A Visitor's Experience: The Alabama Department of Archives and History
An article by Sean A. Flynt

The Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama, is an easy and rewarding side-trip for arms aficionados and military history enthusiasts traveling Interstate 65, the main corridor between the Gulf Coast and points north.

Established in 1901, the ADAH under directors Thomas McAdory Owen and his wife, Marie Bankhead Owen, became a model repository for historical documents and artifacts. Among many other categories of items, the ADAH was charged with collecting "war relics, [such] as uniforms, swords, arms and equipment."

When Marie Bankhead Owen sought funds in the 1930s to build a combined war memorial and ADAH facility, WWI veterans supported the cause with both cash and donations of personal service equipment and war trophies. Each succeeding generation of Alabama veterans followed suit. The military collection now spans over two centuries of warfare, with items ranging from swords to submachine guns, shakos to Kevlar helmets. In fact, the ADAH's military collection is second only to its 340,000 item Native American collection (another compelling reason to visit).

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The entrance

Visiting the Alabama Department of Archives and History
The ADAH is still housed in a white neoclassical building completed in 1940. The building's memorial purpose is confirmed by military sculptures on the ground floor (most notably, the colossal bronze figure of a Spanish American War infantryman). Stairs and elevators lead to the museum galleries on the second floor, and the military gallery is opposite the Native American collection.

The military collection is rich without being overwhelming. It can be viewed in detail in an hour, although even a peek in the other galleries is likely to tempt a visitor to explore further. Fortunately for those traveling with small children, the ADAH offers a supervised playroom where kids can make art, try on historical costumes and generally be kids. The young ones need not be parked, however. The ADAH offers online "Gallery Guides" and Youth Activity Sheets that can help draw young visitors into the collections. Don't pass up the chance to introduce "Pusan Perimeter" into the vocabulary of a budding military historian.

The ADAH Web site offers a variety of other digital resources, including extensive, searchable military records, unit histories and related Civil War materials.

The museum galleries are open 8:30 am-4:30 pm Monday through Saturday (be sure to check for holiday or other special hours). Maps, directions and other visitor information are available at the ADAH site.

Within a few blocks of the ADAH in downtown Montgomery, visitors can relive key moments in U.S. history, from the Civil War to Civil Rights. Slightly farther afield is the renowned Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The world's sixth largest Shakespeare festival is permanently housed in a 100,000 square foot Palladian-style complex on 250 acres. Shakespeare is only part of the company's repertoire, and family-friendly productions are common. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts shares the Blount Cultural Park with ASF.

Viewing the Collection
One doesn't need a guide for the ADAH galleries, but Debbie Pendleton, a friend in Public Services at the ADAH, put me in touch with curators Bob Bradley and Bob Cason, both extremely knowledgeable, down-to-earth and excited about their work. They introduced me to the public military gallery and led me through an equally impressive reserve collection.

Military items on public display range from a pipe-tomahawk owned by explorer Meriwether Lewis to a WWII era U.S. Model M3 "grease gun". Even foreign military items are here, brought home by returning soldiers as war trophies. Most striking among the trophies are a WWI-era German helmet and breastplate that would look no more out of place in 1514 than 1914.
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The Civil War items on display in the military gallery should more than satisfy students of that conflict. Confederate arms, uniform items and accoutrements abound, and a surprising number of these are provenanced. There are rebel fighting knives—the legendary D-guard bowies—and a rich array of firearms, but the Civil War era swords, many of them rare Confederate examples, will be the star attraction for edged-weapon enthusiasts. The most visually impressive of these—a regulation Confederate Navy officer's sword—features a white sharkskin grip, original sword knot, gold washed hilt, elaborate scabbard and suspensory chains. The sword, made by Robert Mole & Sons of Birmingham, England, was captured at sea before its ship could run the Federal blockade. It is pristine, and must surely be among the finest surviving weapons of its pattern, if it is not the finest. The sword is so stunning one could easily overlook the rare Confederate naval officer's uniform displayed next to it.*

Many of the collection's other arms are displayed alongside original military uniforms and accoutrements, substantially increasing the visual appeal of the collection and leaving informed viewers marveling at the quality and quantity of rare items. Curators Bradley and Cason acknowledged that the collection leaves even top military historians slack jawed.
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Lewis's Tomahawk is displayed in the hallway leading to the military gallery. Another fine sword is on display in the center of the hallway, and a case at the end of the hallway holds a cup-hilt sword owned by the state's first governor, William Wyatt Bibb.

The reserve military collection is as impressive as the public gallery, and even more so as far as accoutrements are concerned. Sword belts, canteens, helmets, buttons, insignia and other small uniform items are stored here, as are several wars worth of military firearms, U.S. and otherwise. "Rarities" are so common in the locked cabinets of the storeroom that living history buffs visit and study items in order to make sure their historical impressions are perfect down to the last stitch.

Every glance around the storeroom lands on some fascinating item: an arms stand for a 19th century cavalry barracks, a heavy machinegun associated with the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion (in a crate describing the contents as drill parts), Civil War artillery ammunition of every description and even the rough, warped saplings that once bore Confederate battle flags into the field and which still bear U.S. War Department capture numbers.

Other Things of Note

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Flag of the 13th
Alabama infantry

The ADAH is home to 89 of the 150 known surviving Alabama battle flags from the Civil War, and is at the forefront of flag conservation as a result. "The flag collection, all by itself, is phenomenal," says curator Bradley, an expert on the subject.

Despite the popular embrace of the "rebel" flag, Confederate battle flags varied as much as the units they served, with unique designs, colors, mottoes and hand-lettered battle honors. Although relatively few of these fragile artifacts are on public display in the galleries, the ADAH Web site includes many photos and the museum's gift shop offers books and posters documenting the rich variety of the flag collection.

A small selection of these flags is on display near the military gallery, and includes the flag of the 13th Alabama infantry regiment captured in the famed "Pickett's charge" at the Battle of Gettysburg. Displayed next to it is the sword of Birkett D. Fry, Colonel of the 13th Alabama. This display illustrates one of the most remarkable aspects of the ADAH collection, which consists not just of isolated items but also of superlative artifacts—a portrait, a sword, a uniform, a flag—linked to each other and representing a complete narrative.

Anyone with the slightest interest in American military history (or Native America) must not miss a chance to visit the collections of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Even a brief exploration of the museum galleries will leave a visitor in perfect sympathy with curator Bradley, who once said of his work at ADAH, "You won't believe what they pay me to do!"

About the Author
Sean Flynt is a public relations professional in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in the martial culture of all periods and people but focuses on 1450-1650, with special interest in German and Austrian arms and armour.

Photographer: Sean Flynt

* Southbound visitors interested in the CSN should be sure to visit the City Museum of Mobile, which has a number of impressive displays on the subject.


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