Chair and Curator of the Division of Armed Forces History and the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History
For Jennifer Jones, the Civil War sesquicentennial brought her career full circle.
“In 1983, I arrived at the National Museum of American History as an intern with the Division of Armed Forces History. During my internship, I really began to think about how the Civil War changed America. The Consortia-supported projects around the Civil War 150th Anniversary brought me back to my beginnings at the Smithsonian.”
Civil War 150th Anniversary
NMAH’s Civil War collections already had a major presence in three exhibitions—The Presidency, First Ladies and The Price of Freedom—so the Museum had not planned new Civil War exhibitions for the sesquicentennial. “The Consortia challenged us to think about how to broaden our understanding of the Smithsonian’s Civil War collections,” says Jones. “Michelle Delaney, Director of the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience, convened a group of people from across the Smithsonian that were all working on Civil War projects but didn’t necessarily know one another, giving us the opportunity to build new partnerships and work cooperatively across the Institution.”
Collaborators included staff from NMAH, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Air and Space Museum, African-American Museum of Culture, Cooper-Hewitt, Natural Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and even more.
“We realized there were collections all across the Institution that could play a role in telling the story of the Civil War. We have a unique, first-hand story to tell because the Smithsonian and its Secretary and family were in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. His daughter kept diaries where she talked about watching troops assemble on the National Mall, being issued firearms for the defense of the Smithsonian Castle, and seeing soldiers come across the river bloodied after the First Battle of Manassas. So we brought these stories together in a book—Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection—and the three-part series Civil War 360 on the Smithsonian Channel.”
The Consortia initiative also resulted in a series of projects that include multiple exhibitions around the Smithsonian; Lines in Long Array published by the National Portrait Gallery, and symposia such as Astride Two Ages: Technology and the Civil War.
As curator, Jones cares for around 25,000 artifacts of the Civil War alone, including a Confederate uniform collection that is among the top three in the nation.
Mass production and standardization
“The Civil War changed how America and the military thought about interchangeable parts,” says Jones. When the military was first established in the United States under George Washington, everything was made by hand. The firearms and all of the equipment were homemade, purchased from artisans, or obtained from the militaries of other countries. “With the beginnings of mass production in America, if something broke on the battlefield such as a firearm mechanism, there was another part that had already been manufactured that could replace it. So, you didn’t have to go back to a firearms maker and get a custom-made replacement piece.”
The U.S. Quartermaster Corps, headed by Montgomery C. Meigs, led the way in mass production and standardization during the Civil War. “They wanted to be able to have three different size uniforms, and so we’ve got the quartermaster collection here at the Museum that shows the dots inside the shoulder sleeve to indicate small, medium, and large. So tailor-made coats became only for officers.” Boots and shoes for the troops were also manufactured in different sizes rather than made to order by a boot maker.
Wagon wheels were another critical component that called for standardization. With different sized wagons and wheels, each wagon would need to carry its own spare parts for when they broke. “Interchangeable wheels became very important in the mobility of the Army, and the movement of the troops during the Civil War was really one that was well tested,” says Jones.
Jones grew up in New Jersey surrounded by Revolutionary War history, graduating from high school in 1981 during the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Yorktown. “When I was in high school, a good friend and his family were doing living history reenactments. During the American Revolutionary period, women and families would follow the soldiers because that was often their only source of livelihood and it would keep the family together.” Jones became interested in the human perspective of the military and in questions such as why do people join the military, what do they fight for, and what keeps them going.
Jones’s research interests include the Civil War, World War II era, Vietnam era material culture, and contemporary collecting. Her recent work with the National Numismatics Collection includes an innovative rapid-capture project that digitizes objects and, within 30 hours, makes the information accessible to the public for transcription and research, the first such project within the Smithsonian.