Visual Arts

Frankfort exhibit of military artifacts tells Kentucky's war stories

Three-pounder brass cannon, ca. 1765, in the War of 1812 exhibit at the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, April 29, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins
Three-pounder brass cannon, ca. 1765, in the War of 1812 exhibit at the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, April 29, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

FRANKFORT — In designing the Kentucky Military Treasures exhibit now on display at the Kentucky Military History Museum at the renovated State Arsenal building, curator Bill Bright looked to Webster's dictionary and the human heart to define treasure.

"We define military treasures in kind of a funny way," says Bright, before quoting a couple of definitions.

The first defines treasure as it is most commonly known: something of intrinsic value, such as precious metals or jewels.

But it is an alternate definition of treasure as "an extraordinary or valued person" that Bright and his colleagues at the Kentucky Historical Society focused on when curating the exhibit.

"We tell what we call signature stories," Bright says, "stories about individuals, both enlisted and officers, who made a difference or witnessed history."

The exhibit features artifacts, documents and images from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"All of the them are related to Kentucky in some way," Bright says of museum's collection.

Take the Medal of Honor awarded to Union soldier William H. Horsfall, the youngest Kentuckian to ever receive the honor. Stowing away at the age of 14, Horsfall joined the 1st Kentucky Infantry as a drummer before saving a wounded officer's life during the Siege of Corinth in Mississippi in 1862; he was 15.

"When he came home from the war, he tried to join the volunteer fire department, but they wouldn't let him," Bright says. "They said he was too young."

Because Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, the exhibit contains Union and Confederate relics.

An 1863 Union frock coat worn by Brig. Gen. Edward H. Hobson, a Greensburg native, is featured alongside a pre-Civil War handwritten note from Hobson in which he directly disobeys an order, correctly predicting that following the order would aid the future rebels.

Hobson's coat stands just a few feet from a display of the sword of his longtime enemy, Lexingtonian and Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, so that their legendary rival continues symbolically.

The exhibit also includes personal items that soldiers might have kept on them to pass the time, such as a pair of dice from the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, and, from more recent wars, military-issued condoms.

Some artifacts are mysteries to be solved, like the richly embroidered golden epaulets of Mexican General Santa Anna, who led the siege and capture of the Alamo in 1836. They were acquired by Maj. Gen. William Butler's nephew, Lt. John Russell Butler, both of them Kentuckians, but no one knows how.

"It's one of those things that so far is lost to history," Bright says.

Many of the artifacts stand out as conventional treasures, like the ornately carved gold sword presented to William Butler by Congress in 1848. That also was the year he was the Democratic candidate for U.S. vice president.

Other artifacts might appear more ordinary but pull at the heartstrings, like those from the Davis family of Harlan County.

Brother and sister Marcus and Martha Davis served in the Vietnam War. Marcus was drafted after earning his teaching degree, and Martha enlisted in the Navy as a nurse.

Martha came home; Marcus didn't. All that came back was a duffel bag containing his personal effects.

The bag remained closed for 32 years.

Marcus' sister and mother, Jewel Davis, were present in Frankfort when its contents, including his boots, foot powder, a compass, case knife and can opener, were finally revealed. The items are now on display alongside a collection of his medals.

"His mother kept the medals until just a few months ago," when she donated them, Bright said. "She came in and said it was time for his medals to be with the rest of his stuff."

Bright points out that most people might not consider a can opener and foot powder on par with a gold sword, but for him, "they have the same power."


'Kentucky Military Treasures: Selections From the Kentucky Historical Society Collections'

What: Exhibition of that uses artifacts to share the personal stories of Kentuckians who fought in military battles spanning 200 years.

When: Through December. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., Sat.

Where: Kentucky Military History Museum at the State Arsenal, 125 E. Main St., Frankfort

Admission: $4 adults, $3 veterans and AAA members, $2 ages 6-18, free for Kentucky Historical Society members and children 5 and younger. Admission includes all exhibits at Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History and tours of the Old State Capitol at specified times.

Learn more: (502) 564-1792,

Online exhibit: