Monday, July 14, 2014

'Confederate Odyssey': Atlanta exhibit's rare artifacts, guns give insight to war effort

Patent for Morse breech-loading firearm (Atlanta History Center)

George W. Wray Jr. apparently had a photographic memory: He could remember in vivid detail what he had seen and read.

That attribute helped set him apart while attending Civil War gun and relic shows. Everyone watched Wray as he walked the aisles and spoke with dealers.

The other buyers shared one thought, said Gordon L. Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center.

“’He must know something we don’t know.’”

George W. Wray Jr.
What Wray, an Atlanta businessman, must have known was how to build a singular collection of some of the rarest  Confederate firearms, swords, uniforms, flags and other items, according to Jones. Some were one of a kind.

The history center’s signature exhibit, “Turning Point: The American Civil War,” has at its heart the DuBose collection, which drew from Federal and Confederate artifacts, with the former in higher numbers.

“George Wray set out, on the other hand, to just collect Confederate-made or used materials,” said Jones. “All of them have a Confederate association.”

“It is a perfect complement to the DuBose collection,” said Jones.

After much anticipation and preparation, “Confederate Odyssey: The George W. Wray Jr. Civil War Collection,” goes on exhibit at the AHC this Friday, timed to coincide with events marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Peachtree Creek in north Atlanta. The exhibit will run through March 15, 2015.

The central theme of “Confederate Odyssey” is the attempt by a slave-based society to fight an industrial war. “Every piece we have is a piece of evidence of how they were or were not able to do that,” Jones said in an interview while he was preparing a sword for the exhibit.

Some of the Wray artifacts (AHC)

About 200 items from the extensive Wray collection will tell that story.

Some people will swoon over an item because it belonged to a famous person,” said Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association. “The Wray Collection is more about showing the everyday items of privates and relative unknowns, thus giving a viewer more of an idea of what life was like for the great majority of people who participated.”

Visitors will see where the Confederacy successfully adapted to modern warfare. They also will see some failures or limitations: poorly crafted bayonets or makeshift clothing.

“On one hand, it is very creative,” said Jones. “On the other, it is making due.”

The Confederacy was hampered by short supplies of materials, skilled labor and interchangeable parts.

Gordon Jones
The story of George Morse, a New Hampshire gunmaker who set up shop in Greenville, S.C., during the Civil War, typifies the challenges, said Jones.

The exhibit has a Morse patent model for an innovative breech-loading firearm.

The gunmaker altered U.S. Army muzzle loaders, but was only able to make about 1,000 carbines, and they were restricted to South Carolina troops.

“He made a terrible professional move by going to the South,” said Jones. “The capacity to muster the raw materials to Greenville over a single railroad and to make it work profitably… they couldn’t make the quantity to make a difference.”

The exhibit includes two Morse firearms made for the U.S. government and four for the Confederacy.

Southern manufacturers struggled to make firearms that could stand up to extensive wear and campaigns.

“Would a Southern-made gun kill you the same as a Northern one?” Jones said. “Yes. But would it last as long on the battlefield? No.”

(Texas rifle, AHC)

The constant challenge was making them en masse without a lot of raw materials. The show includes a Texas contract rifle (above) made by a private company.

“This has a thick heavy barrel with tiny iron bands,” said the curator. “It is poorly balanced and the back action lock is weak.”

One officer said, according to Jones, “’These things are more dangerous to my men than the enemy.’”

(Alexander carbine, AHC)

A breech-loading Alexander carbine was made by a maker who was granted workspace at the Richmond, Va., armory but absconded with the prototype and tried in vain to win a lucrative contact.

Collectors and historians knew the gun (above) existed, but Wray found the patent model listed in a weapons publication in 1981 and recognized its value, said Jones.

There were some successful adaptations, and small manufacturers around the South made decent weapons, albeit in limited numbers. The Confederacy was able to get 500,000 rifled muskets from Europe through the onerous Union blockade. “That is how the Confederacy survived,” said Jones.

The AHC said the exhibit provides poignant stories of bravery, resourcefulness and sacrifice during the four-year war.

Bloodied frock coat worn by soldier, 17

Jones points to a frock coat worn by Benjamin Schumpert, a 17-year-old Georgia soldier who fell at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. It is an unusual garment make from homespun cotton ticking.

“He lied about his age to get in there. He is shot in the head and you see the garment he was wearing is stained with his blood. He is an American soldier who gave everything he had for this cause,” said Jones. “When you see that blood -- that is not an experience you see in a movie and the Internet. You can only have this at a museum, (by) looking at the actual artifact. That is a hell of a thing.”

Jones said Wray, who died in 2004, was a private man who invited him to lunch in December 2001. 

“He came to us with this wonderful collection,” the result of travel and thorough research.

The center acquired the collection in 2005. While Jones would not divulge the price of the investment, he said, “This is the largest collection purchase the AHC has ever made. It was not something we did lightly.”

Weapons are placed in "Confederate Odyssey" exhibit (AHC)

The University of Georgia Press is publishing a 450-page companion book-catalog, “Confederacy Odyssey,” with a list price of $49.95. Available for pre-order, the book is due to come out in mid-October.

About 900 color photographs by Jack W. Melton Jr. will include detail shots of the interior details and marks on weapons, showing both quality and shortcomings. Jones researched and wrote the text for the book.

His work on the DuBose and Wray collections rank at the top of his accomplishments while at the Atlanta History Center, Jones said.

Even after the Wray exhibit ends, “this collection will always be here.”

Battle flag for 33rd Texas Cavalry (AHC)
The curator hopes visitors will appreciate the fact Confederate soldiers were willing to die for their cause.

As for the performance by the Southern governments, businesses and industry? Jones gives them an “A” for effort, but an “F” for ultimately failing.

“The whole economic system in the South was just not suited for the demands that would be placed on it,” said Jones, adding Confederate leaders expected the war to be over quickly. “They knew of Northern industrial capacity. In a short war, that difference will not be decisive. That difference did turn out to be decisive.”

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