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Gone for a Soldier
Through July 1, 2012; Macculloch Hall Historical Museum in partnership with the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, Morristown, N.J.

Garden State soldiers can get lost in the Civil War shuffle. We hear plenty about New York and Pennsylvania units, the Philadelphia Brigade, the 69th New York, etc., but the troops from New Jersey often go overlooked. “Gone for a Soldier” gives Jerseymen their due with a strong exhibit of nearly 200 artifacts.

The items on loan from New Jersey historical societies, museums and private collectors are diverse: Muskets, uniforms, drums, flags, photographs and a host of other objects are arranged in rough chronological fashion. Visitors start out looking at militia items and recruiting posters, then work their way around Macculloch Hall’s large, well-lit exhibit room, following the experiences of New Jersey troops from the elation of 1861 to the reality of relentless combat and years spent away from home.

It is important to note that the curators of “Gone for a Soldier” did not just put neat pieces on display. They wisely used the artifacts to tell dozens of human interest stories via clear, concise labeling.

Many—in fact it seemed like most—of those labels end with the words “mortally wounded at…” or “killed at….” And while this is unmistakably a military-themed exposition, the war’s devastating human cost and its impact on New Jersey beyond the battlefield sinks in deeper and deeper as you move through the exhibit. Your perceptions of the items is likely to change as you progress.

Initially, for example, I was amused by the recruiting posters’ bravado. “A Sword to Wear and a Horse to Ride,” boasted one placard. But later, as I reflected on 15th New Jersey Private George Thompson’s frock coat, its left sleeve in tatters after medical personnel had cut it off at the Wilderness to examine Thompson’s bullet-mangled arm, the words on that poster struck me as naive, and a false promise of glory. That’s when I realized just how powerful this exhibit was.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times.