ATLANTA — Standing amid the new exhibition “Confederate Odyssey: The George W. Wray Collection,” Atlanta History Center senior military historian Gordon Jones is surrounded by many weapons of battlefield destruction — rows of rifles, swords and bayonets, four cannons, ammunition.
Yet it’s a modest handmade coat in the middle of all this armament that commands Jones’ attention and causes him to pull closer.
It’s a crimson-stained frock coat worn by 17-year-old Pvt. Benjamin Schumpert of the 3rd South Carolina Infantry, a simple, lightweight garment sewn out of striped cotton ticking. The Americus teenager was wearing it in September 1863 during the Battle of Chickamauga when he was struck in the head by a minié ball, dying a quick, bloody death.
“Here’s the tragedy and sacrifice of the Civil War embodied in this one artifact,” Jones said, his usually subdued, folksy tone suddenly brimming with passion. “My hand is just a few inches away from this artifact that this boy was wearing when he was killed. That’s his life’s blood (whose stains discolor the homespun material).
“And you can’t have this experience in a movie. It’s gotta be in a museum. That’s why we have artifacts, because they’re the real thing.”
There are 200 real-thing artifacts on view in “Confederate Odyssey,” the best of the 600-piece collection (1,300, if you count every bullet and errant gun part) that the history center acquired from Atlantan Wray’s estate in 2005, the year after he died.
It won’t change which side lost the war, but the acquisition of Wray’s collection and this first stand-alone exhibit of its prime objects could be scored as a sesquicentennial victory — not just for the history center but for anyone interested in the less-chronicled artifacts of the Confederacy.
Wray, who had North Carolina ancestors who fought for the gray side, began collecting in 1948 and gradually assembled what Jones considers one of the world’s finest collections of Confederate relics.
The history center already was regarded as one of the country’s pre-eminent repositories of the war’s artifacts, built around the DuBose Civil War Collection of 7,500 Union and Confederate objects, when Wray approached the Buckhead institution in 2001 to purchase his treasures. A longtime executive with the International Silver Co., whose extensive travels allowed him to attend Civil War relic shows and to plunge into research at out-of-town archives and libraries, Wray wanted his collection to pair with that of friend and fellow obsessive Beverly “Bo” DuBose III.
The history center agreed that it was a worthy union and worked out a part-purchase, part-donation deal — reported at the time to be in the “multimillion-dollar range” — with Wray’s estate. Jones declined to disclose the amount but said it remains the costliest collection purchase in the institution’s 88-year history and that fundraising continues nearly a decade after it was acquired.
Though the National Park Service boasts a larger Civil War collection, it’s spread around multiple locations. The history center, with 11,000 pieces, now claims to have the most comprehensive one anywhere under one roof.
“Confederate Odyssey” marks a coming out for the Wray collection, which underwent years of cataloging, research and preservation. The objects that have been shown in recent years as part of its permanent exhibit, “Turning Point: The American Civil War,” or in lobby cases represent no more than 5 percent of Wray’s treasures.
Though there are extremely rare Confederate uniforms (homemade and military-issued), hand-stitched battle flags (including one carried by a Georgia regiment into a hail of bullets during the Battle of Atlanta) and other artifacts on view, weapons dominate this first focused show, just as they do in Wray’s collection.
To Jones, this is appropriate, since so much of the war hinged on the success of the more industrialized North in mass producing effective “tools of war” with interchangeable parts. Meanwhile, the agrarian South struggled with obsolete weapons and complicated dealings to trade cotton for English-made arms secreted through the Union Navy’s port blockades.
“We want no … mechanical or manufacturing classes,” Texas Sen. Louis T. Wigfall said in 1861, in a quote blown up on an exhibit wall. “As long as we have our cotton, our rice, our sugar, our tobacco, we can command wealth to purchase all we want.”
That strategy worked for a time, until the blockades tightened and the weapons and Confederates to fire them became more scarce.
Wray collected many examples of English-import weapons, but also Confederate-made arms and rifles and shotguns brought to the battlefield by volunteer soldiers. Notable among his acquisitions: a patent model and prototype of a breech-loading gun invented by New Hampshire-born gun-maker George M. Morse, who went to work for the Southern side.
Jones called Wray a “genius with a photographic memory” whom other collectors would follow around gun shows. “If he was looking at something,” they told the historian, “it must be something, right?”
And, before there was an Internet, Wray did the research to back it up. His collection includes 14 file boxes of his detailed notes on the most important objects. They were of significant help to Jones in compiling the 448-page collection catalog, with nearly 900 color photographs, that the University of Georgia Press ($49.95) will publish in October.
“It’s a great story when you know how to read it,” the curator said of “Confederate Odyssey.” “It’s all about reading artifacts.”