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Hidden Treasures: The Armory's Military Artifact Collection

Stained glass window

May 9, 2014

Drexel has a proud military history, so it’s only fitting that an extensive collection of artifacts from the armed forces sits right on the University City Campus.

The museum collections of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard 103rd Engineer Battalion, housed in the Armory on the University City Campus, contain military uniforms, weapons and a range of memorabilia from conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“There are items in here that nobody has, except us,” said retired Master Sgt. Jack Ragan, one of the collection’s curators.

The 103rd Engineer Battalion, whose identity has shifted many times as it was assigned different responsibilities, was first organized in 1777 as the Philadelphia Artillery Battalion. Its roots stretch back even earlier, though, to militias that protected the city along the Delaware River, independent of the pacifist Quakers who controlled the Pennsylvania colony.

Under different designations, the unit fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The collection consists largely of items that unit members brought back from those conflicts as souvenirs, donated later by their families or by the men themselves.

Especially extensive are the Battalion’s collections from the Civil War and World War I, each of which takes up most of an entire room.

From the Civil War, visitors can see original uniforms from a colonel and an enlisted soldier, along with scores of other artifacts.

“The articles from the Civil War are an outstanding piece, because of the condition they’re in,” Ragan said.

A flag on display is the only one carried on the battlefield at Gettysburg that remains in private hands, said retired 1st Lt. Mike Benson, another curator. Also on display is a drum that was made in Philadelphia and carried in the Civil War. Back in the 1860s, drums actually served a valuable purpose in combat, Benson said.

“The fifers and drummers were actually very important, so that people could hear the orders,” Benson joked.

On the wall in the World War I-themed room is a stained glass window made by famed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, one of several installed at the 103rd Engineers’ former armory in the 1880s, thanks to a connection with a friendly regiment in New York for which Tiffany had done work. (The battalion moved to its current location in 1959.)

“We have a nice collection of Tiffany, which you don’t typically find in military units,” Benson joked.

Two small cannons on display in the Civil War room were cast in the Netherlands in 1680, Benson said, and used when the unit responded to riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s.

“They look like toys, but they do work,” Benson said.

Another curiosity on display that draws some attention, he said, is a wooden leg brought back from the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s.

In addition to a wide variety of artifacts from the unit’s history, a “parade of uniforms” shows how the unit’s soldiers and officers looked during conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War. The World War II uniform comes complete with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which were included in soldiers’ rations.

The collection also commemorates the cost of war. During World War I, the unit — then an infantry regiment — sent about 1,600 troops to fight in France. In only about nine months, 700 or so died. A plaque on display in the armory’s main entrance off Lancaster Walk lists their names.

The armory collection is available to tour by appointment, and interested people can contact Ragan at 215.300.5143. 

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