- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

It is the collection of a lifetime — thousands of artifacts, including diaries, uniforms, weapons, flags and soldiers’ accouterments, that tell the story of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

Amassed by retired radiologist Tom Sweeney of Springfield, Mo., many items in the collection have been used for illustrations in the Time-Life book series on the Civil War.

Now it all belongs to the National Park Service in a $4.5 million deal that includes not only the artifacts, but the museum that houses them, a five-bedroom Victorian home and 20 acres.

The best part is, the museum is right across the street from Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic, Mo. Tours of the museum will be included in the price of admission to the park.

Highlights of the collection include the sword belt, buckle, and sash that Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne was wearing when he was killed at the Battle of Franklin. There is also a decorative bone carving by Andersonville prisoner William Colvin from the rib of prison commandant Henry Wirz’s dog, which starving prisoners killed and ate. And there is a Confederate battle flag of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles carried by Indians under Stand Waite.

All told, at least 5,000 items that Mr. Sweeney and his wife, Karen, meticulously researched, categorized, cross-referenced, and displayed in their privately owned museum called General Sweeny’s, named after Mr. Sweeney’s ancestor, Gen. Thomas W. Sweeny, who lost an arm in the Mexican War and who fought at Wilson’s Creek, where he was wounded again.

Somehow, over time, another “e” was added to the family name. Mr. Sweeney says he isn’t sure how.

Mr. Sweeney, who is 70, says that it was a tough decision to sell the collection but that he was swayed in part by his age and the desire for some recreation.

“I’m not going to live forever. … I’d like to do some fly-fishing,” he says.

The collection has drawn accolades from former National Park Service chief historian Edwin C. Bearss and Michael L. Vice, retired curator at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Mr. Bearss, in a letter to Tom Sweeney, describes his collection as extraordinary.

“The collection of objects and photographs associated with personalities, campaigns, battles, and skirmishes in this vast region where ‘war was to the knife and the knife to the hilt’ is unsurpassed,” he writes.

Mr. Vice says the cataloging and record keeping is what sets the collection apart.

“He has extremely meticulous records which are unusual in private collections, and that is what makes it extremely valuable,” Mr. Vice says, adding that the collection should serve as a reminder about the war in the West, which is oftentimes forgotten.

Mr. Sweeney says he became interested in collecting Civil War artifacts at age 12.

“That’s when I got my first artifact, a Colt pocket pistol,” he says. “I paid 25 cents for it.”

That and conversations with Civil War veterans still living when Mr. Sweeney was a youngster helped spark a fascination.

Through the years, Mr. Sweeney traveled around the country attending collectors’ shows and honing his skills in buying and selling. One purchase was John Brown’s Bible, which contains the written names of the abolitionist’s wives and children. Mr. Sweeney sold it to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia for an undisclosed sum. Mr. Sweeney says the sale price helped build his museum, which he opened in 1993.

Other highlights in the collection include an 1864 tintype of Bloody Bill Anderson’s corpse. The photo shows bullet holes in the forehead and cheek of the pro-Southern guerrilla. Faintly visible in the picture and holding the Missourian’s head by the hair is a Federal cavalryman.

The collection also includes the official pass that paved the way for the retrieval of the body of Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon after he was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. There are also two Medal of Honor medallions in their cases with the accompanying letters and photographs.

For the Sweeneys, the Trans-Mississippi was a story waiting to be told. Once Tom Sweeney decided he wanted to build a collection of artifacts from that theater, the phone began ringing. Calls with offers of artifacts for sale began coming in weekly at first, then almost daily, Karen Sweeney says.

“It was like this stuff just came to us,” she says.

But her husband knew early on he did not want a museum with just relics. He says he wants the artifacts to tell stories — something he achieved through documentation on the authenticity of his holdings.

The collection is a boon for Wilson’s Creek, which has been called a “jewel” among Civil War battlefield parks because of its pristine condition. The park, which boasts archaeological sites, historic structures, and artifacts, appears much the way it did in 1861, when more than 17,000 troops clashed over control of Missouri.

Complimenting the Sweeney collection is the park’s new Civil War research library focusing on the Trans-Mississippi. The 9,000-volume, 8,500-square-foot library, which opened in 2003, is the park service’s largest Civil War research library, says Wilson’s Creek Superintendent Ted Hilmer.

Kelly Garbus is a freelance writer from Smithville, Mo.

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