New York State Military Museum
By Michael Aikey
(February/March 2012 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
Public commemorations of historical events are the products of their times. How history museums, in particular, commemorate historic events reflects the opportunities and the challenges of their social, political and economic environments.
During the 1960s the opportunities for commemorating the Civil War Centennial included a nation enjoying a remarkable period of uninterrupted economic growth, and having the last major enervating military conflict a decade in the past.
Major challenges faced by the Centennial were the Cold War and the country trying to come to terms with a rising Civil Rights movement.
Fifty years later opportunities for the Civil War Sesquicentennial’s commemoration include a less politicized national view of the war — states no longer commemorate “The Confederate War Centennial” — and the advent of the Internet and social media (visit us on Facebook).
These two relatively new information platforms offer extensive opportunities for sharing institutional resources and information with the public and scholarly community.
Our current Civil War commemoration’s challenges include remembering a conflict which cost the country over 600,000 American casualties when the nation is weary of two decades of war and history institutions trying to function in a hard hit economy whose negative impacts have been sorely felt in the budgets of many public and private museums.
The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, the state’s military history collection, is mindful of the challenges and excited by the opportunities present in commemorating the Sesquicentennial.
This December, the Military Museum will celebrate its own sesquicentennial. In December 1862 outgoing New York Governor Edwin Morgan issued Special Order No. 866 creating the Bureau of Military Statistics, the forerunner of the New York State Military Museum.
Established to document New York State’s considerable role in support of the Union during the Civil War, the Bureau’s collection continued to grow, the name changed, and today the New York State Military Museum houses one of the finest military history and Civil War collections in the country.
The Military Museum is commemorating the Sesquicentennial through the development of both short- and long-term goals and projects. Our short-term goals are focused on creating new Civil War-related exhibitions.
Last year we installed the first of a projected five-year series of battle flag exhibitions, entitled “Emblems of Devotion: New York’s’ Civil War Battle Flags,” at the state Capitol in Albany. The first exhibit of the series, “1861: Banners for Glory,” features the Marshall House flag which flew over a hotel in Alexandria, Va., at the beginning of the war.
The removal of this flag on May 24, 1861, cost Col. Elmer Ellsworth, commander of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry (Fire Zouaves) and friend of President Lincoln, his life and provided both the North and South their first martyrs.
Establishing private/public partnerships, with organizations such as the Coby Foundation, the New York State Society Children of the American Revolution, Alfred Z. Solomon Charitable Trust and the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has been critical to the museum’s success in creating exhibits in today’s difficult funding environment.
This fall the Military Museum will be installing an expanded Civil War exhibition at its facility in Saratoga Springs, with fundraising support from the Friends of the New York State Military Museum (www.friendsofthenysmilitarymuseum.com) and the New York State Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee (www.nycivilwar150.org). The Military Museum’s new Civil War exhibition will complement the upcoming Civil War exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany and other programs taking place statewide.
During the Civil War Centennial, official funding in New York State for the commemoration dried up in 1963. Interest in Civil War museum exhibitions also began to wane as the Centennial progressed. It is probable that as the Sesquicentennial moves forward the public’s initial enthusiasm will lessen.
Because museum exhibitions are costly to produce, require a good deal of staff time to develop and command public interest for a finite time, the challenge for museums, particularly history museums, becomes how to maintain interest and freshness with the Sesquicentennial and the Civil War in general.
A partial solution to the challenge lies in one of the opportunities mentioned earlier — the Internet.
The Internet offers institutions of all sizes a platform that allows us to expand or change information and pages more affordably than with a brick and mortar museum exhibit, attract a global audience, and manage and share our collections more creatively and efficiently.
The Military Museum’s website (www.nysmm.org) is the backbone of our efforts to support the Sesquicentennial and to broadcast the museum’s collections and the historic information in our holdings to the public in a sustainable and lasting form.
A key component of our military history website is the Civil War section of the Unit History Project. Developed and managed by the museum’s librarian/archivist and a cadre of volunteers, the Unit History Project includes capsule histories of each of New York State’s Civil War volunteer and militia regiments and batteries.
Augmenting the histories are battles and casualties tables for each unit, photographs of unit members, contemporary newspaper clippings relating to the units if available, images of conserved battle flags, a unit bibliography and diary and letter collections.
The Unit History Project is constantly being updated with new material. Recently the museum received an important donation of the letters of Capt. Carlos De La Mesa, an officer serving in the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry (Garibaldi Guards) and later the Freedman’s Bureau.
The collection contained over 100 letters, mostly written in the captain’s native language, Spanish. With the help of an intern from Skidmore College, the letters were translated and added to the 39th NY’s online unit history.
Another often-viewed feature of the website is the New York State Battle Flag section. The state’s battle flag collection, managed by the Military Museum, comprises 2,000-plus flags, of which over 850 are from the Civil War. This is the largest state flag collection in the country.
The Flag section includes images and information on several hundred conserved flags and a history of the collection along with Civil War flag-related regulations. We recently added a video on the Marshall House flag to the website.
The Civil War Sesquicentennial has offered museums both challenges and opportunities. The New York State Military Museum is working on making the best of the opportunities and continues to expand the world of information relating to New York State and the Civil War.
Michael Aikey is director of the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. He has been with the state’s Division of Military and Naval Affairs since 1996, taking his current post in 2002. He was a founding member of the Capital District Civil War Round Table, has published articles on military history and guest curated several museum exhibits. He lectures on New York State military history and the Civil War.