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Vist: The National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey

FROM THE WAR OF 1812 TO F-4 PHANTOMS, THIS MUSEUM HAS IT ALL

Photos by Frank T. Foley

Established in 1980, to highlight and preserve New Jersey’s long military history, the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey features exhibits related to the state’s role in conflicts tracing back to the Revolutionary War. 

The museum is located on the grounds of the National Guard Training Center in Sea Girt, New Jersey. Sea Girt has been the home of the New Jersey National Guard since 1885. Also located on the same property is the New Jersey State Police Academy, along with various state agencies.

The current director and curator of the Militia Museum is New Jersey National Guard Staff Sergeant Andrew Walker. Walker explained that the mission of the museum is to tell the story of the New Jersey National Guard and those who have served in it. 

The Militia Museum is open to the public and offers self-guided and guided tours. Group tours are also available and the museum welcomes school groups, veterans’ groups, civic groups, active military members, and anyone interested in learning about New Jersey’s military history. Admission is free, and donations are greatly appreciated.

Exterior of the new National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.
Exterior of the new National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.

The Militia Museum’s artifact collection extensively documents the New Jersey National Guard’s history. The exhibits on display come from a combination of both government and private donations. Since the 1990s, the museum’s collection has continued to expand. 

This growth has been facilitated in part by numerous volunteers who provide valuable expertise in preparing exhibits for display. Some of the volunteers are military veterans, but military service is not a requirement to volunteer with the museum. 

The success of the Militia Museum has further created various opportunities for public involvement. For example, college students interested in history and museums can be considered for internship opportunities.

Despite all of its growth and success, the Militia Museum has also suffered setbacks. In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey coast. A massive storm surge resulted in the flooding of homes and buildings and damaged critical infrastructure in shore communities. The museum had been located near tidal waters and was flooded.

Eventually, the Militia Museum was able to reopen its doors to the public. However, museum leadership saw there was a clear need to relocate the museum further inland and away from potential sources of flooding. In December of 2020, the entire museum collection was relocated to another building, a move that took six months to complete.

Republic F-84F “Thunderstreak” fighter bomber.
Republic F-84F “Thunderstreak” fighter bomber.

The current location of the Militia Museum is near the entrance to the National Guard Training Center. The move made the museum more accessible to the public as its present location is closer to downtown Sea Girt, bringing it within walking distance of local shops, restaurants, and other attractions. 

In addition to the Sea Girt Militia Museum, a second museum site is located at the Lawrenceville Armory in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The Lawrenceville Armory is an extension of the collection on display in Sea Girt. Both sites are funded and overseen by federal and state agencies. However, this article focuses exclusively on the Militia Museum at Sea Girt.

The Militia Museum displays include tanks, aircraft, weaponry, uniforms, and even a Civil War-era submarine. All items on display are relevant to New Jersey’s military history. 

Present in display cases is information about the various conflicts that New Jerseyans have been involved in which include the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the ongoing War on Terror. There’s even a display featuring information about how the New Jersey National Guard has participated in combating the spread of COVID-19.

A variety of decommissioned tanks and aircraft are located outside of the old Militia Museum building. Staff Sgt. Walker pointed out that, “All of our vehicle displays are representative of the vehicles that New Jersey National Guard use, whether in the air or on the land.” The most notable of these exhibits are an M4 Sherman Tank, an F-4 “Phantom II” fighter, and a Republic F-84F “Thunderstreak” fighter bomber.

Assortment of various military vehicles and aircraft opposite of old museum building.
Assortment of various military vehicles and aircraft opposite of old museum building.

Inside the Militia Museum, the weaponry displays are extensive. In one exhibit, there’s a WWI Lewis gun and a French Chauchat. In another display case, an M1A1 Thompson submachine gun and M-3 “Grease Gun” sit alongside other WWII-era weapons. 

There’s even a small display of armaments used by Axis forces. Additional weapon displays include firearms such as a Springfield 1903 bolt-action rifle, a Browning M1919A4 machine gun, an M1 Carbine, a T-161E3 machine gun, an M16A1, a Chinese Type 56S1, and many more.

