Thursday, 15 April 2010
The Museums of West Point
This Gray Matter is in response to a recent reader topic suggestion.
Although the date of the beginning West Point Museum is usually given as 1854, some items in its collection came to West Point prior to the founding of the Academy in 1802. During the American Revolution, captured cannon, arms and munitions from the American victory at Saratoga in 1777 were brought to West Point. In 1784, one visitor described "20,000 infantry rifles…with bayonet and sling" along with "artillerymen's tools, pikes, sabers, etc." in two windowless warehouses. He also mentioned "160 [artillery pieces], munitions wagons, limbers, etc., most of them captured at Saratoga and Yorktown" stored at Fort Clinton.
With the founding of the Academy in 1802, the ordnance stores also became tools of instruction. Joseph G. Swift, Class of 1802, wrote of the trophies under the care of MAJ George Fleming. By 1843 the military artifacts had been organized into some sort of collection. In that year LT Miner Knowlton, Class of 1829 wrote to LT James Duncan, Class of 1834, Second U.S. Artillery, asking for an artifact to be placed in "our Musee d'Artillerie." Duncan promised to send an artillery sponge staff personally recovered from the site of the 1835 Dade Massacre in Florida "about six weeks after the massacre when the dead were buried." Now this sponge staff from the Dade Massacre helps to establish the West Point Museum as the oldest federal museum, predating even the Smithsonian Institution (its famous castle on the mall in Washington, DC, was not completed in 1855, although the bequest from James Smithson was accepted on 1 July 1836 and the institution was established on 10 August 1846).
During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, General Winfield Scott sent Superintendent Henry Brewerton, Class of 1819, sections of flagpoles from captured Mexican forts, calling them "precious trophies of the valor and skill of our gallant little army.” At the same time, under the provisions of an Act passed in 1814, President James K. Polk directed that trophies from the war be sent to West Point. By February of 1849, the flags captured from the Mexican Army were deposited at West Point. For many years, until they were returned to Mexico in 1950, these flags were a highlight of the Museum's collections. By the 1850s there was so much public attention given to the historic holdings at the Academy that the Board of Visitors again recommended that a proper museum be established and opened to the general public. Thus, in 1854, while Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829, was Superintendent, a public museum, known as the Ordnance Museum, was opened.
Since 1854, the museum has been housed in several sites. Until the Headquarters Building (now Taylor Hall) was finished in 1909, the museum was split among the several academic buildings. In 1858, the War Department sent a British color of the Seventh Regiment of Foot captured in 1775 and an Anspach-Bayreuth color surrendered at Yorktown to West Point. The Civil War brought in so many artillery projectiles that their weight threatened to collapse the floor of the museum.
After World War I, the Ordnance Museum in Building 600 (now Taylor Hall) featured the French "75" cannon that fired the first American shot of the war and numerous examples of the machine guns that made it so deadly. World War II saw the first closure of the public museum and a scrap drive that eliminated many irreplaceable pieces of ordnance from the collections. The war’s victorious conclusion brought new trophies, such as Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering's diamond-encrusted baton and the flag flying over the Dachau concentration camp when it was liberated. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, Class of 1915, brought a gift from the French—a sword once carried by Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul of France. The Museum likewise was given the field boots and campaign hat worn by General Joseph W. Stillwell, Class of 1904, when he marched out of Burma and the Medal of Honor awarded Alexander Nininger, Class of 1941. The old name of Ordnance Museum was now inappropriate, and in 1942 it was renamed the "USMA Museum." In 1948, it received its current name, the “West Point Museum.”
The renovation of the Riding Hall in 1958 into an academic building provided an opportunity to again place the museum near classrooms. In Thayer Hall, for the first time, the museum occupied a space specifically designed as a modern, fully functional museum with separate display, storage, research and fabrication facilities. This new, spacious area also provided space to create life-size dioramas. The Thayer Hall site placed the museum one floor above the Department of History, and its classes were constant visitors for lectures and demonstrations of original artifacts by the museum staff. The site presented the perfect opportunity for the Corps to make full use of the extensive museum holdings.
With the purchase of the Ladycliff College grounds in the early 1980s, however, a plan was devised to enhance public access by co-locating the museum with a Visitor Center. In July of 1988 the museum in Thayer Hall closed to reopen on 1 September 1989 at its new site in Olmsted Hall. For the first time all of the collections of the West Point Museum were incorporated under one roof. More secure and separate areas were created to store the uniforms, weapons and arts holdings. Displays are shown in six galleries, with a large gallery dedicated to the history of the Military Academy and a wing devoted exclusively to instruction.
Much of the material in this Gray Matter was prepared by Michael J. McAfee, Curator of History, West Point Museum.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
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