The Blue & Gray Museum of North Alabama is believed to be the largest privately owned collection of Civil War artifacts in the country. This entire collection is owned by Robert Sackheim who, along with his associate, Robert Parham, organized, displayed, and opened the collection to public viewing in this museum.
A longtime aerospace engineer by profession, Sackheim has been an ardent student and collector of material of, and about, the American Civil War. Sackheim came to Huntsville 12 years ago to work at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on America’s space program. In Alabama he had an even greater opportunity to passionately pursue his longtime interests and hobby. Until his recent retirement from NASA, Sackheim was the assistant director and chief engineer for rocket propulsion at MSFC, where he worked on, and helped direct, many of America’s space and rocket programs. When he was asked how an aerospace engineer could become so interested in the history of the American Civil War, Sackheim explained that it all began while he was an undergrad at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He said you couldn’t go more that 50 miles or so in any direction from Charlottesville without running into a Civil War battlefield: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Richmond, etc. Back in those days you could still go into the woods and dig bullets out of almost any tree, as well as finding various scattered artifacts, he said. Sackheim said that in that time of his life, in addition to completing his degree in chemical engineering, he found time to develop and pursue his interest in this defining era in American history. He learned that the Civil War was really the conclusion of the Great American Revolution that had never truly been finished, and thereby completed the birth of our nation as it is today. He said that there is great renewed interest in the comprehensive, unflinching history of our country primarily because of the great increase in the diversity of this nation. People are looking more closely at themselves, their backgrounds and cultures, and their place in this country, he said. “After all, we have learned that the soldiers on both sides, who fought in this long and terrible struggle, came from every immigrant group and every cultural background.”
After all those years of collecting Civil War items of every description, Sackheim had amassed a rather large array of and, in some cases, unique artifacts since his days at the University of Virginia. When he arrived in the Huntsville/Decatur area, he decided that this was an ideal location to display his large collection and to share it with the public by opening a dedicated Civil War museum. Sackheim further explained that the study of American history as an avocation fits in quite well with people who are interested and engaged in advancing technology for the good of mankind, which then produces great benefits to society, such as those offered by the U.S. space program. After all, he further observed, the economic growth of this country and our position as a world leader, has largely been enabled by staying ahead of the rest of the world in most areas of new technology developments and their subsequent applications. He also wryly observed that, looking at recent American history, one could conclude that it was the great successes of the American Apollo space program and the associated bitter disappointment for the USSR in losing the race to the moon, that was really the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. The economic pressures deriving from the American successes contrasted with the failure of the Soviet moon program and deprivations of their people ultimately proved to be too much for the USSR to sustain, he maintains.
The Blue and Gray Museum
The museum was opened on Bank Street in the heart of the old historic section of Decatur, and now features a wide array of Civil War relics, including swords and other edged weapons, revolvers and pistols, muskets and carbines, period drums, uniforms, accoutrements, photographs, documents, and much more.
In addition to Civil War history, the museum showcases other historical items from Decatur’s past. An ivory-handled Colt 1851 Navy revolver that belonged to Union Brigadier General Joseph K. Mansfield is a highly prized item in the Blue and Gray Museum of North Alabama collection. Joseph Mansfield graduated from West Point in 1822, number two in a class of 40. His service in the Mexican-American War was impressive; he was later given command of the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where he was quite well liked and respected by his corps of young troops, according to Sackheim.
In September 1862, Mansfield and his men followed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker into the battle at Antietam (Battle of Sharpsburg). Gen. Mansfield and his young soldiers found themselves facing the combined armies of Generals Stonewall Jackson, Harvey Hill, and John Bell Hood in this battle. In the confusion of the intense fighting, Gen. Mansfield thought his men were firing recklessly into the woods above a cornfield. He ordered them to stop immediately, for he was afraid that they were firing at Hooker’s men who were taking cover amidst the trees. But Mansfield was wrong. For, at the exact instant that he realized that Confederates were returning fire from the woods, he was struck in the stomach by a bullet. Joseph K. Mansfield died the next day, Sept. 18, 1862. The Battle of Antietam, other than being the first major battle involving soon to be a hero at Gettysburg Gen. Joshua Chamberlain (then only a lieutenant colonel) was considered of no great importance and “tactically inconclusive,” yet Sept. 17, 1862, went down in history as the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. More that 23,000 on both sides lost their lives before Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose troops were outnumbered nearly two-to-one, ordered his men to retreat back into Virginia. Brig. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield was promoted posthumously to Maj. Gen., and was buried in Connecticut.
While most of the items displayed in the Blue and Gray Museum are from the years 1861-1865, there are many other items from earlier years. Soldiers went into war carrying family weapons, some dating back as far as the Revolutionary War. Other items, like shako military hats, date to the Mexican-American War. Lt. Charles E. Warren was a member of the 124th Ohio. His 1810-1840-era sword, now a part of the museum’s collection, was traced to a naval officer, perhaps his own ancestor. Lt. Warren was one of the lucky ones; he mustered out of the army in 1865. Other items in the museum are of a more “local” genre. For example, an unexploded 3.8-inch Hotchkiss artillery shell was brought in by a woman who found it in her sister’s yard in Decatur. An interesting collection of officers’ epaulets are on display, as well, including a dress pair made by Tiffany Company in New York. A sign explains that, in addition to dress, early brass epaulets served another important purpose; they deflected saber blows to the shoulder. Civil War and Mexican War drums are on display, as are bridle cutters, and one of only 150 ever made .36 caliber Colt revolving carbines. Visitors will also find an extremely rare and unique item—two bullets that collided in mid-air. Other items include autographs and letters of Ulysses S. Grant, John C. Calhoun, Ormsby Mitchel, and P.G.T. Beauregard. A particularly interesting pistol on display is the same as one carried by “Fighten’ Joe” Wheeler. Uniforms are easily recognized as Civil War vs. post Civil War by the girth of the wearer.
A visit to the Blue and Gray Museum of North Alabama also yields some interesting trivia. For example, Confederate memorabilia are more valuable than Union relics, because only one of every three relics belonged to Confederate soldiers. Enfield rifles made at the Tower of London are extremely valuable, and there are several on display. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Caleb Ruse was sent by the Confederate government to England to buy all the weapons he could find. He secured a contract with the London Armory Company and, although England was reluctant to take sides, weapons manufacturers there were willing to sell to the Confederates after all demands of the English government were met. Rifles from the Tower of London are identified by the word Tower and a stamped crown. Some of the most unusual items are five hunks of wood taken from private property that was once part of the Chickamauga Battlefield. Imbedded in these pieces of wood are slugs of lead that were fired from Union and Confederate rifles and pistols. Also, there is a section of an old tree with embedded shrapnel from an exploded parrot shell.
Although 150 years have passed since the war between the North and South, it appears that interest in that era has grown considerably. Perhaps the men who fought at Chickamauga recognized that this would be the case more than a century before many of us were born. When veterans of the Battle of Chickamauga met for a reunion in 1889, they smoked a peace pipe and did something important for future generations. They helped establish and dedicate the historic Chickamauga Battlefield in 1890. In the following year, the city of Chickamauga was incorporated, and in order to remember the men who fought there, the North and South avenues were named in honor of key generals of both sides.
The Blue and Gray Museum of North Alabama is made up entirely from one man’s private collection of all that is Civil War, and then some.
Located at 723 Bank St. in old Decatur, Alabama (just across the river west from I-565 and one block west of the Old Bank), it is open to the general public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays year-round, except on holidays.