, kept puzzling over the letters, because even though he had meticulously tracked down all manner of Arsenal documents for his book, he couldn't remember seeing or hearing about these.
"He was kind of beating himself up for being a bad researcher," Jim says.
A few nights after he first saw the letters, Dean visited eBay to see if Jim's bids had won. He had, for $298.88. But now the seller had a new offering: another Civil War letter, this one sent to the Arsenal by an American diplomat. Its topic was an unusual type of Austrian ammunition called guncotton.
This time, vintage memories began to rustle.
Dean had devoted eight pages of his Round Ball opus to guncotton, specifically citing the diplomat's letter. He rose, went to his files and found a photocopy of it. He had made the copy more than 25 years earlier in Washington, D.C. because he could neither buy nor borrow the original. No one could. It belonged to the citizens of the United States.
The National Archives, he now had no doubt, had been robbed.