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This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020/21 Issue of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly newsletter.
The Museum staff is often asked, “what is your favorite artifact?” With a collection of art and artifacts that holds thousands of stories about Tennessee history, it's challenging to choose a favorite. When pressed, however, we can always come up with a few that stand out. Here are some favorites.
Major Hugh G. Gwyn's Frock Coat (2016.9.1)
Photograph taken in Nashville of Hugh Gwyn and his son, Childress Gwyn, after the war (2018.33.2)
This coat tells many stories, including immigration in the making of America, families divided by the Civil War, loyalty and service, the westward movement, and the creating of a modern nation in the 20th century.
Hugh Gwyn and his brother, James, immigrated together as young men from Ireland in the 1850s. James stayed in Philadelphia, but Hugh moved west to Kentucky. When the country was divided by Civil War, Hugh became an officer in the Confederate 23rd Tennessee, while his brother rose to command a Union brigade.
Hugh was wounded in action and was afterward in the Confederate capital of Richmond when it fell to the Union army in April 1865. James was a general in the Union army that took Richmond. When the Confederate president fled south, Hugh was part of his personal entourage. “I had remained true to the last,” Hugh later wrote.
After the war, Hugh and his family lived in Nashville for some years, but they later moved to Coronado, California, where he became postmaster, a leading businessman, and founded a Confederate veterans chapter. He died in 1925. His brother James, a successful businessman in Philadelphia and New York, died in 1906. We do not know if the brothers reconciled after their wartime division.
─ Dan Pomeroy, chief curator and director of collections
The Good Book, by Gilbert Gaul, 1905 and 1910, oil on canvas (1998.148)
I immediately loved the Gilbert Gaul painting, The Good Book, when I first saw it in our gallery, In Search of the New: Art After 1900. It is one of 54 paintings and 100 prints by the artist in the Museum’s collection. On a personal level, I’m an avid reader and have a beard, and thought I was looking at a portrait of myself in the future. As a work of art, it’s extraordinary in its use of light, and might surprise those familiar with Gaul’s earlier, and much more celebrated, work focused on the Civil War. Dated to 1905-10, about a decade before his death at age 64, it makes me wonder if Gaul hadn’t started studying Caravaggio or Rembrandt late in his career; that like me, he was a lifelong learner. My relationship to the painting got more interesting when I learned that prior to coming to Tennessee, Gaul was born in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, and that he and I share a birthday. The serendipity is almost uncanny. We go to museums to learn about history and appreciate art, but ultimately, we do it to learn about and better understand ourselves. To see myself in the museum where I work, in some sense literally, is a gift as welcome as a good book.
─ Joe Pagetta, director of communications
German WWI 77mm field cannon. 7.7 cm Feldkanone 96. Model 1896 N/A (*The N/A designates this as the new model, not a variation of an older design.)
In 2015, the Museum was given this weather-beaten German World War I, 77mm field cannon which, for decades, was displayed at the Mountain Home National Cemetery, east of Knoxville. It was once considered the most popular field gun in the Imperial German Army’s arsenal and was used on all fronts, largely due to its mobility.
The gun and carriage were made by Krupp at their factory in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1916 and serial numbered 815 (the 815th gun made since 1896). The carriage, dated 1915, would have been attached to an ammunition wagon pulled by six horses.
Few details are known of our gun’s origins other than the terror it likely caused many American doughboys who faced the barrel of many such “beasts” across the Western Front. Local Johnson City lore claims that the gun was captured by Co F, 117th Infantry Regiment of the 30th “Old Hickory” Division. However, it may also have been among the war relics returned from overseas by the War Department, then parceled out to states for distribution in the 1920s.
In 2018, this prized artifact was returned to the Museum after an extensive three-year restoration by Vintage Ordnance Company of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Today, you can see this pristine piece of century-old history in the Museum’s World War I Centennial Gallery where it holds pride of place as a reminder of this horrific global conflict.
─ Lisa M. Budreau, senior curator of military history
Morse Recording Register, 1840-1865 (92.92)
In the early 1800s, the world shrank. The steam engine allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before, but nothing at the time connected people more than the invention of the telegraph. In our collection at the Museum, we have one of the earliest known telegraph messages ever sent, but the story behind it is much more than just one of technical innovation.
Samuel Morse had worked out a way to send electronic signals through wires and, in 1844, wanted to show the country how useful his invention could be. Morse had a telegraph line ran between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, the site of the Democratic National Convention that summer. He wanted to show that he could send news from the convention instantly.
