April 2016
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The Weapons of War

“You can go to a Civil War battlefield, but they don’t have what we have here,” says Robert Parham at the Blue and Gray Museum on Bank Street in Decatur. In addition to the extensive collection, Parham is a major reason to plan a visit to the museum. He provides the history behind the weapons used in the Civil War.  

Blue and Gray Museum in Decatur houses largest private collection of Civil War weaponry in the nation.

The Civil War weapons at the Blue and Gray Museum are silent, but the man walking the aisles hears the blasts from their barrels and sees and smells the smoke from both sides as he opens the door to the nation’s largest private collection of Civil War weaponry.

The Blue and Gray Museum, located on historic Bank Street, is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Robert Parham, a Decatur native and Civil War historian, gives the collection a distinctive Southern voice.

Valued at $3 million, the collection belonged to the late Robert Sackheim, a native New Yorker who moved to the Tennessee Valley in the 1990s to work with NASA. It represents about 90 percent of the weapons used in the “War of Northern Aggression,” collected throughout Sackheim’s lifetime, and is regarded as the nation’s largest private collection on display.

Entering the museum, you’ll find a man’s passion as well as a big part of his legacy.

By 2007, Sackheim had amassed two houses full of Civil War weaponry.

“I told him, if you can’t look at it, how can you enjoy it, if it’s all packed away?” Parham recalled.

  Robert Sackheim thought long and hard about where to locate the largest private collection of Civil War weaponry. He set up shop on Bank Street in Decatur, due in large part to his relationship with fellow Civil War buff Robert Parham. Sackheim passed away a few years ago, but his legacy lives on.

The legend goes, however, that Sackheim’s wife gave him the ultimatum that the collection had to leave their home in Madison.

For more than a decade prior, Parham and Sackheim had developed a relationship based on their mutual love for the Civil War. Ultimately, that’s what brought the museum to Decatur, when he joined with Parham, who owns Parham’s Civil War Relics and Memorabilia, now housed in the same building as the Blue and Gray Museum.

“You can go to a Civil War battlefield, but they don’t have what we have here,” Parham said.

Parham researched and documented each item on display.

“Every day for 2 ½ years, I was researching,” Parham said. “We laid out the stuff on the floors and I’d pick up something and start working on it. We were still working on the collection when Bob passed away. The sad part about it was, about the time we got it looking like we wanted it, Bob passed away.”

Reflecting the 10-1 advantage in weaponry the North had over the Confederacy during the war, the majority of guns in the collection are Union. European nations seized on the opportunity to make money during the conflict, selling outmoded weapons to both sides. Profiteering was rampant in the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, New York City wanted to secede from the Union in order to be able to sell weapons to both sides.

Walking the aisles of the museum, Parham stops to illustrate the industrial edge the South fought against.

Robert Sackheim, the late founder of the Blue and Gray Museum, built dioramas depicting the colorful uniforms of some of the soldiers.  

“The Richmond Humpback was a reworked U.S. 1855 government rifle made from equipment taken in raid on Harper’s Ferry,” he explained. “Confederate weapons are rare and expensive.

“I like the Whitworth rifle, a sniper’s gun. Using a Whitworth, a Confederate soldier in Decatur fired a shot that hit a Union soldier from 1,200 yards away, the longest shot of the war.”

A Whitworth found in Courtland is on display.

At the front and in cases throughout the museum, you’ll find bullets imbedded in trees. Even after the war, these “war logs” preserved the battle’s fury so well that loggers stopped buying timber on battlefields such as Chickamauga because of the damage the bullet-filled logs were doing to their saws.

The stories surrounding the weapons on display at the Blue and Gray Museum bring them back to life. This Colt model 1851 Navy revolver that belonged to General Joseph K. Mansfield is a case in point. It was a gift from his bride-to-be.  

Some of the finds came from unusual places. Parham bought an impact shell on display in the museum at a trade day from a woman who found it in her backyard in Decatur. Parham had the shell defused and traced it to a specific type of cannon fired by Union troops on Oct. 8, 1864 – the date Gen. Hood’s troops took Decatur and gave its 600 residents six days to evacuate the town.

It was the Decatur connection to the Civil War that piqued Parham’s interest as a young man.

In the 1970s, he discovered a 128-volume set of books related to all the battles of the Civil War at the Decatur Library.

“Forty of those volumes had something to do with Decatur,” he said.

When he’s not giving tours to homeschool groups and folks who come from such places as Australia, Canada and England, Parham is sitting behind the counter filled with Confederate Treasury notes and other Civil War relics at Parham’s Civil War Relics and Memorabilia. He dispenses the knowledge he’s gained from listening to experts in the field and constant research on the War Between the States free of charge in a sort of a Shelby Foote style of storytelling, with a gleam in his eye. On a recent day, a man brought in a Civil War bond he found in a book he was about to throw away.

“I looked at it and saw that it was authentic,” Parham said. “Many times people will bring in an item with a story that’s better than its authenticity.”

Even more than 150 years after the war’s end, the fascination continues.

“The reason for that is it was ‘America’s war,’” Parham believes. “Families were divided, even when the war was over. Gen. George Thomas was a prime example of that. He fought for the North and was noted as the ‘Rock of Chickamauga.’ His Southern family never forgave him for fighting for the North. The difference between the North and the South in the war was the connection Southerners felt to their states, their ‘country.’ People like Lee and Stonewall Jackson were loyal to their state.”

On occasion, Parham gets to visit with descendants of Civil War soldiers searching where their ancestors served. Two ladies from Ohio came in search of information regarding where their ancestor served with the 3rd Michigan Reorganized in Decatur. Parham took out a copy of an original map drawn by a soldier, compared it to engineer drawings and found the area where the soldiers camped during their stay in Decatur.

“People always look for family,” he explained. “That’s the reason the Civil War era continues to fascinate people.”

While rifles, pistols and mortar occupy a large amount of the collection, the cases also house photos of soldiers on both sides, absentee Union and Confederate ballots for the presidential election of 1864, hardtack, belt buckles, portraits of famous Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, for example, as well as bayonets. The D-Guard Bowie Knife was one such bayonet fashioned to fit on a rifle for battle.

“The South was in dire need of weapons during the war,” Parham said.

As the front moved South, one weapons company, the Memphis Novelty Works, continually moved its operations ahead of the advancing Union army.

The Nashville Plow Works turned the Bible verse, “… beat your weapons into plowshares …” on its ear when the company began making swords from its plows.

Parham continues to bring the past to life through the history of the people and weapons they used during the Civil War.

“The little stories regarding the items in the museum are the most interesting to me,” Parham said.

Cecil H. Yancy Jr. is a freelance writer from Athens.