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Civil War Round Table of Kansas City

Remembering Dr. Thomas P. Sweeney

Dr. Thomas P. Sweeney (1934-2019) passed away on December 9, 2019 after a long battle with Alzheimer's. Dr. Sweeney opened General Sweeny's Museum of Civil War History, located near Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. The National Park Service purchased General Sweeny's Museum, along with its extensive collection of Civil War weapons and artifacts, buildings, and 10 acres for $4.5 million. It is now part of Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. Our speaker this month, Ms. Connie Langum, will discuss the newly renovated Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Visitor Center and Museum, which will help house Dr. Sweeney's collection.

In order to provide some information about the life of Dr. Sweeney, Round Table member Don Bates requested that we include the following eulogy delivered by Dr. William Garrett Piston at Dr. Sweeney's memorial service:

No eulogy can do full justice to a man as complex and accomplished as Tom Sweeney. When I met with Karen to consider the daunting task of discussing Tom at a gathering of family and friends, Karen spoke of Tom as a trail blazer, an adventurer, a leader, a devoted father, and a man who believed in giving back to the community. He as a man about whom one could say, without it being trite or shopworn, that he left the world a better place than he found it. Two themes emerged from our discussion: determination and passion. Although these are but two of Tom’s many characteristics, they may serve here to convey some of the reasons why those who knew Tom considered him to be an extraordinary man, a man whose impact was broad, a man who inspired many, and a man who set a standard as a Christian gentleman and a gentle man.

Tom Sweeney possessed remarkable determination. He grew up in St. Louis in considerable poverty, but poverty was not the greatest obstacle he had to overcome. Although Tom had a loving mother and supportive aunts, none of his family endorsed his ambition to raise himself above his humble beginnings. Instead they actively discouraged him. No one in the family had ever gone to college. Told by his family that anything else would be a waste of time and money, Tom entered a vocational school. It was a life-changing experience. The school’s vice principal literally pulled Tom out of class one day and informed him that a person of his intellect should not be doing vocational training, but should instead go to college. For the first time in Tom’s life, an adult recognized his potential, supported his ambitions, and expressed confidence in his ability. Tom became determined, determined in a manner that would characterize him from then on. He would not just go to college; he would go to the very best college possible given his circumstances. Thus, Tom became a student at Washington University, an institution then as now noted for the rigor of its curriculum. He excelled in his studies, but they were not initially directed toward a specific goal. Archaeology soon captured his attention, but then fate took a hand, guiding Tom in an unexpected direction toward the medical career in which he distinguished himself. When money ran short, Tom enlisted in the Navy to earn funds necessary to complete his education. But the Navy turned out to be an education in itself. While serving at the Naval Station Great Lakes, located north of Chicago, he was assigned to be a medical technician. Thanks to a scarcity of personnel, the inefficiency of the establishment, and chance, Tom did far more that was required or expected of him. For example, in addition to performing occasional surgery, he once delivered a baby in the back seat of an automobile when an arriving expectant mother failed to get any closer than the base hospital’s parking lot. Tom made the most of every opportunity, doing more, and learning more, than anyone in his position would ordinarily embrace. He performed many tasks that were usually performed by physicians, and he found great satisfaction in both the challenges and responsibilities that these entailed. When Tom completed his enlistment and returned to Washington University, his sights were set on medical school.

Determination is an admirable characteristic, but left unmodified, if not placed in perspective, it can become negative. While enrolled at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Tom considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But Tom was now married and a father. He feared a surgeon’s career would leave him too little time for his family. Tom was passionate about family, passionate in the ordinary sense, but also passionate about the importance of family. Moreover, although Tom was dedicated to his medical career, he understood the need to have other interests, to have a full, well-rounded life.