Tennessean James K. Polk thought this convention might revive his political career and provide the perfect balance for a possible Van Buren/Polk ticket. However, Van Buren’s chances of becoming the nominee faded quickly. It seemed there was no one that all factions of the party would support. Pillow and Johnson realized that this confusion benefited Polk. He was an expansionist, a devoted Democrat, and a disciple of Andrew Jackson. This made him an attractive consensus candidate. On the ninth ballot, James K. Polk was chosen as the Democratic nominee for President.
The telegram, announcing Polk’s nomination, was one of the first ever sent. Thanks to Morse’s telegraph line, Washington D.C. was the first city to learn that Polk was running for President before even Polk himself. This new communication method worked so well that Morse was invited onto the platform as Polk was sworn in as the 11th President of the United States.
─ Chris Grisham, museum education manager
Sony TC270 Reel-to-reel tape player (2016.169.2.1)
A photograph of Estell by Ken Ross which appeared in the Memphis press on May 17, 1974.
Estelle Axton was an American record executive and co-founder – with her brother, the producer and engineer Jim Stewart, of Stax Records in Memphis in 1957. Thus, the “ST” and “AX” for Stax. Axton was actively involved with selecting and developing an illustrious roster of artists and musicians, including Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, and Isaac Hayes. Axton’s family donated the reel-to-reel player that she listened to all her demos on along with a platinum record award for “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees, which sold two million units.
Today the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is located in Memphis, where the former Stax Records once stood. It also houses the Stax Music Academy, a state-of-the-art facility, where youth are mentored through music education.
These artifacts exemplify Tennessee’s rich musical heritage and are a testament to Axton’s distinguished career in the music industry.
─ Renée White, exhibitions coordinator
“Dusk, Great Smoky Mountains” photographic print by Robin Hood, 1994 (88.33)
One of my favorite artifacts in the Museum is the “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee” poem written by Admiral William Porter Lawrence. I had just started at the Museum when a female visitor asked to show me something in the Tennessee Transforms gallery. She pointed to this piece of paper and asked if I wanted to hear the story of how her father had a written the poem typed upon that paper. William Porter Lawrence was captured during the Vietnam War. During his time under captivity, he was placed in a solitary confinement cell. There was nothing in the cell but a small window to the sky above. As he sat there, he thought that the sky above looked like the sky above his Tennessee home. He composed this poem as he sat in this cell. He repeated it to himself over and over again. She said it almost became a personal mantra for him. When he was freed and getting on the plane to come home, he asked for a pencil and a piece of paper to write down the poem. It is now the Tennessee State Poem. When I see that poem, I don’t see just a piece of paper, but a memory that helped to keep a man alive during the darkest of days.
─ Morgan Byrn, family program coordinator
Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Top Hat (5.5152)
Oil portrait painting of Andrew Jackson by Ralph E. W. Earl. 1837 (1.877) and Oil portrait of Rachel Jackson, attributed to Washington Cooper. (estimated) 1845-1849 (76.75)
The top hat worn by Andrew Jackson at his inauguration as the seventh President of the United States on March 4, 1829, represents to me a compelling love story.
The hat, made by the haberdasher Orlando Fish of New York, features leather and silk trim and is made primarily of felted beaver hair, the most popular material for stylish top hats of the day. The most significant feature is the black mourning band placed on the hat in honor of Jackson’s devoted wife, Rachel, who died just months before the inauguration.
In 1828, much as in modern times, political campaigns could often devolve into personal attacks, and Rachel was a frequent target of those attacks. She was widely accused of bigamy, due to a controversial situation in which it was believed she was not legally divorced from her first husband when she eloped with Jackson in 1791. Later it was discovered that her former husband, Lewis Robards, had never filed the proper papers. This forced Andrew and Rachel Jackson to remarry in 1794 after the divorce had been finalized.
In the fall of 1828, Rachel began experiencing significant physical stress during the election season. She died of a heart attack on December 22, 1828, three weeks before her husband’s victory in the election and ten weeks before Jackson took office as president.
Jackson believed the abuse from his political opponents had hastened Rachel’s death. She was buried at their home, The Hermitage, outside of Nashville on Christmas Eve. It was reported that Jackson swore at her funeral, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers. I never can.” He was sworn into office a little more than two months later, a mourning band adorning his inauguration hat.
In 1845, seven years after leaving office, Jackson died at the age of 78, and was buried in the garden of The Hermitage beside his beloved wife.
─ Mary Skinner, community & media relations officer