Fredericksburg’s Museum of War Relics

From Eric Mink:

The war’s impact on the Fredericksburg area was felt in many ways, from the destruction wrought by four major battles, to the inconvenience and strain felt by nearly two years of occupation by the opposing armies. When the armies marched away, they left not only ruined farms and decimated livelihoods for local residents, but they also left an immense amount of war material behind. Relics and artifacts of war have always fascinated people and those associated with the Civil War are no different. Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, curiosity seekers and collectors scoured the battlefields and empty camp looking for objects left by the armies. Some individuals amassed great collections and it was not unusual after the war to find small privately-run museums adjacent to the battlefields. Such was the case in 1880s Fredericksburg.

Located at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, the Exchange Hotel was one of Fredericksburg largest and most successful hotels. In 1887, two men from Connecticut took over management of the Exchange. Leander Cotton hailed from East Hartford, Connecticut and as a veteran of the 21st Connecticut Infantry he knew the Fredericksburg area battlefields. William A. Hills was from Glastonbury, Connecticut and a mere 22 years-old when he entered into a partnership with Cotton at the Exchange

Exhcange Hotel

As early as 1886, Leander Cotton began acquiring artifacts and relics from the local battlefields. By the time that he and Hills took over management of the Exchange, Cotton’s collection had become quite sizeable. Perhaps it was simply to share his prizes with the public, or more likely he saw their display as good public relations and advertising for the Exchange, but Cotton made the collected artifacts and relics available for viewing in the hotel’s lobby. The exhibit was newsworthy, as the local Fredericksburg paper announced its opening:

“Messrs. Cotton & Hills, proprietors of the Exchange Hotel in this place, have collected and placed in the reception room, many interesting relics from the battlefields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania C.H. and Chancellorsville. The relics from Gettysburg are artistically arranged on a board, showing the Federal battle lines. Messrs. Cotton & Hills ‘Museum’ will deeply interest all who visit it. Daily relics are being added to the already large collection, which all are cordially invited to see.”The Fredericksburg Star, March 12, 1887

Exchange Hotel Modern

The building that housed the Exchange Hotel still stands today.

Cotton and Hills “museum” was a popular attraction in Fredericksburg, for the few years it remained open. One visiting journalist called it “one of the largest and most valuable collections of war relics to be found outside of government museums.” Another visitor echoed these sentiments, believing the display “the finest collection of its kind in the country.”

An advertising cabinet card for the “museum” shows that is was arranged in the fashion for such exhibits of the time.  Small objects mounted on display boards. Artillery shells stacked on the floor. Swords, carbines and rifles hung on the walls. All items were accompanied by small paper hand-written cards identifying the objects. The cabinet card is also noteworthy for its listing of local points of interest and the announcement that carriages and guides are available “at reasonable rates” to convey visitors around the local battlefields. Could this be an early piece of Fredericksburg’s tourism marketing?

Cotton and Hills Collection JB

As was common for “museums” like Cotton & Hills, the proprietors published a catalog for their collection. This catalog, which listed 486 items in the collection and can be downloaded here, was presumably for sale at the hotel.  Many of the entries in the catalog listed not only a brief description of the item, but also the artifact’s association with the Civil War, as well as when and from whom it was acquired. The identification of the artifact to an individual or location was important, as it helped to justify its uniqueness and significance. An example of the detail for an entry is this intriguing pair of artifacts:

  1. A pair of Percussion-cap, Muzzle-loading Horse Pistols, with Holders. These were lost near Clark’s woolen mill, on Main street, Fredericksburg, Va., by one of Colonel Dahlgren’s cavalrymen, November 28, 1862. Dahlgren, with 25 men, had raided across the Rappahannock at Falmouth to feel of the Confederate position, but was quickly driven back by Corbin’s cavalry. One man was shot near the railroad depot; another was thrown from his horse and lost these pistols near the above-mentioned place. Mr. Samuel Beale, who was then a small boy, picked them up and buried them in a box in the cellar of his mother’s house, where they remained three years. Purchased from Mr. Beale in January, 1888.”

Cotton and Hills Catalog Post

As the final months of 1891 approached, Cotton and Hills opted not to renew their lease on the Exchange Hotel. In preparation for vacating the building, the large relic and artifact collection that had for four years impressed visitors was sold. The Charles Ward Post 62 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in Newton, Mass. purchased the collection. The sales price is unknown.

The GAR was a fraternal organization for Union Army veterans. The group had local “posts” in In Newton, the Charles Ward Post 62 apparently held regular meetings in the Masonic Hall, which is where the Cotton and Hills Collection resided. After the Newton City Hall and War Memorial was constructed in 1932, the collection moved over to the new government building. What eventually became of the collection is a bit of a mystery.

Newton Catalog Blog Post

For years, the belief has persisted that the Cotton and Hills Collection ended up in the hands of William J. Chewning, another large collector from Fredericksburg. Chewning eventually sold his collection to Julius T. Richards of Manassas, Va., who in turn sold his collection to George D. Rosensteel of Gettysburg, Penn. The Rosensteel Collection became the center-piece of the National Park Service’s (NPS) museum and visitor center at Gettysburg. So, tradition states that the Cotton and Hills Collection eventually found its way into the hands of the NPS. In discussion with the curatorial staff at Gettysburg National Military Park, however, this appears highly unlikely. The staff has been unable to identify anything from the Cotton and Hills catalog in the park’s collection today.

