Inside the museum at the 6th Cavalry’s old parade grounds

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The artifacts displayed at the 6th Cavalry Museum range from the Civil War to the Cold War. An M-47 Patton tank sits on the side of the building. A shield of Bavaria hangs on the wall-a gift from the state during World War II.

Around the corner, a Thompson submachine gun lies in a display case. Over the case, a telegram to Fort Oglethorpe hangs, announcing that Germany had surrendered, marking the beginning of the end of the “fighting 6th’s” involvement with the Chattanooga area.

From the end of World War I to the end of World War II, the 6th Cavalry lived and trained at Fort Oglethorpe.

The kinds of artifacts have made Chris McKeever, director of the 6th Cavalry Museum at Fort Oglethorpe’s old polo grounds, wonder, “How in the world did these guys get their hands on this stuff?”

The discoveries
Sometimes, there’s no telling what might turn up. When McKeever was cleaning out a display case in 2007, she discovered a paper towel stuffed in the back of a display case. It felt important. 

When McKeever carefully unwrapped the paper, something inside started disintegrating, falling out like red rice. Today, the museum displays the find: a red and white guidon dating back to the Indian Wars (1867-1891), pieced together and held behind glass.

The most interesting part of the job for McKeever is discovering the stories behind the artifacts.

“Anybody can show a uniform,” she said. What’s more is to tell the stories “to relate a human side of being a soldier,” she said. 

Take, for example, a call from a young woman in 2008 who said her great-grandfather was in the 6th Cavalry.

“We’ve got this coat,” the woman said. “I’m sure it’s a reproduction because it looks so nice.”

Would the museum be interested in it?

When McKeever got the coat, she packed it away in a storage bag and stuck it in her freezer to kill off moths because the coat was made of wool. It was an original dress coat from 1888, complete with the name of the solider who owned it written inside the sleeve.

Now, the coat hangs on display with a story from the coat’s owner: Once, the circus Barnum & Bailey wanted August “Gus” Elbrecht to train its horses. Instead, McKeever said, he “became a plumber, married and raised a family.”

Life in Fort Oglethorpe
Life in the 6th Cavalry ebbed and flowed. Soldiers eloped. They kept mascots ranging from dogs to a raccoon. The museum recounts wartime life for the soldiers, a life that was not described through headlines and the grand campaigns of history. For example, outside, the tank dwarfs a WWII-era jeep with a metal bar rising up from the front bumper painted the same matte green. Soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 modified their unarmored Humvees against IED attacks. During the campaign in Europe, fighters stretched wire across roads to decapitate anyone driving down the road with the windshields down. In response, the GIs cut metal bedframes and welded together a device on the end of the jeep to hook and break the wires.

At the end of World War II, the Army moved the 6th Cavalry from Fort Oglethorpe, leaving infrastructure that eventually became the town. At the museum, the stories are remembered. They lie behind the contents of mess kits. They peer out from the postage stamp-sized portraits in old yearbooks. 

Transforming for the future
The museum, located a half-mile drive from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park visitors center, is wrapping up $116,000 in renovations.

“The building was never ADA-compliant,” McKeever said.

The renovations will add a lift going to the second floor and expand the bathrooms.

“By having a building that’s tourist-friendly, it opens the museum to do more programs,” like hosting group tours and school groups, she said. 

Being ADA-compliant will allow the museum to tap into Georgia’s resources for fostering tourism-the state’s second-largest revenue stream, according to McKeever.

Upcoming event
On Oct. 23 and 24, the museum will host Remembering Our Heroes, an event featuring World War II re-enactments, displays of World War II equipment and a USO show.

For more information, hours and address, visit the 6th Cavalry Museum’s website.

Daniel Jackson is a contributing writer.