Beyond the Display Case
Curator Deborah Wood takes you behind the scenes to explore the fascinating holdings at the Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. This article appeared in the American Battlefield Trust's Hallowed Ground Magazine in Summer 2011.
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is home to one of the finest publicly held museum collections representing the American Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi West Theater. The collection’s nearly 100,000 objects document the August 1861 battle in great detail, as well as touching on a variety of broader themes, including Missouri’s unique political and military significance as a crucial Border State and the complex motivations of political and military leaders. A number of items also chronicle the tragic impact of war on the area’s civilian population and the steps taken toward preservation and commemoration of the Wilson’s Creek/Oak Hills Battlefield.
The museum’s collections are not limited to the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, and the archive includes historic objects and documents from many other Trans-Mississippi engagements. The battles of Boonville,
Lexington and Dug Springs in Missouri and Pea Ridge, Helena and Prairie Grove in Arkansas are all well represented, as is the fighting in the Indian Territory. The collection also covers the Bleeding Kansas period and the guerilla warfare conducted across the region throughout the war. Moreover, objects from prisoner of war camps, where Trans-Mississippian soldiers were detained and perished; items documenting battlefield medicine, documents related to the role of women in the Civil War, and documentation of naval warfare in the Trans-Mississippi Theater are all part of the collection. Selected items are on display at several battlefield locations — particularly the battlefield’s visitor center, the historic Ray House and the Civil War Museum which houses the extensive Sweeney collection — but two storage areas are also employed. Field ordnance, meanwhile, is exhibited on the battlefield itself.
Notable items in the Wilson’s Creek museum collections include: a sword belt and sash belonging to Arkansas General Patrick Cleburne, abolitionist John Brown’s telescope and case, Civil War Medals of Honor and rare weapons, like a Gibbs Carbine carried by a soldier in the 10th Missouri Calvary. A variety of artifacts are connected to the death of Union general Nathaniel Lyon, including his sword and scabbard, the counterpane used to cover his body after it was removed from the field, the bed where his remains rested before their removal to Springfield and the body pass issued by Gen. Emmett McDonald for that journey.
Other physical holdings include more than 1,500 period images, a large field ordnance collection, period furniture, sketches made by soldiers, medical tools and equipment. Textiles including uniforms, hats, blankets and saddle bags are well represented, as are soldiers’ personal items, like grooming kits, playing cards, dice, dominoes, tobacco pipes and housewives, or sewing kits.
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield also has a noteworthy collection of Civil War flags. These include the Confederate Cherokee Mounted Rifles Regimental flag “Cherokee Braves,” which represented the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole soldiers led by Gen. Stand Watie; the flag carried by the German immigrants from St. Louis, the Turner Battalion; the Confederate First National flag recovered from the battlefield at Wilson’s Creek; and the Confederate Hempstead Rifles flag carried by Company H, 17th Arkansas Infantry. (Learn more about the mechanics of preserving and restoring battle flags on page 40.)
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is also home to extensive archival collections — personal diaries and journals, civilian and military correspondence, and military orders. The John K. and Ruth Hulston Civil War Research Library, founded in 1985, contains some 6,500 volumes relating to the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi region. Although materials are non-circulating, the library is open to the public, providing an outstanding resource for researchers. Additional information on the library’s reference and genealogical services, as well as a searchable catalog of holdings is available.
As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield looks to the future to provide ever greater opportunities for the public and researchers to access these exceptional objects from the past.