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Ft. Ticonderoga acquires major collection as it prepares for 250th anniversary of American Revolution

Charles Reynolds' musket
Fort Ticonderoga
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Charles Reynolds' musket

Fort Ticonderoga has acquired a private collection of more than 3,000 objects, including over 200 rare firearms, as the historical site prepares to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the American War for Independence.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Matthew Keagle, Fort Ticonderoga Museum Curator, and Fort President and CEO Beth Hill about the significance of the acquisition.

Keagle: The Robert Nittolo collection is perhaps the single largest, most important collection of material culture relating to the conflicts that shaped our nation really, in the 18th century, primarily the American Revolution, but the French and Indian War and other colonial conflicts as well. And so, it contains objects from almost two centuries worth of time in the 1600s and 1700s, including weaponry, muskets and swords, and that kind of thing, all the way to soldiers’ clothing, their personal equipment, their accoutrement, all the tools that they used in the field, manuscripts, books that they used to learn the art of war. It really crosses almost every object type of the things that actually saw service during the military conflicts of the 18th century.

Levulis: And understand one of the key pieces of this collection is what's known as the Charles Reynolds musket. Can you detail what exactly that is?

Keagle: Yeah, this is a particularly interesting musket in that it's one that is identified to a specific Continental soldier during the Revolutionary War. And of course, collections like Fort Ticonderoga’s have many firearms that date to this time period. But it's rare that we can actually pinpoint one to an individual. And this one has the distinct benefit of having its owner's name actually engraved on the stock. And what's more, beyond writing his name, Charles Reynolds, is the deeply branded initials U. S. on top of that, that indicates that this was a property of not even at the time the federal government but of the Continental Congress, as they tried to get a hold of the military equipment that they had, that they were using, quite literally, to wage a war for independence to create this nation that we now know is the United States of America. And Charles Reynolds is somebody that we've been able to learn more about. He was quite young, most accounts indicate he was 15-years-old, when he made the decision to enlist in the Continental Army. And importantly, he didn't just sign up for a year, he actually signed up for a term of the duration of the war. So he enlisted committing himself to being in the Continental Army for as long as that war would take. And in 1777, when he enlisted, no one knew how long that war would last. It had already gone on for two years. And he was making an unknown commitment. But he served out that commitment. And when the Revolutionary War did end in 1783, he was discharged with other Continental soldiers who had signed up for that term.

 Fort Ticonderoga staff works on the Robert Nittolo Collection
Fort Ticonderoga
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Fort Ticonderoga staff works on the Robert Nittolo Collection

Levulis: Was that unknown commitment, as you mentioned there, was that a rare thing to do being that as you detailed earlier, you know, it wasn't a fully functioning government that was employing these soldiers. And we didn't know what the future would hold. To make that sort of unending, undated commitment was that rare?

Keagle: It was a unique concession that the Continental Congress made for the army that was fighting on its behalf. Because most of the armies of the time, the professional standing armies of Europe, like the British Army that the Americans were facing, or the French Army that we hope to get on our side, soldiers would often there serve up for many, many years at a time. And what Americans found is that as the Revolutionary War began, Americans weren't willing to commit themselves to joining an organization like a standing army for long periods of time. And so the first three years of the Revolutionary War, we did what we did in previous conflicts, which was men signed up to serve eight months or a year, basically, the confines of a single military campaign. And what they realized, what George Washington realized, among others, is that they were never going to maintain a war against the British this way. That you had to basically recreate an army every year. And when those men went home at the end of a campaign or the end of a year, they took with them their experience, they took with them the investment and weapons and provisions and uniforms and equipment. And that if they were going to hold out against the British for a war that was looking like it was going to be long, they needed men to stay around. But they knew that they couldn't get men to enlist for the same duration that they would in a European army, you know, under a king. And so they made a compromise. And Congress said you could enlist. You had two options. You could enlist for three years, or the duration of the war, whichever comes first. And so men had a choice by 1777. If they were going to enlist in the Continental Army, they could choose one of these, you know, if the war only lasts two more years, great, you're out early, if it lasts three, you’re in a little longer. But they didn't know how long it was going to last. And this was a unique concession to the character of Americans and their willingness to serve in the field to get an army that Congress needed to maintain pressure against the British to win the independence that was at that time, not even a year old.

Levulis: Beth Hill is the President and CEO of Fort Ticonderoga. Beth, how did this acquisition come to be?

