Rockbridge Historical Society’s rare War of 1812/Rockbridge Cavalry helmet nominated for State Preservation Program.
Hung in the home of the Johnstone family for decades as a family heirloom, the striking cavalry helmet was donated to the RHS in 1949, and remains protectively stored with the Society’s most historic papers at Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections. To local audiences more familiar with re-enactors’ kepis of the 1860s, or the tricornered hats of Revolutionary iconography, the dramatic pluming and brass-scaled chinstraps of the “Napoleonic” helmet may initially strike viewers not only as fiercely strange, but as oddly foreign: its very unfamiliarity an index of the need to unpack our local histories anew. Collaborative research is still teasing out and clarifying the artifact’s material and cultural dimensions. But comparative matches to helmets from national antiques dealers, early manufacturer records, and Rockbridge military rolls all indicate that this helmet was characteristic of the Virginia Militia, whose Rockbridge volunteers were led by Lt. Col. James McDowell in the Eastern Virginia campaigns of the War of 1812.
Beyond that first use in the field, however, letters and journals from area citizens, as well as contemporary articles and images published in the Lexington Gazette and national magazines demonstrate that such helmets were ceremonially used in local musterings even into the decades that followed. Writing for Harper’s Weekly in 1866, John Leyburn reflected back to the Lexington of his youth, evoking the dramatic spectacle when the militia mustered on Main Street: “The General Muster was the day of days … Troopers with stub-tailed coats profusely buttoned, uncomfortable leather helmets with horsetail pendants, and glittering swords, dashed through scampering crowds on sleek, fat, prancing steeds… John Falstaff, what a regiment! Sixteen of the sixty troopers in the full panoply of horse-helmets, and bullet –buttons, the remainder arrayed each as seemed best in his own eyes.” These were not mere tokens of ceremonial nostalgia, however; the commanding headgear found continued afterlife as another war beckoned. As late as 1861, enough helmets had been locally preserved to be re-cycled again by the Rockbridge 1st Dragoons, 14th Reg. of Gen. Stuart’s 1st VA Cavalry, crowning their charge at “Bull Run” in 1861.
The Rockbridge Historical Society is among the nominees for the 2014 Top Ten Endangered Artifacts Program sponsored by the Virginia Association of Museums. Recently elected as a member of VAM’s Governing Council, RHS Executive Director Eric Wilson notes that after only a week into its public release, the Top Ten Program is already delivering on some of its overarching aims: “increased visibility for the distinctive treasures of Virginia heritage; promotion of conservation efforts for specific objects and more general archival needs; and advocacy for the varied missions of sponsoring institutions and Virginia Museums more broadly, who lead the way in the work of historic preservation.” For an illustrated list of all nominees and opportunities for participation, see: http://www.vamuseums.org/?Top10; you can also vote online for RHS’ Rockbridge Dragoon helmet, or for another historic nominee, in the Top Ten Endangered’s “People’s Choice Award.”
To view an interactive 3-D image of the helmet, modeled by the Integrative and Quantitative (IQ) Center at Washington and Lee University, click here. [To manipulate the image, click and hold on the helmet, and rotate in any direction; to see annotations, click on any of the tagged numbers].
Published in Harper’s Weekly shortly after the first Battle of Manassas/Bull Run in 1861, this engraving shows an array of uniforms and arms from the Confederate soldiers engaged in their dramatic victory there. Second from left, the caption identifies the “Dragoon Guards, 14th Regt. Va. Cavalry” including Rockbridge’s Troopers, and all riding under the command of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Linking this moment to the “Napoleonic” styles (and supplies) of wars now 50 years past, the image clearly shows the distinctive, long horsehair pluming, the brass ring securing the helmet’s base and leather casing, and the brass-scaled chinstraps that hearken back further to the legions of Rome.
Militia Muster Call in 1860 Lexington-Gazette. Note the plumed Dragoon helmet as standard bearer.