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John Shaw Pierson Civil War Collection.
Location designator: W
|Left: Books from the Pierson Collection
Right: Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama
Formed and donated by John Shaw Pierson (1822-1908), Class of 1840
Son of Charles E. Pierson, M.D., Class of 1807. Graduated fifth in his class. Began study of law in New York at age 20, admitted to the Bar in 1845 and practiced until 1850. In that year he shifted careers and became Marine Agent of the New York Bible Society. His work focused on placing not only a Bible or two but a whole library of select books on board ships sailing from the port of New York. His work in forming such libraries provided a deep knowledge of the book trade, retail and wholesale, in New York and elsewhere.
Pierson continued his work for the Bible Society through the years of the Civil War. He married in 1855 and his wife's death in 1870 left him alone and childless. That year virtually coincides with his first major donation to Princeton, the nucleus of his great Civil War Collection. In the thirty nine following years he continued to add to the collection so that it grew as follows: by 1879, two thousand items; in 1898, 5,000 and in 1908, over 6,600 books and 2,000 pamphlets.
Frederic Vinton in his Subject-Catalogue of the Library of the College of New Jersey (1884) writes about the collection under the entry 'United States - Civil War (1861-1865)' on page 742, 'Note: A collection of more than two thousand volumes upon the civil war, presented by an alumnus of this college, located by itself, and not intended for general use, is not reported above."
The collection focuses on the American Civil War, covering military operations, regimental histories, personal narratives, political, social, economic phases, and the War in drama, fiction, poetry, collected from all parts of the United States, and in Mexico, Canada, and Europe. Much of the material was collected as issued and, consequently, the collection is rich in pamphlet and other ephemeral material.
See the following important letter about Pierson to Julian Boyd from Lathrop C. Harper, published in the Princeton University Library ChronicleIII, 2 (February, 1942) pp. 64-66 [full text] :
Dear Mr. Boyd: With great interest I have read the article by the late John F. Joline, Jr. on John Shaw Pierson and his Civil War Collection, in The Chronicle for April, 1941. For a period of more than 15 years before his death I knew Mr. Pierson intimately. I had a deep personal regard and respect for Mr. Pierson. He was reserved, did not talk much, and certainly never about himself. While a modest man, one would never even think of him as 'Pierson.' But I realize that he was a man in moderate circumstances who was pursuing an ideal with a maximum of perseverance and a minimum of money expended. After 1865 there were relatively few books published about the Civil War. It was not until the eighties, when events could be viewed in more perspective, that there came a great revival of interest. This is evidenced by the outstanding success of Grant's Memoirs (1885), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887) and other works by the leading actors on both sides. About this time the lesser participants became conscious that they had taken part in one of the most important events of our history. And there spread through the country a feeling that, while the survivors were still living, their part in the conflict should be put into print. This resulted in an outpouring of regimental histories, personal experiences, and accounts of minor military actions. When Mr. Pierson started collecting in 1869 he was, through his work for the American Branch of the Bible Society, well acquainted with all the publishers and booksellers, and could readily obtain books issued through the regular trade channels. But the elusive semi-private and personal items, locally printed for the few interested - none by regular publishers - presented a problem. This problem he had solved before I met him. What his system was I do not know: but I know it meant an immense amount of correspondance and perseverance. And whatever his system- it worked! At that time my brother and I were specializing in Civil War material. Naturally we were interested in all this elusive material and making every effort to secure copies at their source. A friend of ours, Byron Andrews, was one of the owners of The National Tribune, published at Washington. This was the principle organ of the Civil War veterans. Through Mr. Andrews, as well as from many other sources, we secured clues to many out-of-the-way titles. So for many years we had a friendly competition with Mr. Pierson, our side of the game being to show him a book he did not know. Occasionally we would score, but far more often we found that elusive book or pamphlet was already safely shelved in the Princeton Library. Mr. Pierson was one of the first collectors to realize the historical importance of the Civil War period. He was a real collector, and his collection of 9000 books and pamphlets, judged by quality rather than bulk, is a proud possession for any institution. It was built up over the best years of a lifetime, book by book, as any real collection should be, and contains a remarkable proportion of real rarities. If locating a copy of a book or pamphlet proves impossible, "try Princeton" is sound advice. But the Pierson Collection represents a much greater thing: this life-long devotion of a loyal son of Princeton to an ideal that would add prestige to his Alma Mater. His means were slender, but time expended and intelligent persistence mean much more than money. Such a collection is a heritage of which few institutions can boast. His interest continued to the end. I was with him a few days before his death. He was confined to his bed, and very weak, but we talked of Princeton and his collection there. Such devotion cannot be forgotten.
For contents see: Princeton University Classed List. volume 6, pp. 2985-3077. [(ExB) 0639.7373.5 vol. 6] (Offprint: Pierson Civil War Collection. Princeton Press, 1920.) [full text] Also consult: John F. Joline, "Special Collections at Princeton. VI. The Pierson Civil War Collection," in the Princeton University Library Chronicle II, 3 (April, 1941) pp. 105-110 [full text]. Further references: Robert G. Albion, "An Unrivalled Civil War Collection" in the Princeton Alumni Weekly XXXIII (19), Feb. 10, 1933, pp. 401-2, and Caroline Moseley, "When will dis cruel war be ober? Attitudes toward Blacks in popular song of the Civil War" in American Music (Fall, 1984). [Article based almost exclusively on materials in the Pierson Collection, especially the collection of songs under call number W97.255q, for which there is available a short listing of the 102 individial titles in the collection.]
Note The poetry, drama, etc. section of the Pierson Collection -- the section with the Pierson call number W98 -- was reclassed into Richardson classification and put in the open stacks a number of years ago.