The Iconic Exhibit
Today the double musket rack proudly stands as a showpiece display at the Springfield Armory NHS as it has since the museum opened to the public in 1871. Towering a little over 11-feet 8-inches tall, 11-feet long, and 7-feet wide, it is double-tiered and presently painted gold with a black mop-board base. Believed to have been built to hold 1,100 muskets (550 each tier), it presently contains 645 M1861 Springfield Rifle-Muskets and 3 M1816 Springfield Flintlocks.
Although awe inspiring, the rack’s origins are only partly known, reminding visitors that the Armory workforce built the racks with the sole intention of using them to store arms, not to display them in a museum. The 85 or so other racks that once filled each floor of the Main Arsenal (Building 13, the current museum), sprang from the innovative mind of Ordnance officer Major William Wade. In a May 13, 1830 letter to Superintendent Col. Lee, Wade wrote that:
"The spectacle of a room containing twenty thousand arms, so arranged that every one would be visible; that any one could be taken hold of, examined, and replaced; at pleasure; with abundance of light, and of space for passages; the absence of any visible means by which they, or the floor above, are supported; the order, simplicity, neatness, and magnitude of the whole; would together, form a scene worth a journey of some miles to enjoy".
While the age of the rack is not known for sure, it is believed to be one of the racks mentioned in an Ordnance Appropriation of March 2, 1833: "Thirty-six double racks for placing arms in the new arsenal at Springfield - $5,100 [for all 36 racks]." These racks were built for M1816 Type II flintlock muskets, and then modified by the armory to fit the shorter M1855 and M1861 rifles. The adjustment can be seen today on the back portion of the bottom rack where three flintlock muskets are kept adjacent to the shorter M1861s. The current paint scheme is not considered original; preliminary tests indicate that the original base paint was a type of false graining.
The origins of the 645 exhibited M1861 Springfield Rifle-Muskets, dated 1862, remains shrouded in mystery. Prior to and even during the Civil War the Armory did not stamp serial numbers on their products, making it very difficult to track where a firearm went after it left the Armory. Some Springfield Republican articles from early 1866 described “several thousands of the Springfield pattern, the model of ’61 … ” in storage as well as “many Springfield guns of the date 1862 … ” from captured Confederate arsenals.
The Double Racks in Use
The system of open rack storage for newly finished muskets, so carefully articulated and realized by Chief of Ordnance Col. George Bomford in the early 1830’s, effectively ceased three decades after its inception. On September 8, 1862, the Armory received a letter from the Ordnance Office which stated that “ … hereafter all serviceable arms will be kept packed in boxes ready for immediate transportation.” Designed at a time of relative peace by men who never saw the catastrophe of Civil War that placed unprecedented demands on the Armory, the extraordinary double racks were set aside to make way for a more prosaic but practical storage method of keeping guns packed in crates ready for shipment.
“The Arsenal at Springfield”
About ten years after the gun racks were built, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife Frances Appleton Longfellow visited Springfield Armory on an extended honeymoon in July 1843. Passing through Springfield, they visited the Arsenal along with Longfellow's close friend, Charles Sumner, who had joined them for part of their trip. All three denounced the wastefulness of war, and Mrs. Longfellow remarked that the barrels of the muskets arranged as they were on storage racks resembled pipes of a church organ: only this organ played a melody of death. The remark inspired Longfellow to write the peace poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield,” which can be read at the front of the rack. Longfellow’s visit took place at the Middle Arsenal (Building 14), one of three arsenal buildings which face State Street.
The earliest reference in the popular press to the term “Organ of Muskets” for the gun rack occurred on April 21, 1898 in The Springfield Republican which noted that, “only one small collection of pipes is left to indicate what a fine instrument it was in its day.” The double rack was thereafter occasionally moved, disassembled and reassembled then moved in 1968 with the rest of the museum to the Main Arsenal building, where it resides today. As an attempt to improve a military production and storage system, it was both effective and elegant until the demands of warfare made it a curious relic.
Compiled by Richard Colton, historian, Springfield Armory NHS – 11/12/03
Edited by Luke Howard, Park Guide – November, 2016
Abbott, Jacob. “The Armory at Springfield.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine No. XXVI. July, 1852. Vol. V, pp. 145-161.
Benet, Stephen V. A Collection of Annual Reports and Other Important Papers Relating to the Ordnance Department. V. 1 (1812-1844), Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1878.
King, Moses. King’s Handbook of Springfield, Massachusetts. James D. Gill: Springfield, MA, 1884.
“The Arsenal at Springfield,” Springfield Republican, April 21, 1898.
Microfilm roll 60, Ordnance Office to Capt. A. B. Dyer, Sept. 8th, 1862.
“Matters at the Armory,” Springfield Republican, February 24, 1866 and March 3, 1866.
Microfilm roll 54, Maj. William Wade to Col. R. Lee, May 13th, 1830.