Finding fascination in historic firearms at the Sullivan Museum at Norwich

Some of the antique weapons displayed at Sullivan Museum at Norwich. Brian Gosselin photo.

Some of the antique weapons displayed at Sullivan Museum at Norwich. Brian Gosselin photo.

The Sullivan Museum possesses within its collection of historic firearms one of the most valuable items for Norwich University: a Spencer rifle once fired by Abraham Lincoln.
Each firearm in the 80-piece collection has a significant connection to Norwich University as well, as to the history of the United States. In order for a piece to fit the collection it must fit the general collection management policy for the museum. “We prefer objects to have been from an alumni or at least a professor, very close ties to Norwich essentially,” said John Hart, Sullivan Museum collections manager and registrar.

According to Hart, the firearms in the collection range from “early flintlocks to an M14.” The firearms in the collection span centuries. Most of the concentrations of the firearms are “Civil War, World War I and some World War II,” said Hart.

“Some institutions, especially military museums, have a great deal more weaponry than we do and I think that’s partly because their collections were focused in that way,” said Sarah Henrich, the Director of the Sullivan Museum and History Center. “Our collection isn’t focused specifically on weaponry or the development of weaponry, ours is about the history of Norwich.”

\Within the collection are three pieces that have significant historical relevance to the university: the Spencer Repeating Rifle, fired by Lincoln and owned by Secretary of the Navy, under Lincoln, Gideon Welles; a Colt Woodsman pistol owned by Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon; and a German P38 Pistol surrendered to Lt. Gen. Edward Brooks during WWII.

“All three are very significant for the collection and for us to be able to display, interpret and present to civilians and cadets on campus,” said Hart.
The Gideon Welles’ rifle collection has an interesting “ role in our history,” according to Henrich. The story of this rifle and how it came to the Sullivan is extensively documented and well-preserved. The documentation critically establishes the provenance of the artifact and significance to the Sullivan Collection. “ We try to find something related to telling that story of Norwich,” Henrich said.

In documentation from James D. Julia Auctioneers, the Spencer Rifle was presented to President Lincoln by the manufacturer C.M. Spencer on Aug. 19, 1863 at which time Lincoln test fired the rifle in the area which is now where the Washington Monument stands. Lincoln was very proficient with the rifle, hitting the bull’s eye drawn on a wooden shingle at 40 yards.

President Lincoln would eventually present the Spencer rifle to Gideon Welles, along with a note from Lincoln that still remains with the rifle, as an appreciation gift ,according to Hart. It was kept in the possession of Gideon Welles’ decedents until 2014, when it was acquired by Norwich University following an attempt to sell the rifle at auction.
The note from President Lincoln to Secretary Welles reads: “ Respectfully submitted to the Sec. of Navy,” and is signed “A. Lincoln,” The note and Spencer rifle are well preserved in a wooden case.

Welles, who attended the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vt., for three years beginning in 1823, played a significant role during the Civil War as the Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln. “Welles was responsible for the naval battles, organizing our movements on sea as well as in many ways evolving the navy beyond what it had been prior to the Civil War, when it was mostly wooden-masted ships, “ said Hart. He later began to oversee the iron hull ships, said Hart.

The rifle itself played a pivotal role in the Civil War as the first modern repeating rifle to be introduced into an otherwise single shot battle. In William B. Edwards book Civil War Guns he writes, “there is little doubt that the Spencer repeater was one of the most important improvements in military long arms that helped the Union win the war quickly.”
Edwards describes a Confederate soldier naming the Spencer “the horizontal shot tower” because he was “so bewildered by its formidable output of hot lead he did not know what it was, as nothing like it had ever been seen in battle before.” Edwards wrote that the Spencer saw use in the battlefield starting in 1863, explaining that the units that used them were “enamored by the rapid fire possible and by war’s end was the carbine of choice for Union mounted troops.”

This firearm was so “important” to Norwich University history that the Acquisitions Committee at the Sullivan Museum was actually following the rifle at auction. When the reserve (lowest price) was not met at auction, it drew the attention of the Sullivan staff. Hart said of the acquisition, “when we found that it hadn’t sold; we reached out to the auction company.”

The auction company was able to negotiate a purchase between the seller and the Sullivan Museum. A price was agreed upon with the administration and the trustees at Norwich University.

