In 1862, Capt. Joseph Carpenter donated a piece of steel armor to the Virginia Military Institute Museum; he cut it off a dead Union soldier at the Battle of Port Republic.
It’s unclear, however, whether the soldier who lost his life in that clash was actually attacking Carpenter’s infantry — maybe even the 1856 VMI graduate himself — or whether Carpenter simply noticed the rare armor on a fallen soldier.
Captain of Company A in the 27th Virginia Infantry, Carpenter survived the Battle of Port Republic but not the war. In August of that same year, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain near Culpeper.
The soldier wearing the armor he took was likely a member of the 7th Indiana Infantry, which attacked the 27th Virginia in Port Republic.
Carpenter probably never considered that the piece would end up as one of only few of its kind on display nationwide.
The steel armor went on permanent display at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park’s Virginia Museum of the Civil War in April, after being off public display for at least 30 years. This is the first time the armor has been at the museum in New Market, and it’s one of the oldest pieces in the place.
Similar pieces are housed at a museum in Chicago, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — but the latter is a re-creation based off the New Market version.
“They borrowed it in 1913 to have their staff make a copy of it,” explained Col. Keith Gibson, director of the museum systems at VMI. “They have a very large and important collection of medieval armor. That’s why they were interesting in this.”
Why So Rare?
The armor, manufactured by the Atwater Armor Co. of New Haven, Conn., was rare during the Civil War for a few reasons.
The piece, which protected only the torso of a soldier, weighs roughly 10 pounds — a lot of added weight for a man with an otherwise heavy load.
In addition to being uncomfortable and heavy, it could also be a source of emotional pain for a soldier who chose to wear it.
“If you were to shield yourself with this armor plating, you might encourage the wrath or at least the good-natured chiding from your fellow soldiers,” Gibson explained.
Overall, “it was sort of a holdover from earlier days of knights and chivalry,” he says.
In addition, the piece would’ve been expensive, perhaps costing the equivalent of a month’s wages for an enlisted man, Gibson said.
Regardless of whether the fallen soldier who wore the piece attacked Carpenter or his troops directly, the armor was still “a novel souvenir” for the captain to take home, Gibson added.
“It helped propagate an image about Union soldiers being not as brave as Confederate soldiers,” Gibson explained.
The New Market Battlefield State Historical Park is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Admission costs $10 for adults aged 13-64; $9 for adults aged 65 and up, and $6 for children aged 6-12. Admission is free for younger children, VMI cadets, their parents and VMI alumni.
Contact Candace Sipos at (540) 574-6725 or firstname.lastname@example.org