Monday, June 24, 2013

Saluting New Jersey's military heritage: the National Guard Militia Museum

You know you're heading for a really hidden New Jersey gem when you have to stop at a guard shack to get in. I found myself doing just that the other day as I approached the entrance to the New Jersey National Guard Training Center in Sea Girt. My mission? To check out the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey. Assistant Curator Joe Bilby had graciously agreed to give me a tour of the museum and its impressive collection of military artifacts.

Truth be told, this was a visit I'd been anticipating for a long time, but Mother Nature had other plans. Hurricane Sandy's storm surges flooded the museum with over five feet of ocean water, affecting about 85 percent of the collection and decimating the public displays. Through the persistence of staff, volunteers and visiting specialists, the museum was ready for an official reopening in April, even as restoration and preservation work continues.

Ever see a Revolutionary-era
Loyalist soldier uniform? This is
what they wore in New Jersey.
As you walk in the door, you're addressed by a sight you'll see in no other museum in the state: an authentic Civil War cannon mounted on a sturdy carriage. Along the surrounding walls are displays that explain New Jersey's military history in chronological order, using historically-accurate uniforms and weaponry (some reproduction, some authentic). Circle the room slowly, and you'll get a new understanding of the contributions our predecessors and present-day neighbors have made to preserve our shared freedoms. You'll also get a perspective on the colonization and growth of the state that you're not likely to get at any other museum.

The exhibits cover all the big wars you learned about in high school, as well as many you might not remember as well. Whether you're a history buff or just a casual visitor, you're bound to make a few new discoveries. Want to know about what our forebears did during the Whiskey Rebellion, the War of 1812 or the Mexican War? You'll find out at the museum. I was especially impressed that the timeline starts with a discussion of the original New Jerseyans, the Lenape. Did you know that the first non-native battle casualty on soil within present-day state borders was one of Henry Hudson's Half Moon crew? To my knowledge, there isn't another museum in the state that brings that fact to light.

One of the things I really liked about the displays overall was that they include the diversity of the people who have represented New Jersey in our nation's conflicts, and the commitment of our citizen soldiers. The voices of our present-day soldiers are represented in post-September 11, 2001 timeline, complete with video footage and recollections from those who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Considerable space is also given to the story of the first African-American battalion, which was organized in 1930 as a militia in order to circumvent the federal military segregation orders that were then in force. Ultimately, New Jersey became the first state to fully integrate its National Guard.

The artifacts currently on display at the National Guard Militia Museum represent only a small portion of the overall collection. Other exhibits await the further preservation of artifacts affected by the flood. As we walked toward the museum's Civil War-era submarine, the Intelligent Whale, Joe ushered me past several tables were covered with artifacts in various stages of restoration, ranging from a portable organ to uniform boots and canteens. Another room is dedicated to several racks of vintage uniforms in the process of being reconditioned, while a documents area is stacked with archival boxes full of maps, letters and other ephemera. In fact, the museum holds the nation's largest collection of New Jersey-related Civil War research material. Joe noted that as staff members and volunteers were piecing through the the collection to assess storm damage, they'd come across interesting items they'd forgotten they'd even had. For a military historian, it had to be a dream come true.

Besides the physical artifacts and documents, the museum is amassing an impressive collection of oral histories from surviving veterans. The full interviews are available for researchers, but excerpts are also available to the public online.

While the museum is making progress on getting back to its pre-storm status, there's a lot of work to be done. Its non-profit foundation continues to accept monetary donations to fund improvements and ongoing programs. 

The National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey is open every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., except for state holidays. Whether you're a military buff, a New Jersey history enthusiast or simply looking for an interesting field trip on a rainy day at the shore, it's well worth your time to check it out!


2 comments:

  1. How cool is this - I didn't even know this was there :) I know the Sea Girt military presence from having spent many years in Manasquan, of course, but didn't realize they had all of this -so, ty for sharing!!!

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