“Significant in terms of the history of American firearms, it has significance for the university because an alumnus Welles was one of the actors in this story, It has later significance because of Abraham Lincoln during the time of the Civil War,” said history professor Gary Lord, “ This is a very valuable piece for a number of reasons.”
Another significant piece in the collection is the Maj. Gen. Ernest Nason Harmon Colt Woodsman pistol. There are a number of reasons why this pistol is important to the Sullivan Museum including Harmon attending Norwich University as a student; the critical contributions that he made as an educator and administrator at Norwich University; and the significant contributions that he made during his military career and personal life.

In his book “Professional Military Development Of Major General Ernest N. Harmon,” Major Matthew B. Dale writes that Maj. Gen. Harmon participated in the modern pentathlon in the 1924 Paris Olympic games. The modern pentathlon is described (at www.olympics.org) as comprising multiple events consisting of “pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running.”

Maj. Dale explains in his book that Harmon attended Norwich University for one year before leaving to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Harmon would return to Norwich in 1950 as the university’s president after a lengthy and distinguished military career.

The Harmon Olympic pistol drew the interest of the Sullivan Museum. “In 1924, Harmon participated in the Olympic games and one of the events he was in had to prove marksmanship,” Hart said, adding that as a graduate of West Point and attended Norwich for some time, marksmanship was something that was taught.”
The Harmon pistol is unique when compared to most of the firearms found in the Sullivan Museum collection, as it is a non-military civilian firearm chambered in .22 caliber. Most of the firearms in the Sullivan’s collection were developed and used as military combat firearms and their histories are rooted in the battles protecting this country.
The goodwill of the Olympic games, while still competitive, is in stark contrast to that defense of nations.

“It is also unusual for our collection because it’s a low caliber. Most of the firearms that we have, at least in the terms of pistols, typically are 45, 9mm and on up,” Hart said.
The Harmon Colt pistol was retained by the Harmon family and passed on from one generation to another when Harmon gave the pistol to his oldest grandsons, Henry H. Roll. Roll received the pistol around the age of 16. “ When I was a teenager I use to put a lot of rounds through it, target practice and hunting in Connecticut, said Henry H. Roll, Capt. U.S. Army (Ret.).
Roll said of his grandfather: “He influenced me tremendously, inspired me to serve in the Army.” Roll would donate the Colt pistol in 2008, along with another piece to the Sullivan Museum.

Roll understood the significant role that his grandfather played in the history of Norwich University. “General Harmon and Rick Snyder are probably the two most important presidents that Norwich has ever had. My grandfather was a very important man at Norwich, and I thought adding the two pistols to the museum would inspire future cadets and students and would be a great idea,” Roll said.

The legacy of Maj. Gen. Harmon at Norwich University is so significantly part of Norwich that the presentation of pistols was a priceless gift to aid in telling his story. “ Maj. Gen. Harmon completely re-shaped the campus in the 1960s—much of what it is today wouldn’t have been possible without his foresight and planning. To say that Maj. Gen Harmon is one of the most influential presidents is an understatement,” Hart said.

Still another significant piece that has symbolic provenance at the Sullivan Museum is the Lt. Gen. Edward Hale Brooks (U.S. Army, Ret.) German P38 pistol collection.
This piece has tremendous value because Lt. Gen. Brooks was a graduate of Norwich University in 1916 and would be “one of three Norwich alumni who commanded armor divisions in World War II,” Lord said.

The pistol is a “trophy,” said Lord, dated from the surrender of the German 19th Army. Lt. Gen. Brooks received the pistol, magazine and holster from Nazi Lt. Gen. Eric Bandenburger at Innsbruck, Austria on May 5, 1945.
According to the website www.eagles-over-ireland.site50.net/, General Brooks acceptance of the surrender of the 19th and 24th Armies terminated hostilities more than 24 hours before the general surrender in Germany. General Brooks would be awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement in combat operations from April 25 to May 8, 1945.

“They have institutional significance; items like the (Brooks) German pistol, but they also have broader historical importance,” Lord said. This “broader historical importance is World War II and the defeat of Germany.”

The museum would also receive the U.S. flags that Brooks displayed at their headquarters building when it was taken over by U.S. forces. “The building was taken from the Nazi party and the officers that were stationed in Innsbruck. It’s kind of ironic that building the headquarters for the Nazi soldiers ended up becoming the headquarters for the constabulary.” Hart said. “The constabulary would almost act like a police force, but essentially would keep the law and order in post-war Germany to keep order.”

The Sullivan Museum has other Walther and Luger pistols in the collection as well.

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