PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- It was November of 1776 and for Gen. George Washington and his Continental Army the prospects of establishing a new country apart from British rule was looking bleak.
After victories in New York, the British pursued American soldiers across the Hudson River in a bid to entrap Washington and his troops at Fort Lee, located in Bergen County in the northeast corner of New Jersey.
Facing a determined offensive by the British army, the Continental Army abandoned Fort Lee and retreated farther west to eventually evade the British by crossing the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing. Because of its strategic location, Bergen County was to become a constant arena of war, serving as an area of encampments and headquarters for both armies. Washington’s headquarters was located there during September of 1780.
With Bergen County’s tightly interwoven history with the American Revolution, it would come as no surprise that a boy would discover a musket in 1915, embedded in the mud of the Hackensack River near the Steuben House, in the borough of River Edge.
The musket, known as the Charleville Musket, became a part of the historic collection of the Bergen County Historical Society, where the musket remained largely undisturbed until relatively recently.
Charleville muskets were supplied in great quantity to the Continental Army by France, an arrangement brokered by the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who offered his service to the colonists. The Charleville musket was a .69 caliber standard French infantry musket used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was first made in 1717 and last produced during the 1840s.
Resting under the water for over a century, followed by another hundred years in storage, took a toll on the venerable firearm before it was part of the historical society collection. Water damage to the wooden stock, together with rusting of the metal parts, continued to erode the integrity of the artifact.
The Bergen County Historical Society began efforts to preserve the musket to prevent further deterioration, applying for and receiving a grant for $6,000 from the organization Americana Corner. The historical society enlisted the expertise of Gary McGowan, of Cultural Preservation & Restoration, to preserve the Charleville.
McGowan inspected the musket and determined that the best conservation approach was to separate the artifact into its individual components, since preservation methods for wooden items differ from those for metallic objects.
Given the fragile state of the musket, McGowan was reluctant to dismantle the artifact without knowing the status of the internal components and the structural integrity of the barrel and fixtures.
At that point, the historical society reached out for assistance to the U.S. Army installation at Picatinny Arsenal, also in northern New Jersey. The request eventually reached Jeff Ranu, a mechanical engineer who is also engineering historian for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center (DEVCOM) at Picatinny.
Ranu contacted McGowan to exchange information about the status and condition of the musket. Ranu then put McGowan in contact with Patrick Wadie-Ibrahim and Bob Gilbert, engineers from the Armaments Center Radiography Lab.
Normally, the Radiography Lab conducts inspections of metal parts and the explosive cast quality for experimental ammunition and equipment in development at Picatinny. While a task such as inspection of the musket is not typical, it was within the capability of the lab. Moreover, Ibrahim and Gilbert were enthusiastic to take on the challenge.
The conservator and the engineers discussed areas of concern and challenges to conducting a radiographic inspection of the musket. McGowan relayed information about specific areas of the musket for which it was crucial to gain information before any disassembly.
Ibrahim and Gilbert faced an immediate challenge: How to accommodate the 52 ½-inch long firearm in the scanning equipment, while supporting it in a way would not damage the fragile artifact.
The solution was to use insulation foam that is commonly available at any home improvement center. Ibrahim, in a later presentation to the historical society, explained that the insulation foam provided careful support while offering minimal scanning interference due to its low density.
The Radiography Lab produced a 3-D model and cross-section images generated by a computerized tomography (CT) scan. The high resolution of the scan was able to detect fine cracks in both the metallic and wooden components of the artifact. Details of the internal workings of the remnant of the trigger mechanism uncovered a large crack in the firing spring, which would have rendered the musket inoperable.
According to Will Krakhower, preservation specialist with the New Jersey Division of Environmental Protection, this defect was a major design flaw in the Charleville Musket and was quite common. He agreed with Ibrahim’s belief that this defect was likely the reason the musket was discarded.
With the 3-D model and the details provided by the CT scan, McGowan proceeded with the disassembly of the musket and subsequent conservation. He conducted electrolytic reduction to remove rust oxidation from the metal components.
He also suspended the metallic pieces in a tank filled with a fluid that allows for transmission of current from the anode and cathode, through the metal piece that is being conserved. When the current passes through the piece, the oxidation and corrosion are removed and deposited on a “sacrificial” part within the tank, leaving the conserved metal part free of rust. McGowan was then able to reinforce and reassemble the Charleville for display at the Steuben House.
Deborah Powell, the chair of historical society’s museum collection, and who originally reached out to the U.S. Army at Picatinny, conducted an unveiling ceremony for the conserved Charleville musket at the Steuben House on Nov. 20, 2022.
The unveiling was part of the commemoration of Washington’s historic crossing at New Bridge Landing in 1776. Reenactments of the skirmish and bridge crossing were part of the event, along with a musket demonstration and a reenactment of the arrival on horseback by General Washington and General Nathaniel Greene.
“This is a success story of the teaming of technology and history to ensure the conservation of artifacts that establish a physical link to our past,” Ranu said. “This conservation not only saves a metal object, but it enables the preservation and support of the innate curiosity each person has to discover our collective identity as a nation.”
Recently, the Bergen County Historical Society hosted a virtual event about the conservation of the musket. Speakers included Tom Hand, the creator of Americana Corner; Gary McGowan, who discussed his conservation effort; Patrick Wadi-Ibrahim, who described the musket CT scan; Jeff Ranu, who talked about Picatinny’s ties to the American Revolution; and Will Krakhower, who spoke about the use and importance of the Charleville musket.
The lecture is available for viewing at the Bergen County Historical Society YouTube channel at the link below: