Next time you're in the mood
for a Civil War-themed road trip, consider a visit to the National Civil War
Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
A large statue of a
Confederate soldier providing water to a wounded Union soldier is just outside
the handsome brick museum. You enter the building through a spacious lobby,
with a gift shop to your right and a curving staircase to the second floor. My
friends and I had lunch at the "Monitor and Merrimack Café," on the
second floor. Try as we might, we saw no artifacts or pictures indicating why
the snack bar was named after the two famous ironclads.
The museum's exhibits are
laid out in roughly chronological order, beginning with slavery, conditions in
the country just before the war, and the firing on Ft. Sumter. The dozen-plus
galleries, covering over 27,000 square feet across two floors, are roomy and
comfortable. Signage for the weapons, clothes, personal effects and other
artifacts is generally clear and understandable, but was missing in several
places on the day of our visit. Signs bearing the caption "A War of
Firsts" are sprinkled throughout the museum, discussing the military,
social and technological innovations of the Civil War.
The museum focuses on the
common soldier of both North and South, and not so much on particular battles
or leaders. With the exception of Gettysburg, most battles are only briefly
described in individual plaques of text without maps. Video monitors and large
maps describe the broader strategic issues of the war. There are also several
short films which illustrate topics such as the use of artillery and infantry
drill. Actors on film show the reactions of various members of American
society to the war - a freed black in the North, a
slave woman, a young
Southern cavalryman, an older Southern farmer, a Northern editor, a Northern
woman, and a Union infantry officer. You may also listen to samples of Civil
War-era music near a display of period drums and instruments. Downstairs,
interactive kiosks provided by the Civil War Preservation Trust allow one to
check military records and look up various Civil War historical information.
The records are by no means complete; neither of my ancestors in blue were
listed, but the CWPT hopes to have all Civil War military service records
completely online in the next three years.
Unfortunately, the museum
gives short shrift to the naval war, and especially to the river warfare of
the Western theater. The best exhibits are those on the weaponry of the Civil
War (one large gallery is dedicated to rifles, swords, daggers, pistols and
various accoutrements); the experience of black Americans before, during and
just after the Civil War; the grisly practice of battlefield medicine; and the
efforts of both North and South to come to terms with the war afterwards
through Reconstruction, revisionism and selective memory. Frederick Douglass
is prominently quoted: "We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism
to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal
admiration those who struck at the nation's life, and those who strove to save
it - those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and
justice." Even today, the debate continues. Although the museum strives
for balance, and generally succeeds, Southern partisans will be displeased to
see that the very first exhibit is on the importance of slavery as a cause of
the Civil War. Jefferson Davis also doesn't get nearly as much attention as
Among the most interesting
items on display are the pen used by Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia to sign John
Brown's execution order; Abraham Lincoln's leather hatbox; slave collars and
identity tags; Gen. George Pickett's commissioning papers as a Confederate
general; the only known U.S. field ambulance still in existence; Gen. George
B. McClellan's saddle; Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's field desk and writing
set; Cmdr. William Cushing's 1851 Navy Colt revolver (which he carried during
the daring nighttime raid in which he sank the rebel ironclad Albemarle); Gen.
Robert E. Lee's hatband and 1847 Bible, both captured by Union troops during
Lee's retreat to Appomattox; leather gauntlets from both Pickett and Lee; a
scrap of fabric from the dress worn by Mary Todd Lincoln the night her husband
was shot; and a piece of wallpaper from the Petersen House, to which the
mortally-wounded President was carried from Ford's Theatre.
The National Civil War Museum
is about six hours' drive from Cleveland, in the Reservoir Park neighborhood
on the eastern edge of Harrisburg. Allow yourself three to four hours to see
all of the exhibits, although you could easily spend more time there. The
museum is open from 9am-5pm weekdays, 10am-5pm on weekends, and is closed on
New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Directions to the National Civil War
Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Take the Pa.
Turnpike to Exit 19, and follow Route 283 North to Interstate 83 North. At
Exit 30, go about 2.5 miles west on Route 22/Walnut Street, staying on Walnut
Street when Route 22 bears to the right. Turn left at the Parkside Café into
Reservoir Park. Follow the signs; the museum is at the top of the hill.
Parking is free. Admission: $7/adults, $6/seniors, and $5/students and
children. A family pass is $25.
For more information, call toll-free (866)
BLU-GRAY, which is 258-4729. The Museum's website is www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org.