About 70 years ago, a 12-year-old boy purchased a Civil War artifact. Little did Tom Sweeney know that was the beginning of a collection that eventually would become an attraction drawing thousands of people to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield near Springfield each year.
Over the years, the artifacts collected by Dr. Sweeney and his wife, Karen, grew to number in the thousands. The collection consisting primarily of artifacts from west of the Mississippi River filled a room in their home and much of it had to be placed in storage due to lack of space.
Despite their worries that no one would come, the Sweeneys decided to share their collection with the public. They sold one of the most unique artifacts in their collection — John Brown’s Bible — to Harpers Ferry, a Civil War park in West Virginia. With the money from that sale, they built General Sweeny’s Museum of Civil War History and opened their collection to the public in 1993.
For the next 12 years, the Sweeneys saw thousands of visitors tour the museum named after one of Tom’s ancestors, and they continued to grow the collection.
In 2002, the couple decided it was time for a change and approached the National Park Service about purchasing the museum. Experts examined the collection and determined it was authentic, important and that its focus on artifacts from west of the Mississippi made it unique. The sale was completed in 2005 and one of the best collections of Civil War artifacts in the United States became part of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
Visitors peruse a display at the Civil War Museum at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, Missouri.
“It was and I think still is the finest collection of Trans Mississippi artifacts in the United States,” said battlefield superintendent Ted Hillmer.
Not only does the collection provide more learning opportunities for patrons through artifacts, it elevated and changed the purpose of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield by allowing the park to focus on the Trans Mississippi region rather than just the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, he explained.
Portions of the Sweeney collection are among hundreds of other artifacts on display at one of the most pristine Civil War battle sites in the United States, just southwest of Springfield.
The battlefield, the site of the second major battle of the Civil War and the first battle west of the Mississippi River, is where on Aug. 10, 1861, more than 2,500 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured on an intensely hot, humid day, typical of the Ozarks in the middle of summer. The death toll from the nearly five-hour battle included Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to die in battle during the war.
A reenactment of a battle at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in Springfield, Missouri.
Visitors to the battlefield can watch a free 27-minute video about the battle, research genealogy at the Hulston Civil War Library and tour the museum featuring new displays installed in 2016. For those who want to see where the action took place and learn more, a small admission fee provides access to a five-mile, self-guided driving tour through the battlefield with multiple stops along the way where kiosks reveal details of the battle.
Walking trails meandering through the lush landscape lead to historic sites, including the Ray House — the only Civil War-era structure that remains on the grounds. The house, where local farmer and postmaster John Ray watched the melee from his front porch while his family sheltered in the basement, became a makeshift hospital for the wounded and dying.
Though reminders of war are sobering, learning about and understanding it are an important part of American history. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is one place where that wisdom can be gained.
“If we don’t know our history as a nation, we don’t know where we’re going,” Hillmer said.
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