PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1962 Topps Civil War News Trading Card Set
A Graphic Look at a Deadly War
by Kevin Glew
The word "death" appears in the headlines of 14 different cards in the 1962 Topps Civil War News set.
That seems sadly appropriate given that more than 700,000 Americans died in this grisly, nation-defining battle between the North and South spanning from 1861 to 1865. More Americans perished in the Civil War than the American Revolution, World War I and World War II combined.
The brutality of the Civil War is graphically illustrated in the artwork on the 88 cards that comprise the popular 1962 Topps Civil War News series. This set is the most popular non-sports set on the PSA Set Registry (see accompanying chart).
"The Civil War News set really is a crossover collectible. Not only do non-sport collectors want it, but Civil War buffs and people that are into history in general also want it," noted Wade Carsel, who has assembled the No. 4 Current Finest, 1962 Topps Civil War News set on the PSA Set Registry. "The set has a lot of things going for it, including the artwork of Norm Saunders."
The now legendary Saunders worked with Topps on this issue, and many of the illustrations are vivid, bloody, gripping and disturbing. Soldiers are featured being impaled, blasted by cannons, crushed by wheels and burned alive. Not surprisingly, the cards provoked outrage from parents at the time.
"The Civil War was brutal and the cards show what happened," noted Tim Ryniec, who has assembled the No. 9 Current Finest, 1962 Topps Civil War News set on the PSA Set Registry.
"It's a nice set, but it could be a little gory for kids," added Jerry Rockoff, who has built the registry's No. 2 Current Finest set.
On top of depicting the sometimes gruesome deaths of soldiers, the illustrations make it clear that children and families weren't safe either. For example, card #25, Hanging the Spy, portrays a 15-year-old boy named Johnathan Peters about to be hanged in Eden, Pennsylvania, on June 29, 1862, because he had been "found guilty of stealing Federal secret documents and selling them to a Confederate colonel." In the artwork, the teen's mother and younger brother are clinging to him prior to the execution. The image is heartbreaking, even if there's no historical record of this actually happening.
Another harrowing illustration can be seen on Silent Drum (#55). This single depicts a Northern soldier carrying the limp body of 14-year-old drummer boy Billy Harris who was killed by a stray bullet during a battle in New Lisbon, Ohio, on November 15, 1863. Again, there's no historical evidence that this actually happened, but the image, nevertheless, hits you right in the heart.
On top of the horrors of war, the artwork on these cards also preys on some of our other primal fears. For example, on Through the Swamp (#73), the artwork features a soldier stabbing a ravenous alligator. The card back describes how Northern soldiers had to navigate unfamiliar swamplands in Georgia. "Alligators lurk silently in the swamp and can snap off a man's leg in seconds, as he passes by," reads a sentence on the card back.
The white-bordered, horizontal card fronts also include a caption, a location and a date for each image.
The vertical backs have reddish-brown borders and offer a description of the artwork in a newspaper format. The set derives its name from the name of the newspaper on the back. The newspaper articles were written by Topps' associate creative director Len Brown as if it was the day of the event. Brown, who has admitted that the backs are largely fictional, penned the text with a dramatic flair. For instance, the back of Massacre (#27) describes a battle at White Oak, Virginia, on June 30, 1862. One sentence on this card back reads, "Bodies carpeted the swampland and blood dyed the foliage bright red."
Brown also created quotes to add seemingly first-hand accounts of the events. For example, Bridge of Doom (#29) reports that 17 Union soldiers died when the Confederate forces blew up a bridge in Rustburg, Virginia, on August 15, 1862. "It was sheer horror," said a survivor, according to the card back. "Right in front of my eyes, I saw my comrades being blown up. They flew through the air like twigs in a hurricane. I'll never forget the awful moment."
The 1962 Topps Civil War News cards were created to celebrate the war's centennial and were widely distributed across the United States. The cards were the brainchild of Brown and Topps executive Woody Gelman. Gelman had recalled the 1938 Gum Inc. Horrors of War series and wanted to create a similar Civil War set. The cards were distributed in one-cent and five-cent wax packs with gum and a replica Confederate dollar bill. The dollar bill dominations ranged from $1 to $1,000.
