Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Culpeper’s Toy Soldier Exhibit

 Culture arises and unfolds in and as play.”

Johan Huizinga

On February 4 we visited the Museum of Culpeper History for a Sons of the American Revolution ceremony honoring African-Americans and Native Americans who served in the American War of Independence (AWI). I appreciate these opportunities to learn more about different aspects of history and how they affect our appreciation of our modern world. After a brief overview of the service these oft-overlooked groups gave fighting for freedom, a descendant of Revolutionary War officer Captain Phillip Slaughter spoke about his enslaved servant Spencer accompanying him on campaign in New Jersey, Valley Forge, and elsewhere, taking care of horses and the mess and otherwise supporting Patriot armies in the field. The gallery was packed – the previously planned outdoor ceremony was moved indoors given the forecast cold weather – and we luckily found a spot to stand in a corner of the Civil War gallery next to an exhibit of Civil War toy soldiers made in France. It reminded me I hadn’t taken any photos of these game-related artifacts before, and returned later that week to take pictures for my own reference (and to share) lest the exhibit change in the near future.

I follow a few people online who post about their visits to historical sites and museums, often with plentiful photographs, information, and commentary. Given my adventure gaming hobby frequently fixates on miniatures (for both miniature wargames and tangentially roleplaying games, which sometimes rely on miniatures), I wanted to share a relevant exhibit from our local history museum. The small display includes a basic description of our fascination with toy soldiers, specific information about the company that manufactured the ones on display, and an overview of the process used to produce these figures. Someone donated the CBG Mignot figures to the museum at some point, though the staff estimates they were manufactured in the early 20th century:

These tin figures were produced by the CBG Mignot manufacturer in Paris in the early 1900s and prove that the collecting of American Civil War ephemera was not limited to just the United States but globally as well. Mignot was originally founded in Paris in 1825 and began producing toy soldiers out of lead in 1838. They quickly developed a reputation for their exquisitely crafted miniatures and received a bevy of awards at international expositions throughout the 1800s. In 1928, now with Henri Mignot as owner, the company’s official name of CBG Mignot took shape reflecting the initials of their founders as well as the name of their current owner. The company exists to this day and continues to make miniature soldiers for collectors around the world.

Assessing the height of the infantry figures I’d guess they’re probably around 54mm/1:32 scale, though they seem smaller to me (possibly just slighter). I’ve provided a host of photos below to highlight the variety of figures, from Generals Lee and Grant lurking in the background to infantry and cavalry, plus some stretcher bearers, ambulance wagons, and limbered artillery.

I can’t recall if these went on display just before the pandemic or after covid emerged in early 2020, but they were present for the two wargaming talks/demos I gave in the summer of 2021 (when we thought covid was coming under control...) and remain there at the moment. (The museum used to close the first quarter of each year to renew existing exhibits and prepare new ones, but covid has disrupted or curtailed that practice). Like many museums, part of the collection sits in storage, waiting its turn to emerge for public view; so I’m glad these vintage toy soldiers finally found their way into a museum display.

The Museum of Culpeper History occupies half of the restored train depot at the end of East Davis Street, across the tracks from the National Cemetery. It includes galleries covering many eras in the county’s history: prehistoric times (including a quarry cutting containing dinosaur footprints), native Americans, its early colonial history, the Civil War, and notable events of the 20th century, venturing off to explore intriguing episodes and aspects of each of those periods. It seemed to me in past incarnations its Civil War galleries offered more exhibits than I recently viewed; but the current artifacts – bookended by large wall panels outlining the war’s events and personalities as relating to Culpeper – now consist primarily of one large display case...with General A.P. Hill’s portrait watching over all who venture there (it was removed from standing guard over the county courthouse around the turn of the 21st century).

Close-up of several artifacts, including Enfield and Spingfield bayonets, a lever-action Spencer carbine, a canteen, and artillery shells.

The large display case of Civil War artifacts, most relating to the cavalry since the Battle of Brandy Station occurred on June 9, 1863, in Culpeper County.

Sadly enough, in an adjacent corner from the playful toy soldiers, one finds a small exhibit about Culpeper’s horrific history of lynchings. The museum, like our history, perhaps even like life itself, offers a host of stories playful and tragic, hopeful and deadly, triumphant and regretful. All nations struggle with this paradox of patriotism juxtaposed with sober reality, looking in the mirror and acknowledging our faults as well as our strengths...and hopefully moving forward with a greater understanding, sensitivity, and compassion.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

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