Cindy Bither
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Civil War Armor Displayed for First Time in Decades

FullTextImage/img/@altThis Civil War body armor is on display for the first time in decades. -- VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va., June 12, 2014 – Visitors to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park now have a chance to see an object so rare that only a few others like it are known to exist in museums - a piece of Civil War body armor.

The steel armor, which protected only the wearer’s torso, was cut off the body of a dead Union soldier at the Battle of Port Republic, near Harrisonburg, on June 9, 1862, by Capt. Joseph Carpenter, VMI class of 1856. Carpenter donated the armor to the VMI Museum in 1862, making it one of the oldest items in the museum’s collection.

Both Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of the VMI Museum System, and Maj. Troy Marshall, site director at the battlefield park, speculate that Carpenter took the armor as a souvenir simply because it was so rare. The soldier who was wearing the armor was likely a member of the 7th Indiana Infantry, which had attacked the battery Carpenter was leading at Port Republic.

Despite a heavy advertising push early in the war, the notion of body armor just didn’t catch on among Civil War soldiers. Gibson explained that cost, practicality, and the perception that wearing armor was an insult to one’s manhood all combined to make the heavy metal breastplates less than desirable.

“The ideals of personal honor and manhood were intertwined in the 19th century,” said Gibson. “There was an implied cowardliness … - it was almost the equivalent of hiding behind a tree, but you kind of took the tree with you.”

Ideals aside, the weight of the armor - approximately 9 to 10 pounds - and the fierce heat of summer also contributed to its lack of popularity.

“Very early on, this notion of body armor almost literally fell by the roadside, or was thrown by the roadside, because it just was not practical,” said Gibson. Taking a moment to reflect on the history of warfare, Gibson noted that body armor really didn’t catch on in a big way among infantrymen until modern materials such as para-aramid synthetic fiber - Kevlar - made the armor both light and effective.

Although the body armor donated by Carpenter has been in VMI’s possession for over 150 years, it has been decades since it was last on public view. Gibson said that for a time, when the VMI Museum was housed in Preston Library, the armor was on display in the library. However, after the museum moved into Jackson Memorial Hall in 1970, the armor was put into storage because the museum didn’t have a proper mannequin for displaying it.

With the recent purchase of a museum-quality mannequin, displaying the armor again made sense, said Gibson. In early April, the armor was put on display at New Market, where it will remain indefinitely.

“It is very rare,” said Marshall of the armor, which was manufactured by the Atwater Armor Co. of New Haven, Conn. “To have it tied to a VMI graduate who was in harm’s way and the fact that it was recovered from the body of a Union soldier at a battlefield 30 minutes away is really neat.”

Marshall went on to say that the armor complements other objects displayed near it, such as the rifle carried by Cadet Charles Read, VMI Class of 1867, at the Battle of New Market, and the bullet picked up from the battlefield and kept as a memento by Cadet Francis L. Smith Jr., also a member of the VMI Class of 1867.

Said Marshall of the body armor, “It’s one more object to tell the story of the Civil War in Virginia.”

– Mary Price