Hill: Our museum staff was familiar with the Robert Nittolo collection, which as Matthew said, is considered to be the finest collection of 18th century militaria that exists in private hands. And it was really through personal meeting with the owner of the collection, Robert Nittolo. In fact, it was Matthew who initially met with Robert Nitollo and engaged with him in the conversation about his collection. And we learned this really remarkable story and one that is echoed through so many people who I talk with whether it's scholars or teachers or educators, that Bob Nittolo as a young boy came to Ticonderoga. He's in his early 80s now, but as a young band, he came here and he had what we call the Ticonderoga spark, in that he fell in love with the history and really the complexity of the Ticonderoga story, the French, the British, the American, the Native nations, and all of the other armies that who are here. And our museum founders collecting approach of the Atlantic world and the long 18th century was really what inspired Bob to spend his entire life going all over the world, collecting more than 3,000 objects to comprise his truly singular and remarkable collection. And so after a conversation with Matthew about his desire for his collection to come full circle and come in a way home to where, you know, his passion began. We took this opportunity. I met with Bob and then of course introduced him to our board chairman, Fort Ticonderoga is a private nonprofit educational organization and museum and certainly engaging our board in the conversation, we had already had long term plans for capital growth. And this acquisition at that time, back in 2017, wasn't yet part of it. But it was one of those opportunities where we had to seize the day and pursue this acquisition. It could never be replicated again. And it truly is transformative for our institution.

Levulis: And you mentioned a bit of it, the Fort plans to finalize this $12 million collection acquisition of more than 3,000 objects over the next few years. This is happening, thanks in part to a $70 million capital campaign, which coincides with the 250th commemoration of the Revolutionary War. How is that campaign going and what else is part of that campaign?

Hill: Our campaign Shaping America Then and Now has been years in the making, in fact about a decade of planning and prioritization. And we have already completed our phase one of the plan which was the restoration and adaptive reuse of a National Historic Landmark, The Pavilion, which was built in 1826 by the Pell family who first preserved the Ticonderoga Peninsula and then founded our museum. With that project complete, the second phase of the campaign is the new Nitollo acquisition. And we've raised about $8 million to date in gifts and pledges of the $12 million total. We have acquired the firearms portion of the collection as of the end of last year. And so we're working hard to complete this acquisition. The third major piece of the capital campaign is the construction of a new major museum facility, which will really highlight the origin and evolution of our nation's military. And really, you know, for the first time be able to showcase in an extensive and incredible way our holdings and understanding of the period really at once, you know, taking a macro approach to the history and then micro approach to Ticonderoga’s specific story. There'll be other elements of the 250th initiatives such as the preservation and restoration of our historic structures including the fort walls right now we have a major project going on, funded in part by Save America's Treasures and an appropriation through Senator Schumer's office, and some additional restoration work done on the forts. And then programmatically across our site. We'll be implementing what we have trademarked Real Time Revolution, which is a program which will follow the story arc, really starting in 1774 through 1777. And even beyond, highlighting these anchor moments and signature stories of America's history, which took place right here at Fort Ticonderoga. As well as major exhibitions and other programs, whether it's teacher engagement or seminars or publications, as well as experiences on our Center for Digital History Learning platform. So we're just absolutely thrilled with the opportunity to take such monumental steps forward with this institution, and at such an incredible moment in our nation's history as we reflect on the meaning of the War for Independence, and its legacy today.

Levulis: And when might visitors to Fort Ticonderoga first be able to see some of these some items of this collection?

Keagle: We do currently have a few pieces on display in the museum. So when we open for our campaign season or our daily visitation season at the beginning of May, there will be some of these pieces on display. But we're working right now, as Beth mentioned, on some major exhibition plans for the 250th anniversary, where we'll be mobilizing many, many more pieces from this collection to help contextualize that broad experience of the American Revolution as it occurred, you know, both locally, nationally and globally. So as early as 2024, you'll be seeing a lot more of this material available. But we're always also making this content as well as other pieces from our collection accessible to anyone through Ticonderoga is online museum database which can be accessed from our website, wherever you are. I would just maybe also comment that as I've said before Beth, this is perhaps the most significant acquisition to the museum. The most significant act the museum has undertaken almost since the restoration of Fort Ticonderoga in the early 20th century. So we're taking ourselves as an institution into another century of historic preservation and education in a different way. And connecting it with the 250th anniversary of The American Revolution is such a key way to gain traction and interest I think in this time period and these objects and what they represent for our nation and beyond.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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