National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey at Sea Girt

Established in 1980 as part of a federal/state project with a volunteer board of trustees in support, the mission of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey is to preserve and explain the military heritage of New Jersey and enhance public understanding of how armed conflicts and military institutions have shaped our state and national experience. The museum collects, preserves and displays uniforms, artifacts, documents, and memorabilia that have specific historical significance to the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard, and the Naval Militia of New Jersey, but also recognizes and commemorates the stories of all New Jerseyans who have served in the armed forces of the United States.

The museum presents the role of the New Jersey Militia and National Guard within the context of the larger history of the state, from the period of Dutch, Swedish and British colonization through the War for Independence, the war of 1812, the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War and World Wars I and II to the present day, paying particular attention to the diversity of the New Jersey citizen soldier and his or her experience.

Soldiers uniforms

The collection includes original Native American artifacts from the Lenape Nation, reproduction and original weapons and equipment and original photographs. presented in chronological in a main exhibit area, with a centerpiece of an original Civil War 12-pounder “Napoleon” artillery piece, with a reproduction carriage made to original specifications by the museum’s volunteer staff. A separate classroom is used for meetings of local historic and veteran organizations and also houses temporary art exhibits. Other areas are used for temporary themed exhibits, particularly on significant anniversaries. In recent years they have included example, New Jersey soldiers’ roles in the Civil War, D-Day, World War I, and the New Jersey National Guard in the 1950s and 1960s. Exterior exhibits include tanks and other armored vehicles and artillery pieces.

Machine Gun

The crown jewel of the museum’s collection is the Intelligent Whale, a Civil War submarine developed by Massachusetts inventor Scoville Merriam that has a direct historical connection to New Jersey. In November of 1863 a group of New Jersey investors led by Colonel William Halsted, former commander of the First New Jersey Cavalry, funded the construction of the vessel in Newark, New Jersey. It featured a half-inch thick wrought iron hull and interior machinery including valves, pumps and propulsion equipment, and had a six-man crew, four of whom propelled it by hand cranking a four-bladed screw propeller. The Whale had a door in the bottom which could be opened to allow a diver to leave the submarine to remove obstructions or plant mines. The air pressure in the submarine exceeded the outside water pressure, thus allowing the diver to leave and return without the craft flooding.

The owners hired well known lobbyist Oliver S. “Pet” Halsted, a Newark attorney and relative of Colonel Halsted, to represent them in an effort to sell the submarine to the navy, and it was tested in Long Island Sound in August 1864, when it successfully submerged and then returned to the surface, but was not prepared to demonstrate its other capabilities. The navy declined to purchase it due to fears regarding its seaworthiness, even after a more comprehensive test reported in the October 1864 issue of Scientific American magazine noted that “…in all respects the vessel worked so completely that its success is undoubted.”

Unable to sell the submarine during the war, “Pet” bought the vessel himself in March 1865, and docked it at the Hewes and Phillips Machine Company on the Passaic River in Newark. He allegedly took it on pleasure cruises on the river while attempting unsuccessfully to sell it to Irish revolutionaries, but eventually managed to convince the navy to purchase it in 1866. Transported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Intelligent Whale was unsuccessfully tested there several years later, and ended up as an ornament on the base commander’s lawn. When the Navy Yard closed, the submarine was shipped to the Washington Navy Yard. It remained there until it returned to New Jersey in 1999. It is the only surviving Union Civil War submarine.

Intelligent Whale - civil war submarine

The National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey is also the home of the Center for U.S. War Veterans’ Oral History Project. It is the Center’s mission to collect and preserve the memories of veterans through recorded oral history interviews, and it does so in cooperation with the Library of Congress. Several hundred summaries of these interviews, which include individual stories of men and women who served from World War II to current operations in all branches of the service, are available on the museum website.

The museum is located at the National Guard Training Center, Sea Girt Avenue & Camp Drive, Sea Girt, NJ 08750. (732) 974-5966

Admission is free and the museum is open seven days a week from 10:00AM - 3:00PM Closed on State Holidays.

*    *    *

Joseph G. Bilby