Interior of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.

Larger-scale weapons include a WWI-era French 75mm cannon, an 81mm mortar, a BGM-71 Tow missile launcher, and an anti-aircraft gun captured from the Iraqi military during the first Gulf War. A Civil War-era 12-pounder “Napoleon” model 1857 cannon is a centerpiece of the museum. 

The “Napoleon” cannon was given new life after a complete carriage was constructed for it in 2009 using Civil War-era blueprints. The cannon restoration project was carried out by various museum volunteers.

Lewis gun and Chauchat.
Lewis gun and Chauchat.

The Militia Museum’s various uniform displays demonstrate a progression in military thinking through the decades. The uniform exhibits start with what an 18th century New Jersey militiaman would typically wear and move through the years to the uniforms currently worn by New Jersey National Guard personnel. 

One notable uniform display is that of the attire issued during the Spanish-American War. The uniform was composed in part with a blue button-down coat, tan colored hat with a wide brim, and an ammunition belt situated around the waist.

Less than two decades later, WWI would mark a significant change in the way uniforms would look going forward. The uniforms of the Great War would no longer have blue or red colors in them as was the case in earlier American uniforms. Instead, they’d utilize light green and tan colors, and hats were replaced by metal helmets. Warfare was changing and so was the way soldiers would be dressed for it. 

Since 1999, the largest exhibit inside the Militia Museum has been a Civil War-era submarine known as the Intelligent Whale. Designed by Scovel Merriam in 1863 and built in 1864, the submarine is 28 feet, 8 inches long. The Intelligent Whale’s construction was completed in New Jersey and according to Walker, “It’s the only surviving Union effort at a submarine during the Civil War.”

American Civil War-era submarine called the Intelligent Whale.
American Civil War-era submarine called the Intelligent Whale.

The Intelligent Whale was constructed from iron and was designed to contain enough air pressure inside so that water could not flood in from its open bottom. This is the same principle as holding a drinking glass upside down underwater. The air is trapped and cannot escape.

The Intelligent Whale could hold a crew of six, four of whom would turn a hand crank attached to a propeller. 

The submarine could move as fast as 4 knots. Compressed air carried onboard could provide the crew with a 10-hour supply of air. At the time of the submarine’s construction, the technology behind it was considered cutting edge, but it was nevertheless a prototype vessel with only one of its kind being built.

For warfare operations, the Intelligent Whale would deploy a hard-helmet diver who would leave the submarine through the bottom and place an explosive charge on an enemy craft. 

On the left is a War of 1812 display and on the right is a Whisky Rebellion, Early Republic display.
On the left is a War of 1812 display and on the right is a Whisky Rebellion, Early Republic display.

A battery could then be used to detonate the charge and destroy the enemy vessel. This concept differed slightly from that of the Confederate submarine, Hunley, but the idea of attacking enemy ships from a concealed position underwater was the same.

However, despite testing of the Intelligent Whale’s capabilities, a persistent lack of interest in the submarine made sure that it never saw combat. At the time of the Civil War, submarine warfare was in its infancy and not considered reliable. 

The technology would only improve though, and by World War II, submarine construction was in full swing with German U-Boats hunting Allied shipping off the New Jersey coast.

Interior of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.
Interior of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.

Even today, despite the age, the crank and propeller on the Intelligent Whale can still move freely. The submarine is currently displayed in an elevated position so that visitors may look up inside the craft. The Intelligent Whale represents American innovation and forethought. It’s proudly displayed as a centerpiece of the museum.

The Militia Museum at Sea Girt is packed full of military and New Jersey related history. It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and can make what is simply read in books come alive. The museum’s staff and volunteers are a vast source of knowledge and are available to answer any questions. 

Whether you live nearby or are just visiting the Jersey Shore, the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey is worth checking out. 

VISIT THE MUSEUM

Website: njmilitiamuseum.org

Address:

100 Camp Drive, Sea Girt, NJ 08750

Hours:

Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Closed State holidays

Admission: Free

Telephone: (732) 974-4570

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