FORT PICKETT, Va. –
Expecting a lecture filled with monotonous slides and a never-ending list of historic dates and names, the officer candidates of the Virginia Army National Guard’s Officer Candidate School of the Fort Pickett-based 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute, walked into Col. Thomas L. Morgan’s military history class April 19, 2015, and quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to be like any other class. The candidates of Class 57 found tables with dozens of museum quality rifles, knives and glass boxes filled with various buttons and uniform insignias.
“We were told that we were going to receive hands-on training today, but we had no idea of how hands-on it would be,” said Officer Candidate Gustavo Sequeira, a native of Chantilly, Va. “It was incredible to pick up and examine tangible pieces of Army history.”
Col. Morgan, commander of the 183rd RTI, has taught the military history class for 25 years, missing only one class due to his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. His father, Thomas “Lonnie” Morgan Jr., has assisted the commander with the class every year. Together, the Morgans have brought in historical pieces to give the officer candidates a physical glimpse into military history.
“The best part about this class is allowing the candidates to touch history,” said Col. Morgan. “It’s not just memorizing cold facts, but making it real.”
Starting in the late 1970s, the senior Morgan began to collect Civil War artifacts as a way to bond with his son.
“He said that he wanted a metal detector, and so we got him one for Christmas,” said the proud father. “We took it out one day and found a breastplate. We’ve been collecting pieces ever since.”
The two military history enthusiasts brought several guns, including some originals, to demonstrate to the class the evolution of weapons used by the military in the United States before and during the Civil War. The display collection included a Smith Carbine .50 caliber that was used between 1855-1865; a Hall Carbine .52 caliber circa 1843-1850 that was the first mass produced breechloader; a Maynard Carbine .35 and .50 caliber used by the Confederate Army; and even a Henry Rifle, which was a .44 caliber that was magazine fed and able to fire off 15 rounds, making it a significant technological advancement, but was not wanted by the U.S. Army due to the fear of encouraging the “waste” of ammunition, per the Army’s ordnance chief.
“One major point that I’m trying to make with this class is the interplay between tactics and technology,” said Morgan. “There was so much technology poured onto the battlefield during the Civil War yet tactics remained about the same, and with these artifacts I can show the candidates what Soldiers used 150 years ago that contributed to the weapons technology of today.”
Also on display were various pieces of both Union and Confederate uniforms. There were breastplates, belt buckles and buttons that were engraved with letters or images that could identify which side or state the soldier represented. Sabers and other tools used by the soldiers were placed near pistols and cannon shrapnel of the era.
Morgan brought his favorite piece to the class – three buttons attached to a frayed piece of a Confederate soldier’s coat. He considers it a valuable reminder of the hardships and loss of Americans during the Civil War.
“It’s a heart wrenching thing,” said Morgan. “That came off a real man. That was a human being.”
“The class was a very different pace from our other classes,” said Officer Candidate Lindsey Otto. “[Col. Morgan’s] enthusiasm and familiarity with the subject really brought it all to life.
“Seeing the role that Virginians played throughout military history really brought home the significance of it all, and definitely a lot of pride,” added the Roanoke, Va., native. “I was so impressed with the presentation; we basically got to touch museum exhibits! It was so much more meaningful to have Col. Morgan’s father here, and for them to share their home collection.”
Morgan said that he looks forward to sharing his collection and enjoys helping his son with the class every year.
“I feel like it’s my way of giving back to the Soldiers,” said Morgan. “I feel like I owe it to them, and it’s the least I can do to show my appreciation for what they do.”
After the class, Col. Morgan handed each candidate a Minié ball, which was a bullet for muzzle-loading rifles used by both sides in the Civil War.
“I hand out the Minié ball as a future reminder to study military history and leadership throughout their career,” said Col. Morgan. “I still have Soldiers who took part in this course come up to me and tell me that they still have it and still remember the class.”
Click to view photos from this event.