A model of the Derringer pocket pistol John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln is on display in Decatur.
So are original photographs of Booth and Lincoln and pictures of all the famous Confederate and Union Civil War generals. They are in the Blue and Gray Museum on Bank Street and part of a large, privately owned Civil War collection.
The face behind the collection is Robert Sackheim, a New York-born engineer who moved to the Tennessee Valley in 1999 to accept a job with NASA. His collection has examples of about 90 percent of the weapons used during the Civil War and is valued at $3 million.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kelly Kline of Nashville. “Decatur is very fortunate to have this here.”
The museum opened in 2007 after Sackheim’s wife told him the collection had to leave their home in Madison. He purchased the building next to Simp McGhee’s from an antique dealer and joined Civil War historian Robert Parham, who operated Parham’s Civil War Relics and Memorabilia across the street. Others tried to lure Sackheim to their towns, but he opted for Decatur because of his relationship with Parham and the historic environment on Bank Street.
“I looked at several places, but it felt right bringing the collection to Decatur,” he said.
Parham had the challenge of researching and writing informational plates for each item.
“I knew about some of the items, but I spent a lot of time online,” he said. “Every day for 2½ years, I was researching.”
His research is ongoing because Sackheim continues to purchase items. Although he is 75 and came out of retirement to work as an engineering consultant, Sackheim said his love of Civil War history has not diminished. The flame of history started early in his life and grew brighter when he was a student at the University of Virginia in the late 1950s. His college friends knew about his passion and brought him small items they found.
“Back then things were still laying around where soldiers had camped and fought,” Sackheim said.
After serving 3½ years in the Air Force and earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York in 1961, Sackheim moved to California. At the time, he said he was a “low-level” collector, “picking up pieces of things like the buck plate of a rifle.”
By the late 1980s, Sackheim had developed trusted contacts in the business. His first significant acquisition was a Colt pistol he purchased at an antique business in Athens. In less than a decade, the collection mushroomed to more than 1,000 pieces and was too big for his homes in Madison and California, so he purchased the Bank Street property.
Sackheim said the museum does not feature a particular battle or soldier.
“The theme is to point out the wide range of weapons used during the Civil War,” he said.
The majority of the guns are Union because “the Northern industrial machine had a 10-to-1 advantage over the South,” Sackheim said.
His favorite piece in the collection is a Colt model 1851 Navy revolver that Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield owned. Sackheim purchased the pistol in California; it is valued at $25,000. Mansfield, a popular Union officer, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam in 1862.
Sackheim was able to trace the revolver to Mansfield because it was a gift from the general’s fiancée.
“Anytime you can trace a weapon like this to the owner, it’s more valuable,” he said.
The most recent addition to the museum is three display cases of photos, including the ones of Wilkes and Lincoln. Sackheim has pictures of Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Robert E. Lee.
He has a special case for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. Sackheim has a picture famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady took of Forrest and a whiskey bottle with Forrest’s image etched on it.
“These are new,” he said of the cases. “And we have more stuff to add.”
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