A Visit to the National Civil War Museum

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All rights reserved
(Adapted from an article originally appearing in The Charger)

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 Fort 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 (with one large gallery 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 Abraham Lincoln.

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 a six-hour 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 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, and is closed on New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Directions to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA: Take the Pennsylvania 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: $13 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $11 for students and children. A family pass is $48.

More information is available on the museum’s website (www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org) or by phone at 866-BLU-GRAY (866-258-4729) or 717-260-1861.