The cards were also available in 12-card cellos and 36-card rack packs. The series proved to be so popular that incarnations were also eventually released in the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Spain.
Carsel estimates that he bought 10 unopened cello cases about 15 years ago, but he says unopened material is drying up.
The cards are sequenced in date order and the first card in the series, The Angry Man, is one of the most coveted. This card describes one of the war's seminal events and is difficult to track down in top grade because it was often damaged on top of collector piles. Of the 299 submitted, there have been just three PSA GEM-MT 10s and 32 PSA MINT 9s.
The last card in the series is a checklist (#88), which is also elusive in flawless form. Not only was it found at the bottom of card stacks, but collectors often checked the boxes off while completing their sets. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just two PSA 9s.
A number of prominent political figures are also highlighted in this series. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, is featured on card #2, while Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union, is pictured on the Council of War single (#79). This card features an illustration of Lincoln and general Ulysses S. Grant. With just one PSA 10 and five PSA 9s, the Davis card is the more elusive single in top grade. Rockoff owns the only PSA 10.
"It's a notoriously off-centered card," noted Rockoff.
General Grant has his own single (#38) nearly halfway through the set, and it's followed by a card of leading Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The Grant single is tougher to track down in flawless form. Rockoff says the Grant card is frequently off-center. Of the 242 evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just six PSA 9s.
Ryniec notes that the Death at Sea card (#7) is one of the most difficult to uncover in mint condition (see accompanying chart). A review of a print sheet reveals that this card was on the left edge of the second row, an edge-sheet position that generally makes cards more susceptible to flaws during the production process. So it's not surprising that this card is often found miscut and off-center. The two PSA 9s represent the highest graded examples.
According to the PSA Population Report, the least submitted card in this series is Destructive Blow (#8). This card features the Merrimac, a "mighty" Confederate battleship sinking a key Union ship off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on March 8, 1862. This card was on the right edge of the fourth row of the print sheet, and Rockoff has seen it with centering issues on both its front and reverse. Just 164 have been submitted and the two PSA 9s are the highest graded examples.
Another challenging card for Rockoff to obtain in high grade has been Attack (#11). This card depicts a bloody battle in Front Royal, Virginia, on March 26, 1862, where Confederate soldiers defeated the Union soldiers. The card is regularly hampered by poor centering, so it's no coincidence that is has yet to receive a PSA 10 and there are only two PSA 9s.
Ryniec and Carsel also cite Submarine Attack (#59) as tough to find properly centered. This card showcases a Confederate submarine attacking a Northern ship off the coast of Charleston, Virginia, on February 17, 1864. Of the 190 evaluated, there have been just two PSA 9s (with no examples grading higher). That's the same number of PSA 9s that exist of City in Flames (#80), a card that pictures the Union soldiers burning and destroying the city of Atlanta.
"That's one of the set's most colorful cards and it's a tough card," said Ryniec, adding that it's frequently found miscut.
In general, poor centering is the biggest condition issue on these cards, although the reddish-brown borders on the backs also chip quite easily. This can make competition for high-grade examples of the low population cards fierce, but Ryniec points out that the prices have actually dropped for some of the more common cards in recent years.
"I think the future of this set will be strong," said Ryniec. "People are going to continue to collect this set because there are a lot of cards out there. There are still a lot of people who like the artwork and want to collect these cards. And the prices are more reasonable now than they have been in the past, so I think that will attract people to the set."
Rockoff believes there will always be a market for the 1962 Topps Civil War News cards.
"It should always be a highly collected issue because of the nature of the set," he said. "The Civil War was an extremely important but unfortunate time in United States history."
For more information on the 1962 Civil War News trading card set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/non-sports-cards/1962-civil-war-news/27850.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Dave Lemon for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of July 2016.Â Note: Sheet positions quoted in this article assume that the sheets were printed in a vertical format (11 rows of four cards across).