One gets in an historic state of mind before even entering the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. Its castle-like armory architecture exudes the past.
Once inside the building, visitors are surrounded by sights and sounds of wars both past and present. You can almost hear the voices echoing from the past, all striving to tell their stories and convey their messages and lessons to those willing to listen.
Those willing to lend an ear to those voices later this year will find the story of this country’s deadliest conflict: the Civil War. It is a fitting exhibit for the museum, which actually grew from Civil War artifacts that were donated by Civil War soldiers.
“This museum was actually organized during the Civil War in 1863,” said Courtney Burns, chief curator at the museum.
Michael Akey, the museum’s director, explained further. He said the Bureau of Military Statistics was formed to collect data about New York soldiers that were serving in the war.
“It quickly grew to where soldiers were turning things in,” he said, including flags brought back from the battlefield and turned over to the bureau. “That formed the nucleus of our collection.”
That history will be front and center for a new Civil War Exhibit that is slated to open in April to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The exhibit, “Empire for Union: New York in the Civil War,” is a broad overview of New York’s role in the Civil War.
“It will primarily focus on the military role,” Burns said. In particular, the Battle of Gettysburg will be highlighted. More than 100 units from New York served in that historic battle.
Burns said that because the Civil War is a broad subject and New York contributed so much, the exhibit will be broken up into manageable chunks and hit the highlights of New York’s involvement in the Civil War.
He said the exhibit will be an arcing, chronological framework and will go through each year of the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, and present a synopsis of that year, focusing on the battles, New York’s contributions for that year and topical subjects.
Burns said some of the topical subjects will be very interesting, including the Zouaves, a French Army unit originally from North Africa but relocated to New York, and particularly known for their stylish uniforms.
But a uniform Burns feels will draw even more attention is the POW coat given to a New York soldier. At the time of his capture, he was stripped of his clothes and given on old Confederate coat that he had to wear for six months.
Burns said the new exhibit was something the museum had always planned to do, and this just happens to coincide with the Civil War anniversary.
“This display is important because of the significant contributions of New York soldiers,” said Burns. “The Civil War is really a watershed moment in our history. It defines our modern culture in a lot of ways and New York was kind of in the forefront of that.”
The museum is seeing a new outpouring of interest from the public, officials said, as evidenced by a crowd of 100 (a museum record) in attendance at a Saturday, Jan. 26, lecture on Benedict Arnold given by Larry Arnold (no relation), a local Revolutionary War historian and retired Saratoga Battlefield seasonal ranger.
The proximity of the museum to the Saratoga Battlefield makes the momentous battle a natureal point of interest. Arnold’s talk focused on the early heroics of Benedict Arnold, whom Arnold described as a brilliant tactician, citing his capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1775.
Although Benedict Arnold lost that battle, Larry Arnold argued that battle delayed British reinforcements from Canada, in effect securing an American victory in the Revolutionary War. Arnold’s talk held his audience spellbound, and presented a picture of Arnold that was far different from what elementary history books taught.
Burns said there is a resurgence of interest in the past, and hopes that will hold true for the upcoming Civil War exhibit. Akey agreed.
“It’s a seminal event in New York’s history,” he said. “When you have nearly 50,000 New Yorkers dying, that makes it personal for a lot of people.”
Akey said the museum will prepare a series of education programs that will be available online and he hopes will be distributed to local schools to spur field trips to the museum. And if making it out the museum isn’t a possibility, there’s always the records at its website, nysmm.org.
“We have more information on New York Civil War regiments than any other place on the Internet,” Akey said. ”There is more material on the Civil War as well as the history of New York’s involvement in other wars than you can ever imagine.”