After two decades in storage at Pompeys Pillar National Monument, a relic from the Civil War and four historical horse-drawn wagons are now at home in two Montana museums.
An 1863 ordnance rifle (cannon) used by federal troops during the Civil War is on permanent loan to the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History in Missoula. A historical water wagon, field wagon, farm wagon, and log/ore wagon are at the Big Horn County Museum in Hardin.
“These pieces of our country’s history belong in a place better suited for their display and interpretation,” said Irv Leach, who was the acting Monument Manager when the transfers took place. “They’ll be great additions to the museums.”
How did a Civil War cannon wind up in storage at Pompeys Pillar? The Rocky Mountain Museum’s Fall 2011 newsletter says that it was manufactured at the Phoenix Iron Works in Phoenixville, Penn., for the New Jersey State Militia a few months after the 1863 Gettysburg battle. The cannon, also known as a “Griffin Gun” after its designer John Griffin, was part of a shipment to the New Jersey State Arsenal in Trenton, N.J., where it likely remained until the 1900s. At that point, according to New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum historian Joseph Bilby, the cannon was sold to Bannerman’s Military Surplus in New York City. Bannerman’s was the sale point for much of the nation’s Civil War surplus and active into the 1950s.
The newsletter goes on to say that the Foote family of Billings purchased the cannon and displayed it-- along with the four wagons -- in its frontier collection at the base of Pompeys Pillar.
The display remained there until 1991 when the BLM acquired the Pillar and was tasked with preserving and interpreting the site as a segment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At that time, the cannon and wagons went into storage on the property.
In an effort to find a more suitable home for the cannon and wagons, David K. Wade, museum curator for the BLM Billings Curation Center, contacted all the museums in Montana. Of the seven that expressed interest, two had the facilities to store and display the items in enclosed buildings. Protecting them from further deterioration was a primary concern, said Carolyn Sherve-Bybee of the Billings Field Office.
The Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History seemed the logical home for the cannon. Dedicated to promoting the commemoration and study of the U.S. armed services, the museum is now restoring the cannon to its original appearance and firing condition. Once finished, it will be put on display with the rest of the museum’s extensive collection.
The wagons went to the Big Horn County Historical Museum in Hardin, where they are now on display in an enclosed building. Museum Director Diana Scheidt said that all the wagons have structural issues and need some repair, but that the goal is not to restore them to pristine condition. Instead, the museum will replace missing pieces and restore structural integrity, striving to use historically accurate parts and maintain original design. Meanwhile, museum staff is researching the wagons’ history and will eventually add that information to the display.
“We’re very excited to add these wagons to our collection,” said Scheidt.
Special thanks go to Fire Management Officer Irv Leach and Planning and Environmental Specialist Carolyn Sherve-Bybee (Billings Field Office); David K. Wade; and Property Manager Betty Thompson (Montana State Office) for facilitating the donations.