Wednesday, July 23, 2014

National Civil War Museum, Harrisburg, PA

Our most recent trip in the Roadtrek found us in Pennsylvania with some bad weather forecast. We were in PA for some outdoor places to go and with severe thunderstorms coming we kept moving our plans for those places off toward the end of the trip when, hopefully, the predicted improvement in the weather would actually take place. I started thinking about where to go in or around Lancaster, PA that was indoors other than outlet shopping - which we both had no desire to do. I remembered that a number of years ago we drove to Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital and went to the National Civil War Museum. We remembered it as a good museum and decided to go back to avoid the storm (which in Harrisburg as it turned out, we totally avoided).

The National Civil War Museum is located at the top of a hill in Reservoir Park in the city of Harrisburg, PA. A GPS will bring you to the park entrance and there are clear signs to follow to the museum. Once you are up to the parking lot, the museum is actually further up the hill, just a short walk up some stairs and to the entrance. There was an RV and Bus section of the parking lot but I was able to park the Roadtrek in a regular parking space that allowed me to overlap the sidewalk with the front of the van. Other large vehicles nearby had done the same. It was not crowded the day we were there on a Wednesday though it was Fourth of July week. 

The museum is open seven days a week (closed some holidays) and the hours vary by the day of the week. Wednesday is the late day and the museum is open until 8 pm. There is an admission. Adults are $11, seniors $10, and students $9. You purchase your tickets in the museum store which is large and has a nice book section. Once you purchase your tickets you are told to take the stairs across from the store to the second floor where the exhibit galleries start.

The museum is a combination of artifacts, scenes that you walk into the middle of, and videos. There are ten galleries on the second floor (with more on the first) and you start your tour at the gallery, "A House Divided, 1850-1860" which sets the stage for the occurrence of the Civil War - how people felt and what the incidents and issues were before the start. Here besides cases of artifacts including Abraham Lincoln's hat box (shown below), you are introduced to some people - men and women - white and black - who lived during the war by videos in which they introduce themselves and you encounter various views and circumstances. These same people will appear throughout the museum on video screens as the war goes along.

Lincoln's Hat Box
This is one of the few Civil War museums located in the North and it very much reflects the Northern point of view (perhaps "attitude") toward the Civil War. This is a different prospective from Civil War museums in the South that I have visited. While I say this, this is not to say that both sides are not represented in the collections and many of the artifacts that I will share with you in photos taken on this trip are primarily Confederate - perhaps because these belonged to prominent and recognizable names.

You move along to the next gallery "American Slavery: The Peculiar Institution 1850-1860" in which there are exhibit cases along two walls and a scene of a slave auction that you walk into the middle of. This is done with mannikins who, while not animated, speak to each other so that you are in the midst of what is taking place.

From here you go on to "First Shots, 1861" and you find yourself standing in the middle of the first shots fired - the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  On one side of the darkened gallery is the fort and on the other side a cannon and two men who are firing it. You listen to the two men (again well done mannikins) and you will see the cannon flash and roar with corresponding hits lighting on the fort. Well done, especially with a good explanation accompanying artifacts of what took place and why.

The war has begun and you move on to "Making of Armies", a gallery of artifacts of recruitment, equipment and uniforms of both sides. What is interesting is that they have contrasted the two sides showing in parallel what each side's soldiers were given and used. This gallery continued along to the next with a similar theme - "Weapons and Equipment".

Union Blue Uniform

Confederate Butternut Uniform (No, not Grey)

The galleries continue along - "Campaigns and Battles of 1862", "Battle Map, 1861-1862", "Camp Curtain" (the largest Union camp in the Civil War and located in Harrisburg, PA) which is another scene that you walk into, "Why Men Fought 1861-1863", and "Civil War Music" where you will hear recordings of music from both sides and a collection of field and brass instruments of the period.

Blood stained Sleeve from General Pickett's Coat when wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia

Stonewall Jackson's Gauntlet

At this point you are lead down a flight of stairs with pictorial exhibits on the walls to the First Floor Galleries - another 9 exhibits. The first exhibit that you come into is "Gettysburg, 1863" and because of the proximity of this museum to the battlefield and that it is a battle fought in Pennsylvania, this is one of the largest galleries. You will see a Civil War cannon - and videos showing how it is loaded and fired. You will see videos of battle tactics and the loading and firing of muskets. The battle is well explained and there are many related artifacts in this gallery. As we entered the gallery I was reminded that this was July 2nd - day two of the three day battle and a very bloody day in history.  And there were some very important artifacts on display.

Robert E. Lee's Gauntlets
Robert E. Lee's Bible and Hat Cord
General George Pickett's Cap

Moving on in the museum, you come to "Costs of War" - Civil War medicine, "Women in the War", "Navy" - the war at sea, "Campaigns and Battles of 1864-1865", "Battle Map", "Theater" showing an award-winning video on the end of the war, "Lincoln: War and Remembrance" including "Meet Mr. Lincoln" an animated, computer Lincoln on a screen who answers questions, and an exhibit gallery with temporary, changing exhibits. At the end of the galleries there is an exhibit on Civil War Soldier Reunions with photographs and contemporary descriptions of what the men on each side remembered - and you see them meet each other in these photographs as old men who once faced each other in battle.

If you have any interest at all in the Civil War you can spend a full day at this museum. The museum is not without its faults - some of the labeling of artifacts is out of order, and there are exhibits in galleries that do not follow consistently in time sequence which can be confusing to anyone not familiar with Civil War details. All and all, it is well worth the trip and a very interesting museum for anyone who has an interest in the American Civil War or would like to be introduced to its history. There are artifacts here on a level that I have not seen elsewhere in a general Civil War collection in regard to whom they belonged to. The museum has 4,000 artifacts and 21,000 archival documents. That is quite a collection!

We had an enjoyable day. We will go back again at sometime in the future. And we avoided the storm and spent the day constructively entertained.

1 comment:

  1. We were in this museum a year or so ago. I didn't feel they had so much Northern bias, but then again, I'm not a southerner, and the museum is in the North!
    We thought it was the most complete Civil War museum we have ever attended. It covers the entire conflict, not just specific events like many of the museums attached to Civil War locations do.
    I think what we liked was the freshness of the exhibits, and the well done videos.
    It should be more publicized -- only a few folks there when we attended.