But a bit more about Tom’s medical career. Tom chose to specialize in Interventional Radiology, an aspect of medicine which was then very much underappreciated. When Tom entered private practice in Springfield, he became one of the pioneers of Interventional Radiology in southwest Missouri, if not the state. Characteristically, he championed an undervalued aspect of medicine that would make a critical difference for countless patients were its importance recognized. Tom won respect and acclaim from his colleagues and hospital administrators, who often trusted him to investigate the latest equipment and techniques. As a leader and a teacher, Tom inspired and encouraged those who were considering, or just entering, medical careers. There are physicians, nurses, and medical specialists here today far more qualified than I am to speak about Tom’s legacy to the medical community. But I can give an example that captures Tom’s determination and passion in this regard. Those of you who know the story, please forgive the failure of my layman’s narrative to convey adequately the level of Tom’s accomplishment. Tom’s passion led him to master his chosen medical specialty to the fullest extent of his impressive abilities. Among other things, he trained with leaders in the field at Duke University. When a colleague brought to Tom a patient dying from a massive number of blood clots, Tom brought not only his skill and determination to the case, but also his courage. After rigorous research and consultation with specialists at Duke, Tom concluded that the best course of action was an operation to physically remove the clots. Tom had never performed this operation - indeed, it had never been done in the United States- but the situation was desperate. Tom explained to the patient, the patient’s family, and his colleagues, that although he had never performed the operation’s technique, he was confident in his ability and optimistic regarding success. There followed a grueling ten-to-twelve-hour operation during which neither Tom nor any member of the interventional team took a break of any kind. With extraordinary dexterity, Tom employed the latest medical technology to break up and safely removed the patient’s clots, following each vein and artery millimeter by millimeter. The results were successful, but the story does not end there. When a doctor on weekend call canceled Tom’s postoperative medical regimen for the patient, the clots returned and Tom had to do the entire dangerous and grueling operation a second time. Medical technician David Voyls has commented that Tom Sweeney “had the most gifted hands I have ever seen.” Many who observed Tom at work would concur. Nor is there a shortage of stories about the gratitude of Tom’s patients. Tom worked hard, but for him medicine was truly a labor of love. He told Karen that its challenges gave him a reason to get up each morning and eagerly embrace the day. Springfield was indeed fortunate to have Tom Sweeney as a part of the medical community.

Tom had another major passion, as we all know. His childhood fascination with the American Civil War blossomed in adulthood, leading him to become one of the nation’s foremost collectors of Civil War artifacts, and one of the nation’s premier authorities on Civil War medicine. Few aspects of the material culture of the Civil War escaped Tom’s interest. A musket, a flag, a uniform, a drum, a pistol, a photograph, a diary, a letter. Tom not only collected artifacts; he fully mastered the details of everything he acquired. Aided by the impressive reference library he assembled, Tom sorted the fake from the genuine, the mundane from the rarity. Within the world of collectors, he achieved the highest possible reputation, not only for his knowledge but also for his integrity. Tom enjoyed his collection and took pleasure in finding something rare. He could tell endless stories about this item or that, stories that often emphasized the friendship he maintained with fellow enthusiasts. But he never acquired anything merely for the sake of owning it. Whether it was a button or a bullet, a Bible belonging to John Brown or a flag carried by Cherokee Confederates, the diary of a soldier or a letter written by a Missouri farm wife, Tom valued the things he collected because they were a bridge to a past he desired to honor and preserve for future generations. He became recognized nationally for his expertise in medical artifacts and was a founding member of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. He also spent many hours presenting programs on Civil War medicine at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and the Pea Ridge National Military Park, ceasing only when health issues intervened. Tom’s presentations were popular with young and old alike, but he had a particularly rapport with children. Tom did not have a loud teacher’s voice, much less the booming volume of National Park Service interpreters. He made his presentation in his ordinary soft voice and crowds became quiet in order to catch what he was saying. Through such activities Tom instilled a love of history and a respect for historic preservation among generations of Ozarks youth.

Through his collecting and historical presentations (which he often made while wearing reproduction period clothing) Tom acquired a large circle of friends and acquaintances who shared his passion. When artist Andy Thomas of Maze Creek Studios in Carthage painted a picture of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, he immortalized Tom by depicting him as one of the soldiers in the foreground. I’m sure Tom would rather have been depicted as a physician, but Andy Thomas knows that if you want to sell art you paint battles, not hospital scenes. When my good friend Rick Hatcher and I co-authored a book on Wilson’s Creek, we chose Thomas’s painting for the dust jacket. Thus, Tom Sweeney’s image sits on many a bookshelf.