If the Cotton and Hills Collection did not end up at Gettysburg, than where is it? Unfortunately, the same fate befell this collection that doomed so many GAR post collections. More than likely, once the veterans passed on, the collection simply vanished, perhaps being sold off piecemeal, perhaps items stolen or given away. Still today, however, there remain a couple old display cases in the Newton, Mass. City Hall. Are these items part of the collection acquired by the Charles Ward Post 62 in 1891? Also, from time to time, artifacts will surface in private collections that are claimed to have originated with Cotton and Hills.

Cotton and Hills Coat

A Confederate coat identified as part of the original Cotton and Hills Collection, it appeared in a 1984 magazine article when it was then owned by a private collector.

Leander Cotton and William Hills saw the potential of advertising local history in an effort to draw visitors and patrons to their hotel. The economic impact of tourism, an idea fostered so soon after the Civil War, continues to thrive in Fredericksburg.

Newton, Mass Blog Post1

Display case in the Newton, Mass. City Hall. Among the World War 1 and 2 artifacts are some items from the Civil War. Perhaps these were at one time part of the Cotton and Hills Collection.

Newton, Mass Blog Post2

Civil War artillery projectiles in a display case in the Newton, Mass. City Hall. Perhaps these were at one time part of the Cotton and Hills Collecton.

Thanks to Laura Costello, 3-D Collections Manager for Historic Newton, Mass, and Paul Shevchuk, Museum Technician at Gettysburg National Military Park. Both fielded my inquries and questions about the Cotton and Hills Collection.

Eric J. Mink

8 thoughts on “Fredericksburg’s Museum of War Relics

  1. The cabinet card of the museum display is interesting as it seems to support the collection was in the south east corner of the building, to the left, off of the central entrance on Caroline Street, and as you mention, in part of the lobby of the hotel. The image would be looking approximately 145 degrees SE toward the only solid wall that existed (southern exposure), with eastern windows to the left in the view, providing ambient lighting on the display.
    The current Caroline Street face of the building has been altered dramatically since the early 1900s, sadly destroying the Cotton and Hills era character of the structure, and the room the museum was contained in.
    Great detective work here, Mr. Mink. I wish the collection had ended up at the early Manassas museum, but I am glad you set the record straight.

  2. For those of us that enjoy elements of tangible history, this was fascinating.
    Props to Mr. Mink for his effort well spent on an intriguing subject. Perhaps the History Detectives would like to have a go.

  3. Great post, Eric. Once again, you have found something new to share, with solid background material. The catalog is a gem. I am intrigued by the artillery rounds. What was the practice for demilitarizing such objects when put on display?

  4. Good job Eric! As reported in the Fb’g STAR newspaper of May 28, 1888, one of the relics on display at the museum was a 12-pound cannon ball fired into the Captain Wells House at the corner of Sophia and George Street:
    “WAR RELICS: Capt. Wells, who lived here during the war, has sent to Messrs. Cotton & Hill, proprietors of the Exchance Hotel, a twelve-pound cannon ball for their museum of war relics. The ball entered the second story window of Capt. Wells residence, while himself and family were in the house and passed through a partition, striking the opposite wall, and falling n the floor. The ball was fired from a Federal battery on Stafford heights during the fight here December 11, 1862.”

    The visiting journalist you quote wrote that Mr. Hills conducted tours, was a “most competent guide,” and added the Wells House to his published list of local attractions. His description of the museum may be found in my new book” BETWEEN TWO ARMIES AT FREDERICKSBURG; THE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN WELLS FAMILY PAPERS,” (pub. 2010 by The American History Company).

    Rebecca Campbell Light

  5. Cheers Eric,

    Fascinating post. I must say, it immediately had me thinking of a similar collection at a recently uncovered GAR post in Carnegie, PA (SW of Pittsburgh). I’m not sure if the items match, but the Carnegie collection has a significant amount of items donated by a WM. P. Mansfield (who it details was a member of the 9th VA Cavalry and sherriff of ‘Spottsylvania Co).’ Mansfield donated his items in 1906. You can access the listing of objects here:

    And here is a great interactive, panoramic shot of the GAR post:

    If anything, it is a definitely a fantastic stop for those in (and out of) the Pittsburgh/SW Pa area.

    Take care, and keep it up!
    Dennis P. Wodzinski

    (Intern class of 2003)

    Go Pens.

    • Good to hear from you, Dennis. Great stuff on those links. I was unaware of this collection and the nice items related to the Fredericksburg area battlefields. Nice to see most of the collection appears intact. After Cotton and Hills, another “museum” in Fredericksburg didn’t pop until the 1920s. Perhaps that was why Mannsfield donated his stuff outside the Central Virginia region.

      Thanks for sharing..

      – Eric Mink

  6. Years ago, Noel Harrison (I believe) gave me a photocopy of the catalog shown in this article. It was fascinating to read the brief descriptions regarding each item. Just the variety of relics that had been recovered in the area is amazing. For example the Confederate Colonel’s coat that was worn as a Sunday jacket for over thirty years by the man who found it on the battlefield. I would suggest that anybody who can get the chance to view it do so.

    • Russ – Agreed. The catalog is a fascinating list of artifacts. Readers can obtain a pdf copy of the entire catalog. It is found as a downloadable file linked within the body of the post.

      – Eric

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