by Brett Kelley
(October 2009 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
Even before the Civil War ended, people understood that the war was a turning point in American history, a historic time that should be remembered.
Soldiers would send home mementos, whether a small fragment of a cherished flag or a piece of hardtack to remind them of the hardships they endured. Nearly every physical object connected to the war became a sacred relic. As the generation of soldiers who fought in the war passed, these valued artifacts would become curiosities to be bought and sold among collectors.
Civil War artifacts have always been big business, even during and directly after the war. With each major anniversary of the war, interest in Civil War artifacts grew. The 100th anniversary in 1961 saw the birth of a new generation of Civil War re-enactors who dedicated themselves to keeping the memory of those who fought in the war alive.
As interest in the Civil War grew, so did the demand for artifacts, droving up prices until it reached a fever pitch in the 1990s with the release of several popular films and documentaries.
It was during this time that the concept for The National Civil War Museum was conceived. With interest in the Civil War at an all time high, there was an opportunity to show the people of Harrisburg, Pa., how important their city was to the nation during the war.
Eventually, the concept of a museum about Harrisburg’s role in the war was expanded to one dedicated to telling the entire story of the Civil War. The collections of The National Civil War Museum now rank among the best ever assembled for the benefit of the public.
During my years with the museum (starting with the construction of the building itself), I have seen many families and individuals donate their treasured Civil War artifacts into our care. I have had the pleasure of meeting people who have decided that the preservation of their family possessions for the benefit of future generations is more important than selling them for a large profit.
Families have shed tears when I arrived at their homes to pick up artifacts that they have held on to their entire lives as guardians of their family’s past. Through these artifacts, they knew, respected and loved the great-great-grandfather that they had never met.
I have come to understand how difficult a decision it can be for a descendant who is so interested and attached to their family and our nation’s history to give up that personal connection for the public good.
Some families prefer to keep these treasures in their family for the next generation. While this is a noble sentiment, their descendents may not wish to or be able to appropriately preserve them for the future. Unfortunately, it has become very easy to sell valuable artifacts on Web-based auctions.
Keeping artifacts in the family is a personal decision that should be respected. I always try to encourage donation of artifacts when I am in contact with a potential donor, but I make sure to explain that they are not severing their connection with their family history.
By donating to a museum, they are making a decision to ensure the preservation of their family’s history and to share that history. Each donation is then available to everyone who wishes to benefit from it, whether they are part of this generation, the next or some distant generation. It will be there for them to learn from and be inspired by.
Often times, donors feel compelled to donate their artifacts to a specific museum for their own reasons. It may be that they grew up in the area where the museum is located, or their ancestor was from that area, or they may just appreciate the museum.
I tell many of our donors that I am happy to accept their artifacts for the museum, but they need to be comfortable with their decision. I will be just as happy to see their artifacts go to another museum of their choosing because I know it will be safe and I, just like everyone else, will be able to see it there.
When it comes down to food, shelter or artifacts, it is understandable that the wellbeing of a family is more important than holding onto artifacts. In a case such as this, one might consider this as a Civil War soldier providing for his family one last time.
The decisions made concerning becoming a donor are very personal. Whether a collection of artifacts is preserved in a museum or broken up and sold piece by piece, these sacred curiosities will remain in our care until the next generation makes their own decision.
Brett Kelley is Curator of Collections at The National Civil War Museum and was Registrar of Collections until 2004. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1987 until March 1999 and holds a B.A. in American Studies from Pennsylvania State University. His great-great-grandfather fought in the 2nd Vermont, Co. G.
For information about the museum call (866) BLU-GRAY, contact Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org