By 1982, Tom began looking for a way for his collection to benefit the community. At Karen’s suggestion, he began to specialize in material relating to the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi (the area west of the Mississippi River). As a result, in 1992 Tom and Karen opened General Sweeny’s Museum, named after General Thomas Sweeny, a participant in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. After operating the museum for thirteen years, they sold the collection to the National Park Service. I served on a committee of advisors to the Park Service that evaluated the collection’s historical significance, attesting to the fact that it had no equal in scope or depth, and was unsurpassed in the meticulous research and documentation that accompanied every item. This was not the accumulated “stuff’ of a hobbyist; it was a magnificent accomplishment in historic preservation. With its acquisition the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield became the foremost research and educational center for the study of the Civil War in the West. Throughout this process, Tom insisted that it be identified as the Tom and Karen Sweeney Collection, giving Karen full credit for her role in shaping the direction of his efforts.

I met Tom shortly after coming to Springfield in 1988. Many was the time a student brought something into my office and received as my response “Well, I think I can identify this, but let’s check with Tom Sweeney.” I’m afraid I contributed substantially to the number of times Tom was asked to give his expert evaluation without compensation. Turnabout is fair play, and I became more closely acquainted with him when he asked my advice regarding one of his many projects, the preservation of records and artifacts relating to the Greene County Medical Society.

When a publisher approached me to produce a photographic history of Civil War Missouri, a partnership with Tom was inevitable. This brings me to an aspect of Tom’s passion virtually hidden from view, observed only by myself and Karen, as research and writing are largely solidary affairs. To my great good fortune, my collaborative efforts have strengthened friendships, but this is by no means guaranteed. I am happy to say that working with Tom was a pleasure. Because we were both otherwise fully employed, it took several years to produce our book, Portraits of Conflict; A Photographic History of Missouri in the Civil War. This drew, of course, upon Tom and Karen’s collection, but research also involved visiting archives and libraries across Missouri and Arkansas. My happiest memories of Tom come from those research trips. It was then that I really got to know him. Long drives provided time for conversation about our lives, as did dinners after a long day’s work. We developed a tradition of eating at least once during each research trip at an upscale Mexican restaurant. We defined “upscale” as a restaurant possessing a bar good enough to stock single malt scotch. But the research itself was the most fun. Sitting at a table sorting through Civil War images and corresponding documents does not, of course, meet everyone’s definition of entertainment, but it did ours. How fortunate are those whose vocation and avocation coincide. To make the most of our time we often worked from eight to five, with only the briefest break for lunch. We divided the research tasks, usually working on opposite side of a table. Our quest was not for just any Civil War photographs, but for images that could tell the story of Missouri’s desperate struggle during the war years. The sharing came when either of us found a particularly striking photograph with sufficient documentation about the person in the image. A casualty in battle. A prisoner of war. An ordinary farmer who rose to become an officer. A slave who fought for his freedom. A woman accused of spying. A widow in mourning. All coming down to a couple of gray-hair men hunched over their laptop computers, whispering excitedly to each other. Well, you had to be there. Tom and I wrote the first draft of selected chapters, then swapped them, criticizing, expanding, and editing each other’s work. By the time we finished passing multiple drafts back and forth, there as such an exchange that no portion of the book particularly “mine” or “Tom’s,” with one exception. The chapter on medicine in Civil War Missouri was Tom’s labor of love, and while 1 added to it, that chapter represents Tom’s greatest scholarly achievement. Ten years after our book’s publication it remains the most authoritative work on the topic extant, and that chapter’s strength is one of the reasons Portraits of Conflict won the prestigious Missouri Book of the Year award from the State Historical Society of Missouri. Tom went on to co-author another important work, with Kip Lindberg, entitled “A Scene of Horrors A Medical and Surgical History of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek."
As fellow Presbyterians Tom and I sometimes discussed religion, but only in general terms, and usually to deplore the fact that minor details and inconsequential things so often prevented people from focusing on the central message of Christianity, the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Karen tells me that Tom’s faith focused on beauty, warmth, and forgiveness - the gentleness of a Creator whose love is all-embracing.

Determination and passion. So much more could be said about Tom Sweeney in relation to those themes, themes which I noted are but two aspects of a very complex man. Each of us here interacted with Tom in a unique manner; each of us has unique memories. While we look forward to that eternal communion which is ours in Christ, at moments like these we might be forgiven our sadness and sense of loss. The family’s loss is beyond words. The loss felt by friends and admirers is acute. My own words here have been inadequate, but they are heartfelt. Tom, on behalf of us all, we miss you.

Civil War Round Table of Kansas City
436 West 88th Terrace
Kansas City, MO 64114

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